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Book review: The Memoirs of Nubar Pasha

A newly published translation of the last writings of Egypt’s first prime minister aims at rehabilitating a tarnished reputation.

Mahmoud El-Wardany, Tuesday 30 Nov 2010
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Nubar Pasha (1825-1899) has always been a controversial character among those researching Egyptian modern history and its generations of politicians. This is not only because of the role he played as a civil servant of singular competence, but also because of his Armenian origins. Known for his role in the construction of the Suez Canal, Nubar —three times prime minister of Egypt, as well as the first to hold that post —also created the “mixed courts” system (a system of courts where cases involving foreigners were to be decided by judges from Europe) within the complex arena of international politics in which Egypt existed in the 19th century.

The recent publication of Nubar’s memoirs is an event, though it received much less attention than it deserved. The book in question is translated with remarkable care from the original French by Garo Robert Tabakian, with a foreword by Merit Boutros Ghani, while research and annotations were added by Dr Latifa Mohamed Salme and the revision by Dr Elham Zohni. All this is on display in addition to the commentary that his son, Boghous Nubar, added for the French edition. 

This new edition by Dar El-Shorouk shows appreciation of Nubar Pasha’s life and work, and endeavours to restore his reputation. The memoirs are a lengthy 724 pages, but the period covered is critical in Egypt’s history, and Nubar is one of the designers of its internal and external politics. He is considered one of the founders of Egypt’s bureaucratic heritage, through his work as a civil servant, although he only started work in 1842 after his arrival. Egypt has always absorbed and reinvented foreigners, as he repeatedly mentions in his memoirs.

Dr Latifa Salem points out in her research that Nubar Pasha wrote his memoirs between 1890 and 1894, at the age of 65 and before he left politics altogether. He covers the period between 1842 and 1879 when the Topkapi —the centre for Ottoman rule, which Egypt was under at the time —deposed Khedive Ismail, and his son Tawfiq took over under pressure from the European alliance. The book gives a full record of 37 continuous years of work in the kitchen of politics: as civil servant, secretary, translator and writer, and sometimes a nazir al-ashghal al-omomeya (supervisor of public works). He was responsible for one of the biggest projects at the time, which was the construction of the railroad. He even worked as a nazir al-kharegeya (minister of foreign affairs) before finally becoming prime minister.

Nubar worked with five rulers —Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim, Abbas, Said and Ismail —which makes his memoirs invaluable. He never claims to be a hero or that he took a stand against unjust rule. On the contrary, he knew his position as a competent civil servant, trusted by everyone and known to stay within the limits of his jurisdiction.

Despite these limitations, he was still able to play a critical role —though hidden —especially when it came to slave labour and the Suez Canal project. Nubar was involved with the negotiations before, during, and after the work started.

Any attempt to understand Nubar’s project without its context, political setup and the full autocratic rule of the time, is doomed to failure. This is even hinted at in his memoirs when he writes:

How many rulers invaded (Egypt)? How many nations stepped on its land; from kings of lands to the Mamlukes, all leaving their mark and great legacies on this land: pyramids, immense monuments, temples, minarets and towers and other wonders, full of charm and lustre. They all abused this nation, and exceeded the limits of abuse to the people who worked hard and sweated to construct these amazing things which we admire without thinking of the pains suffered. None of these rulers was able to go deep into these people, who were as peaceful as the ocean.

It should be mentioned here that Nubar, an Armenian Christian, enjoyed all the rights of a citizen and was promoted to prime minister despite his religion and origins in contrast to many of today’s mores. He held the post over one and a half centuries ago, under tyrannical and autocratic rule.

Armenians enjoyed a special status during Mohamed Ali’s rule; however, this was due to their skill, honesty and continuous hard work. Boghos Yousefian, Nubar’s uncle and also an Armenian Christian, was not only a translator for Mohamed Ali, but he became a deputy and spokesman as well. Nubar’s father was deputy for Mohamed Ali in Paris, and after his death Ali took measures to ensure the French did not find the letters exchanged between the two. He immediately sent for Nubar to receive his father’s papers and on his return to Egypt he began his years in service that continued until Ismail was overthrown.

The relationship between Nubar and Mohamed Ali indicates the extent of the latter’s tolerance; Nubar’s memoirs go deeper into the complicated bond between Ali and his son Ibrahim, who ruled during his father’s old age. There is no doubt Nubar had extraordinary intelligence and wisdom, for he remained in service even after Ibrahim, working with Abbas (1848-1854) and handling the construction of the railroad project until he came into conflict with Abbas and resigned. Despite that, Abbas soon called him back to work as his deputy in Vienna, proving the extent of Nubar’s skills.

Nubar’s relationship with Said (1845-1863) was not as good because of his opposition to the Suez Canal privileges (the rights of foreigners to income from the canal for 99 years) and hatred for Ferdinand Deliceps. In addition, his antagonism to the liberties granted to foreigners and Khedive Said’s sole interest in the army resulted in a tense relationship between the two. Nubar was shrewd enough to be able to express his honest opinion, while at the same time conveying readiness to obey whatever orders Said gave. 

While his relationship with Khedive Ismail consumes more than half the book, he constantly criticises him as being responsible for Egypt’s decline. During his era, the Westernisation of Cairo —with the Opera House, the theatre, the gardens and squares —was due to a misplaced fascination with Paris. His debts and corruption were without limits and, according to Nubar, Ismail was suffering some kind of mental weakness.

 Nubar ends his memoirs by noting: 

Whatever future awaits Egypt whether it gains independence or continues as a colony justice will remain standing between the ruler and subjects. Peasants are now armed and will not be denied the fruit of their hard work by force. Whatever God grants him he will be able to keep and enjoy it and chant gratitude to God. His country is not one of slavery and his house is no longer that of a slave.

The book attempts to restore Nubar’s reputation that was at such low ebb that a monument honouring him in Alexandria was opposed. 

For Nubar, the Armenian Christian is also an Egyptian, and his memoirs present a very different story from the one that most history books are telling. 

The writer is an author and journalist.

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