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1956 Suez Canal war: Seven nights before daylight

Cultural historian Alia Mossallem puts a focus on what remains, 60 years later, of the Suez War in the hearts, minds and words of the people who lived those events

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 30 Oct 2016
president Gamal Abdel-Nasser
File Photo:In 1956, the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and henceforth it has been run by Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority. (Ahram)
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On 30 October 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser firmly shrugged a British and French ultimatum for an end to hostilities that had started almost a week earlier when Anthony Eden got the approval of his cabinet to start a military operation against Egypt for having nationalised the Suez Canal on 26 July.

The French-British ultimatum was tabled less than 24 hours after Israeli forces invaded Sinai in what announced the beginning of the Tripartite War that was the climax of the Suez Crisis.

Sixty years later, there is very little said about this war that came with significant political consequences and considerable sacrifices, leaving memories that have never been properly documented or expressed.

While it was in Sinai and Port Said that the war actually took place, in the collective mind there are two central images associated with the Suez Crisis and the Tripartite Aggression: Nasser’s July announcement in Alexandria of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, and his legendary speech at Al-Azhar Mosque, 2 November, to prompt steadfastness in the face of the aggression and in the pursuit of independence.

“Well, this has to do with who tells the stories of history and whose narrative gets the most attention,” argues cultural historian Alia Mossallem.

Speaking to Ahram Online, Mossallem, who has thoroughly studied the significance of diverse cultural and oral history material in reading the socio-political history of the cities of the Suez Canal, had a basic starting point: the different narratives on what happened in 1956 and that were never really told, not fully anyway. And the same goes for the history of the 1967 War, the War of Attrition and the 1973 War, which all essentially happened in Port Said, Suez and Ismailiya.

In a sense, Mossallem argues, the monopoly over the narrative is designed perhaps to serve a political objective: “In this case it is the political victory achieved.”

“The act of popular resistance was always acknowledged, but there is a context in which this act is put, within specific proportions; this context is provided by the state,” Mossallem argued.

While acknowledging that adequate credit was given to “some of” the accounts and figures of the popular resistance in the cities of the canal, which started with the 1956 War and went through until the final ceasefire of the October War (February 1974), Mossallem insists that, “There is so much that was not documented even if it was offered in its oral format, and I guess this has to do with the approach towards oral history in general.”

For example, Mossallem argues, there is very little if anything written about the fact that during the days of civil resistance in the face the Tripartite Aggression, there were 1,360 civilians killed by the armies of Israel, France and Britain, and some 5,000 wounded.

“Well, maybe these numbers were never publicly shared because this was thought to have undermined the quality of the victory as it was to be portrayed then,” she argues.

Moreover, in the case of the accounts recognised and celebrated, “there is also a tendency to reduce the many accounts of struggle to one or two incidents."

This, she said, “is very obvious in the case of Zeinab ElBakry who helped move arms to the resistance groups while walking her newborn son in his pram."

This account inspired the authors of the Egyptian cinema production ‘No Time for Love,’ staring Rushdi Abaza and Faten Hamama,  presented in the early 1960s.

“True, but if you ask Zeinab ElBakry she would say that this was just one of many incidents, and that she did other more daring things,” Mossallem said.

There again, she argued, it is a question of who controls the narrative and how far those who dominate the narrative wish to go in giving credit to different players relative to a particular political purpose.

“I think that the killings and destruction committed the armies of Israel, France and Britain during the Tripartite War should be litigated as war crimes. But this is not being done because to admit that there were war crimes may contradict the image offered on the grand victories of this war,” Mossallem argued.

According to Mossallem, what is missing in the "official" narrative of the 1956 War is there in folk songs that recall the days of the war and its key figures.

“For example, there is the famous song “Port Said – Men and Youth” that tells the story of “seven nights and daylight,” in reference to the duration of the hostilities that started on the ground from 31 October to the day of the ceasefire on 7 November, in the wake of the condemnation of the aggression by the US, USSR and the UN.

In a seminar on narration she held in Port Said in January, ahead of the 60th anniversary of the war, Mossallem reviewed key turning points in the modern history of Port Said, effectively built “to be a Mediterranean City." “There was actually a social-mapping project and on every stop of the path we came to see an alternative story being told,” Mossallem said.

“For example, the story of the popular resistance itself as offered in the dominating — or maybe official — narrative is lacking a very important element: the people of Port Said were not just facing up to the foreign invasion of the three aggressing armies, but were in a basic sense defending their own cities, their own houses and their lives,” she said.

Today, Mossallem finds there is still room for work to collect other narratives, including oral history “while it is still offered, by some of its actual protagonists who are still alive and who have a strong memory,” as well as studying and documenting the photographs taken at the time, the letters exchanged between family members and friends, and the songs written about events.

What goes for Port Said, Mossallem argues, should also go for the rest of the canal cities, especially Suez, that has “a great story that is really undertold."

According to Mossallem, Suez also fought a war of civil resistance. “This is a story untold, again maybe because some would think it a grey shadow on the otherwise grand story of 6 October,” she said.

All these stories, however, do not undermine the importance of the crossing of the Suez Canal and the military achievement secured by the national armed forces. Rather they give such events context, “just as much as the telling of the stories of those soldiers coming back traumatised from the desert of Sinai, to be taken in and looked after by the people of Suez, gives more life to the story of the October War.”

Again, Mossallem finds a rich and untapped resource in the songs and oral history that emerged in the canal cities — one that should be preserved, remembered and recognised amid the official telling of history.

president Gamal Abdel-Nasser
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