The old man and the Nile

David Tresilian , Sunday 25 Aug 2019

English novelist William Golding’s An Egyptian Journal retains its mystery today more than 30 years after it was written, writes David Tresilian in an occasional series on books by visitors to Egypt


Visitors who have written books on Egypt have sometimes had an axe to grind, but just as often they have had none. Sometimes they have been (or have wanted to have been) seen as experts on the country, but equally often they have revelled in their amateur status.

Sometimes they have been to Egypt voluntarily, sometimes by accident, sometimes even against their will. Sometimes Egypt has been a source of genuine inspiration, but just as often it has been a way of overcoming writer’s block. Sometimes a book has originated in an external commission, with a magazine article becoming a book, for example, or written to fill a niche in an existing series.

In the case of the English Nobel laureate William Golding, perhaps best-known for his first novel The Lord of the Flies, Egypt was a childhood interest and then an adult fascination, as well as a perennial companion to his thinking over his long career as a novelist.

However, his book on Egypt, An Egyptian Journal, detailing a trip made down the Nile in 1984 when the author was 72, was not voluntarily chosen. As Golding explains early in the book, written in the day-by-day format the journal genre demands, it was the result of a commission and not one that he had necessarily thought of pursuing.

There were early doubts about whether he should accept the commission at all, but eventually he agreed to write the text to an illustrated travel book about a famous author’s trip down the Nile. After various difficulties the book was eventually published, though not as originally planned since most of the photographs were jettisoned along with the photographer, with the text ballooning from the original 60,000 to more than 120,000 words.

There were also problems with what Golding may have wanted to say about Egypt and the way in which he said it. Writing in his 2009 biography, the UK critic John Carey says that when Golding was approached by his publishers in the early 1980s to write an illustrated travel book, the idea was to write a medium-length text about a place that had particular associations for him that would be accompanied by commissioned photographs.

The model was to be the fellow English author’s Lawrence Durrell’s Greek Islands, a bestseller. Curiously enough, Durrell was also the author of some of the best-known of all 20th-century English novels set in Egypt, the four novels of his Alexandria Quartet published between 1957 and 1960. However, while Durrell scarcely needed an introduction to Greece, having lived there himself for decades, Golding would need local minders on what would be a short trip to Egypt. The Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, later to become well-known for her books in English, was drafted in to help.

The old man and the Nile
photo: AFP

As Carey tells it in his biography, in February 1984 Golding and his wife Ann “flew out to Cairo, where Alaa [Ahdaf’s brother Ala Swafe] had booked them into the Sheraton, and the next day they dined with Dr Hamdi [owner of the cabin cruiser the Hani that was to take them up the Nile], Alaa, and Ahdaf, who let them leave some of their luggage in her Cairo flat. On Tuesday, they went aboard the Hani and met her crew. It was not a reassuring experience. There was an engineer… a cook with a lute, a frail old Nubian with, it emerged, a deep hatred of the English, and a boy in a star-bespangled tracksuit who, they thought, would do excellently in the part of Aladdin.”

Carey describes the book that Golding eventually produced from this experience as “unpretentious and funny,” adding that “it makes no claim to objectivity, but freely admits its prejudices.” It was not so much the book that the publishers presumably had had in mind, if Durrell’s reassuringly middle-brow Greek Islands is any guide, as a “grimly hilarious send-up of the realm of the pharaohs.”

Ahdaf Soueif and her brother Alaa did not like the book at all, and when she later wrote about it in a review article in the London Review of Books in October 1985 she described her shock at what Golding had written. The Egyptians Golding encounters in the book “stare (be it benignly) at the traveller, they build their houses at wrong angles and heap up rubble in village streets, they play Arab music and they pepper their talk with proverbs.”

“One of the Egyptians frustrating Mr Golding on his trip up and down the Nile is very close to me: Ala Swafe, the Goldings’ ‘minder’, is my brother… even though I must say I do not recognise the brother I’ve known for 28 years,” Soueif wrote. On the day of sailing, “we have the Goldings mysteriously ‘taken with their suitcases to the boat,’ where people start to turn up. Among these people are ‘the females of Ala’s apparently extended family.’” But “there were two females in this instance: myself and Soheir, Ala’s fiancée,” who had put aside other concerns to help Golding and his wife from the Sheraton Hotel in central Cairo to the Ma’adi Yacht Club.

