Memoires de Nubar Pacha: An insight into the making of modern Egypt

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 20 Sep 2018

Nubar Pacha's memoirs take the reader into the mind of a master statesman and his reflections on Mohamed Ali's grand vision to bring Egypt into the modern era.

Nubar Pacha
Nubar Pacha

Memoires de Nubar Pacha (Cairo: Dar ElShorouk)

First Edition 2009 – Second Edition 2015.

Born in the second decade of the 19th century under Ottoman rule in Smryna (Izmir), an Armenian by the name of Nubar Nubarian would grow up to become one of the most influential men in the making of modern Egypt.

At least this is how historian Latifa Mohamed Salem describes him in her long introduction to his memoirs. For three years, from the autumn of 1890 to the spring of 1894, Nubar Pacha wrote extensively while living in France at the end of the 19th century. This was a time after he had finished all the official mandates he had assumed throughout the rule of Mohamed Ali, his son Ibrahim, his brother Abbas Helmi I, and then the consecutive rule of two of Mohamed Ali’s sons: Said and Ismail.

The memoires that were originally written in French, a language he learnt after being sent to France as a child and educated under Jesuits in Toulouse. His memoirs were translated for into Arabic for the first time in the early 1980s.

The thick volume of his memoirs is not a personal exploration in Nubar Pacha's life, but rather an account of his insights into the making of "modern Egypt", an ambitious project he largely credits Mohamed Ali for.

The 800 pages of the memoir are divided into 41 chapters – 25 of which are dedicated strictly to the rule of Khedive Ismail. While Khedive Ismail is still widely associated with the impressive architecture of Cairo and many of its grand cultural landmarks, Nubar Pacha offers detailed accounts of the problems Egypt faced during Ismail's rule, particularly the huge foreign debts and poor economic state management. Nubar Pacha mourns what he sees as the lost potential of Egypt to be a top regional power, a goal that was part of Mohamed Ali's plan for a modern Egypt.

Nubar’s memoirs are a first hand and highly detailed testimony of the mishap that a ruler befell his country into upon unilateral and un-thought-through decisions that are taken upon his fantasies of grandiose rather than the priorities of state management.

Nubar's memoirs reveal a first-hand testimony of the mishaps made by a ruler undertaking unilateral decisions based on fantasies of grandiosity, rather than consultation and a prioritising of state management.

Indeed, Nubar repeatedly shares his dismay over Ismail’s obsession with a European way of life and his neglect of pursuing his father’s plan to make Egypt a top agricultural hub, as well as his disappointment in his predecessor Khedive Saïd, who had no taste for state affairs and was only focused on military affairs.

In his recollection of the Ismail’s excessive debts and its inevitable political price, Nubar takes the reader into his melancholic mood that stands in juxtaposition with the high hopes he possessed in his recollections of Mohamed Ali.

It is not at all hard for the reader of Nubar's memoirs to sense his underlying sentiment of dismay over both Mohamed Ali’s sons failed to realise the dream of the great Egypt that their father had pursued.

Mohamed Ali's first son Ibrahimi ascended to the throne of Egypt during the end years of an ailing and senile Mohamed Ali, yet he passed away before his own father. The dynasty was then taken over by Mohamed Ali's grandson, Abbas Helmy. However, as Nubar's memoirs reveal, both Ibrahim and Abbas lacked political astuteness and vision possessed by Mohamed Ali.

However, Nubar is also critical of Mohamed Ali, particularly focussing on his tendency toward impulsiveness even before his mental health started to decline.

While he credits Mohamed Ali for putting an end to anti-Christian sentiment that had dominated the country, he doesn't spare him from taking responsibility for the failure to enact social justice, particularly given his harsh and abusive use of unpaid labour (soukhra) and excessive taxation.

Nubar Nubarian's memoirs is the account of a man who witnessed a crucial time in Egypt's history, the reflections of a statesman loyal to the vision of Mohamed Ali and invested in bringing Egypt into the modern.


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