Book Review: ‘Those forgotten ordinary people’

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 28 Aug 2022

Ahmed Kheireddine’s latest title – To the Beloved’s Country – Zamzam’s Last Voyage – tells the sad “unofficial history” of a passenger boat during a trip in 1941 between Alexandria and New York as a belated tribute to unsung Egyptian heroes who got caught up in a side battle of World War II


Alah Bald Al-Mahboub – Rehlat Zamzam Al-Akhira (“To the Beloved’s Country – Zamzam’s Last Voyage”) by: Ahmed Kheireddine, (Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk), 2021, 236 pp

On 9 September 1940, during WWII, the Italians invaded Egypt’s western borders. It was almost one year since the Second World War had started on 1 September 1939 and five years before it ended on 2 September 1945. Egypt, still under the de facto influence of the British occupation, cut its relations with the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) shortly after the beginning of hostilities. However, it chose to declare independence in the war – despite the diverse sentiments of sympathy for either side, both in the political class and on the street. Still, Egypt inevitably got caught up in the war, especially during the first and second El-Alamein battles in the summer and autumn of 1942.

The impact of World War II on the politics and economy of Egypt has been subject to a great deal of reflection in history books, literature and cinema and drama production. However, according to Ahmed Kheireddine, journalist and writer, beyond the images of people running to find safe hideouts during the Axis air raids, there has been very little attention in general dedicated to what this war actually meant to the ordinary people.

“This is actually the central point of the book – to follow the trail of a group of ordinary Egyptians who got caught up in the war way beyond what many would think was possible,” Kheireddine said, following a book discussion and signing earlier in the summer, of his most recent title.

The book depicts the story of a group of Egyptian and Sudanese sailors who were on board of the passenger boat Zamzam that got caught up in the war during the spring of 1941. The boat was attacked by the Germans during a cross Atlantic trip from New York to Alexandria. Its passengers, mostly nuns and spouses and children of missionaries working in Africa, were miraculously saved by the exemplary courage and efficiency of the Egyptian and Sudanese sailors. As the passengers found their way to the shore they resumed their journeys to their original destinations, except for the sailors. They, instead, were sent to one Nazi prison camp after another where they had to stay until the end of the war. Afterwards, they found their way home to hardly any attention beyond that of their devastated families, who had been mostly kept in the dark about their fate. The government of Egypt had barely followed up on the matter, much less kept the families informed.

“To the beloved’s country,” which shares its title with a song by Egypt’s diva Oum Kalthoum in 1935, is the labour of intensive and diligent research that Kheireddine did for two years to follow the trail of a story he first came across in a news bulletin. The research took the author to the Library of Congress and other archives where he dug deep in the pursuit of any press coverage of the drama of these sailors. However, as Kheireddine shares with the readers of his over 200-page volume, the coverage was dismal, at best. Often enough, he said, the coverage was misleading with the censors banning anything remotely alarming that could have upset the public during times of war.

Kheireddine had to go through many rounds of personal interviews and worked hard putting the pieces together to finally get the full story of those sailors. Kheireddine places the drama of Zamzam, its passengers and its sailors in the wider political, social and cultural context of wartime Egypt. It is full of side-note anecdotes and presents a full list of the names of the sailors and it comes with a good selection of pictures.

Kheireddine agreed that it is hard to label the book as a history book in the traditional sense. He argued that it is “an account of unofficial history” that he is dedicated to. “We often get to hear the story of the politicians or those people whose names are easy to reckon with; we need to move around the fringes a lot more to get to hear the stories of the people because these are too part of the history, untold as it might be,” Kheireddine said.

In his two previous titles, Men Al-Shebak (“From the Window”), a 2017 Dar El-Shorouk publication, and Bealm Alwoussoul (“Registered Mail”) a 2019 Dar El-Shorouk book, Kheireddine launched his scheme of telling unofficial histories. This scheme, he said, is still captivating and is inspiring future titles that he is currently working on.

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