‘Afandina’ Abbas Helmy I under scrutiny

Hesham Taha, Thursday 26 Jan 2023

Afandina (Our Sire) by Mohsen Al-Ghamry, Arwaqa Institution for Studies, Translation and Publishing, Cairo 2021, pp. 368.



Mohsen Al-Ghamry’s third novel Our Sire is a historical novel that begins with a narrator recounting his childhood memories and his early fascination with the fate of the governor of Egypt, Abbas Helmy I, who was killed treacherously.


The narrator meets his childhood friend after reaching retirement age as a diplomat and together they classify documents and manuscripts the diplomat acquired through his lifelong travels. 


Incidentally, they find a manuscript written by a man called Safaa Al-Din, who worked as a penman and was fluent in writing Ottoman Turkish (which was written in Arabic letters) and Arabic and knew a little bit of English. Safaa Al-Din went to Egypt hoping to find a job since he was born in the Greek port city Kavala; the same birthplace of Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt. He worked as a clerk and a translator in Muhammad Ali’s service. 


Safaa Al-Din starts his manuscript with commending Muhammad Ali’s intelligence and his order to his wife, Emine, to come to Egypt along with their sons Ibrahim and Ahmed Tusun following the Ottoman Sultan’s acceptance to appoint him a ruler of Egypt.


The manuscript, or rather the testimony, described Tusun Pasha as tender, kindhearted, and inclined to life of sensual pleasures and music. He fell in love with Bamba, his concubine who gave birth to Abbas Helmy in Hejaz in 1813 during the 1811 campaign.


During her pregnancy, she was about to die after suffering from severe fever, but she was rescued by the clever herbalist available, who predicted that the newborn will suffer from epilepsy.


From his infancy in the Arabian Peninsula, Abbas showed an extreme fascination with horses. He stopped crying whenever he heard a horse neigh and when he was seated on a horseback he laughed. 


Safaa Al-Din loved horses immensely and he was called the “horses’ copyist” since it was his sole means of transport between cities and villages. Thus, a common interest was formed between the two men early on. 


Princess Nazli, Tusun Pasha’s closest sister, loved him so much she was jealous from his love to Bamba. Nazli and Abbas became Nazli’s sworn enemies. Tusun died at the age of 23 after being infected with the Black Death in Rosetta. Muhammad Ali wondered whether it was Heaven’s revenge because of the Mamluks’ blood he spilt in the famous Citadel Massacre.


Abbas hated his grandfather from the moment his father died and felt that the entire family was responsible for his orphanhood. His grandfather devoted great care to him, and his grandmother Emine Hanim showered him with her affections and nobody in the harem could upset him. 


He got firsthand information of the harem life and saw how plots and counter-plots were woven. Thus, distrust and suspicion were sown in his psyche towards those surrounding him. In a mysterious decision, Muhammad Ali assigned Sheikh Ahmed Ibn Rasheed, mufti of Al-Diriyah, the Wahhabis capital, who was brought to Cairo as a war captive, to educate his beloved grandson and make him well-versed in the Islamic religion.


This surprised Safaa Al-Din, because it was a well-known fact that the Wahhabis were hardliners. How wasn’t Egypt’s ruler worried about his grandson’s safety while being educated by his yesterday’s sworn enemy, he wondered. The sheikh kept instilling in the young prince’s mind his hardline stance towards life, telling him that the infidels’ presence in Egypt in the form of foreign advisers, doctors, and engineers mustn’t be allowed except in emergencies.


The author used to interrupt the flow of Safaa Al-Din’s narration every now and then in the form of a dialogue between the ex-diplomat and his friend, which sometimes felt like contrived projections.


Al-Ghamry shed light on the fact that Muhammad Ali lost his eldest sons and his son-in-law for the sake of his project of founding a state with its base in Egypt. His wife’s heart was broken after witnessing two of her sons die because of her husband’s insatiable expansionist ambitions.


