By GEORGE A. FLORIS
FROM Europe on the way to India, Egypt strikes you as a very Oriental place. On the way back you find it, however, a sort of an Eastern outpost of the West.
When I paid these two visits to the country of the Nile, there was also another difference. At my first call General Neguib was still in full control and the name of Abdul Gamal Nasser was practically unknown. On my second landing there, while Mustafa Neguib was still the "pro-forma" President by sufferance, Col. Nasser held already the reins of effective power.
In those days of 1954 it appeared that Nasser was the man for moderation in international affairs. In February • still under Neguibv the official propaganda posters on the city walls warned in expressive pictures against a "stab in the back" and "rumour-mongers in foreign pay". The new placards in April were more constructive in their outlook: a mailed fist could be seen on one as the symbol of national strength, and another popularised the soldiers in uniform Indeed. it was a symptom of the temporary appeasement that we were allowed to proceed from Suez by car to Cairo, spend a day there and re-join the boat at Port Said in the evening. We had, nevertheless, been warned, still on board of ship, that there was a state of emergency in Egypt and that on going ashore we were not to take any photographs of factories or military installations.
In the bazaar
AFTER just about two hours' drive amidst the yellow sand of lifelessness, our group arrived at Cairo. We had a quick snack, tea and cake, in the elegant Hariapolis Hotel and then we were off to make the best of the few hours at our disposal to see the city.
The bazaars in Cairo, as similar places all over the East, show the striking contrast of abundance in the midst of poverty — in other words, a surfeit of goods chasing the occasional customer.
To the keen observer it soon became obvious that the general view of Oriental traders being over-eager and aggressive was a gross exaggeration. To each eloquently pestering street-vendor there was a do7en of those stoically quiet Eastern shopkeepers who would sit in calm dignity amidst their wares, with no apparent concern whether any customer would ever cross their threshold. Although we foreigners were more likely to encounter the vociferous few than the dignified many. our position in Cairo was by no means difficult. Those among us who insisted on doing some shopping, mostly women, could go on bargaining to their hearts' content —even in shops of almost Parisian elegance—the Egyptian being an occasionally temperamental but always a patient party to bargain. (noes this apply to their politicians?).
Moreover, if somebody was given a raw deal by a merchant. a restaurateur or a cab-driver, he or she could always apply to the special "Tourist Patrol" of the police circulating in the streets to safeguard the interests of foreign visitors. Many men in the streets wore "fez". the traditional Moslem headgear, but for the rest they were clad in European style. The women—just like in India—showed a greater loyalty to the traditional garments of their nation, though few of them covered up their faces in the old-fashioned manner. Indeed, that would hardly have been appropriate to females who were expected to take part in political demonstrations and volunteer for parachutist training.
GENERAL Neguib seemed to enjoy a wide popularity: his portraits, cut out from cheap magazines, still decorated the barren walls of the shops — although the shopkeepers must have known by then that he was already overcast by Nasser's towering shadow. 'the royal palace and ex-King Farouk's yacht on the Nile took their places among the historic monutnents to be pointed out to tourists, as the Mohamed Ali Mosque, or the Pyramids and Sphynx.
Nobody apeared to miss Farouk —except perhaps one of the guides who, in the course of his explanations. kept on referring to "the present king." I thought I had better warn him before he got into trouble. He thanked me.
From a brief conversation I had with a Hungarian Franciscan learned that the Church in EMI was allowed to preach to the converted—to the Christians living there. However, any missionary activity aiming at the conversion of the Mohammedans was just out of the question.
EITHER the excellent lunch at the Hotel Semiramis nor the pleasant afternoon tea at Mina House, nor even the camel ride at the foot of the Pyramids gave me personally such a thrill as a mysterious incident in the train travelling across the fertile, well-irrigated lands of the Nile mound on our journey from Cairo to Port Said.
Towards 9 p.m., when we returned from our dinner in the restaurant car, we found a hole in the window-pane of our compartment and glass splinters all over the place. A fresh hole on the ceiling "matched" plausibly the hole in the window. It was a bullet—there could be no mistake about that.
The ticket collector, while trying to smile at us with unconvincingly enforced nonchalance, carefully gathered up the glass splinters and wrapped them away in his handkerchief. A little later two plainclothed gentlemen with inquisitive, gloomy faces walked across the compartment several times.
I for one was elated at having captured, during the last hour of my stay in Egypt, the true air of tension prevailing in the land beneath the lighthearted surface conjured up for the benefit of foreign visitors. Who had fired the shot? I had to leave it to the Egyptian police to solve the riddle. May be it was an attempt to sabotage the new efforts in the tourist trade; may be it was an act of senseless terrorism; may be it had a hidden meaning. In a country, technically still at war with one of her neighbours, where both Left and Right were outlawed and where, in those days, the President and the Prime Minister were at loggerheads, it must have been far easier to find potential suspects than guaranteed innocents.
BACK on board everything was peaceful again. The passengers who had not joined the trip to Cairo made up for it by bargaining keenly with the costermongers surrounding the ship in their small canoes. One of the water-hawkers cleverly enhanced his exotic appeal by a deliberately exaggerated bad English: "Are we bargain? Are we bargain?" he kept on yelling.
When, after protracted discussions, a transaction was concluded at last at half the original price, the suitcase in question and the money changed hand, both conveyed on a rope to the new owner.
Somebody from the boat asked the successful vendor his name.
"Heavy loser!" came the reply— and the mock introduction evoked genuine cheers.
In 1952 the Egyptians discovered with a shock that King Farouk was king no longer. In 1954 they learned, all of a sudden, that "Strong man Neguib" was strong no longer.
What is in store for 1956?