Both Ahdaf and Alaa disassociated themselves from the Egyptian Journal before it was published, but its content evidently still rankled.  

The old man and the Nile

ON THE WATER: Turning up the book again today, it is easy to see what Soueif means while at the same time not fully agreeing with it.

There is something mysterious about the book and Golding’s motivation in writing it that perhaps cannot be reduced to Soueif’s conclusion that it is meant as a “yet another wrong-headed and patronising account by a western passer-through” in Egypt, or indeed Carey’s view (surely not meant seriously) that it is best read as a “hilarious send-up” of Egypt. Why would Golding, of all people, want to write a book of this sort, when comedy was not his forte and he had in any case written several previous essay-length pieces on Egypt that struck a very different note?

There are, however, some uncomfortable moments in the Journal, some of them identified by Soueif. Looking at some “hopeful shrubs” planted in kerosene cans, Golding opines that “Egyptians don’t often go in for private gardens.” But how does he know, since by his own admission he has met so few? He seems to take pleasure in belittling his interlocutors, without for all that, and again by his own admission, wanting to find out more about them. He asks Shasli, the boat’s captain, if there are different names for the big and small Nile boats, here called sandals, for example.

“Yes, there were. They were called small sandals and big sandals. Was there a special name for a big sandal with two masts? Yes. It was called a big sandal with two masts.” Reading such exchanges, one wonders why Golding thought it necessary to include them, since Shasli, talking to a foreigner who did not know a word of Arabic, was presumably simply humouring him. Golding, on the other hand, seems to be set on taking his answers as a sign of stupidity or evasiveness.
But the book is also shot through with reflections on Golding’s own inadequacies, particularly regarding his ability to write a book based on his experiences on the Nile – with that inability being seen as his fault and not Egypt’s – and his mixed feelings, if that is what they are, at having to play the role of a great writer taking a cruise in Egypt. One has the impression that everyone falls over backwards to recognise Golding and his status, and it is this that riles him since of all the possible social roles he has to play, from foreign visitor to irritable pensioner, this is the one calculated to annoy him most.

He is alert to any signs of play-acting in others, complaining, when he is invited to an interview with the “secretary-general” of Minya (presumably he means the governor) when the Hani has temporarily docked in the town, that this “very imposing gentleman” began speaking in an exaggeratedly official way, what Golding calls “Nobelspeak,” presumably in recognition of his visitor’s distinction. “This is a pomposity born of the fact that one is treated as representing more than oneself by someone conscious of representing more than himself. The secretary-general and I now began to use Nobelspeak, suffering as we both did from Nobelitis or inflammation of the membranes of the ego.”

Golding had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in the year of his visit to Egypt, and perhaps he was remembering the official ceremony at which he had received it. In addition to noting the governor’s official welcome – surely a mark of politeness – he also writes that the encounter with officialdom “made Alaa’s, our minder’s, Egyptian limbs quake with an apprehension as old as the pharaohs.” This comment particularly annoyed Soueif, who objected to Golding’s apparent assumption that every Egyptian must exhibit “abject servility to authority.”

Watching the tourists getting on and off the large cruise boats going up and down the Nile, Golding wonders whether he is on the same or a different errand. Interviewing some Nubian villagers in Kalabsha in Upper Egypt, he wonders whether, for them, he is simply another “American anthropologist” – “I, who had never liked interviews and had come finally to invent the sourest apothegms” in answering them. What, he asks, about those determined Victorian ladies who used to stay in the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor in its 19th-century heyday? Golding stayed there too on his way back up the Nile. Wouldn’t they have been better at understanding what was going on about them or even seeking to understand?
  As it was, when Rushdie, one of the staff, spent the afternoon with Alaa “reading aloud in Arabic what Alaa called ‘a tale by some Lebanese idiot’… I saw that it was useless to try to find out what [their laughter] was all about,” Golding writes. “Nothing is so impenetrable as laughter in a language you don’t understand.”

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