Safaa Al-Din mentions that Muhammad Ali’s henchmen killed his teacher, the renowned Egyptian historian Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti’s son Khalil in order to stop him from stating his rule’s disadvantages. 


After the Egyptian fleet’s defeat in the Battle of Navarino, Muhammad Ali accepted the offer Egypt’s European allies made that Egypt remain neutral during the Ottoman Empire’s conflict with Greece and do not attack it. Abbas asked his grandfather how he let down his Muslim brethren. He repeated this question on the Syria Campaign, asking “Why should we spill the blood of our Muslim brothers?”


Muhammad Ali appointed Abbas governor of Gharbiya and Safaa Al-Deen his clerk, and sent him reports on his administration. After a year, he removed Abbas because of his harshness attitude with peasants. He appointed him chief-of-staff of the Egyptian army in the Syria Campaign in 1832 much to the dissatisfaction of his uncle Ibrahim Pasha, who asked afterwards for his removal.   


Measures to remove Abbas from being heir to the throne after Ibrahim Pasha started early on by his aunt Nazli and his uncle Ibrahim, who paid bribes to the Sublime Porte to change his successor. Abbas became the ruler of Egypt following the death of Ibrahim and Muhammad Ali, who were both in frail health. He stated that his grandfather was a master among his sons and grandsons but a slave to the foreign consuls. 


His closest relatives asked Abbas to divide their grandfather’s inheritance but he persistently refused, declaring that what they consider his own inheritance belonged to Egypt’s treasury. Of course, this didn’t sit well with his relatives especially Nazli and his uncle Mohamed Said Pasha, who sought to tarnish his image before the Ottoman sultan.


Abbas cancelled a kind of poll tax taken from every person, man, woman or child, which burdened Egyptians immensely and succeeded in expanding the agricultural land and increasing its productivity. At the same time, he disbanded the Egyptian navy and neglected the fleet in the view that Egypt didn’t need one after the Convention of London of 1840 and that resources must be allocated to what was more beneficial. He was fond of building palaces and buying horses whatever their prices were.


Unlike his grandfather in dealing with the European consuls, he set new rules for them. Except for the British consul, who was close to him, other consuls had to have an appointment to meet him and he didn’t have to convene with them if he did not feel like it.


Abbas almost expelled all foreign advisers and doctors (even Clot Bey, founder of Western medical practice in Egypt) except those who embraced Islam (such as Colonel Sève who became Soliman Pasha) and those he needed their services. In another controversial move, he closed many schools in Egypt and sent a number of Egyptian teachers to Sudan in order to save money.


Abbas gave Safaa Al-Din a concubine who confessed after cornering her that she was ordered to spy on him and give verbal weekly reports to a superior. Thus, he became certain that his loyalty was questionable until proven otherwise!


Although Abbas abhorred superstitions and fortunetellers, Ward, a Gypsy fortuneteller whom he met disguising as a Syrian merchant accompanied by Safaa Al-Din predicted that he will rule the country and it was confirmed by Sheikh Hassan Al-Fanageeli.


An antagonistic front towards Abbas was formed by his relatives, foreign consuls, and the Ottoman sultan. A conspiracy was devised where two of his Mamluks on promise of being freed strangulated him during an epileptic seizure. 


Abbas ruled for almost six years, from 1848 until 1854, and died at 42. Safaa Al-Din left Egypt along with his concubine whom he freed and married and recorded his testimony in his birthplace when he was over 80 years old and handed it to his son Ismail from his late wife Yildiz.


Al-Ghamry described the army headed by Tusun Pasha and sent to Hejaz in 1811 as the Egyptian Army, while Egyptians didn’t enter the army except in 1823. He mentioned Al-Jabarti’s deep sadness for Tusun Pasha’s death through his relationship with Safaa

Al-Din and after several pages the latter starts to speak about Al-Jabarti as if he was introducing him for the first time to the reader. This was repeated many a time with Ottoman terms.


Al-Ghamry uses, via Safaa Al-Din, modern expressions, such as Machiavellian, sadistic, and strategic which in no way can come through a scribe of Egypt’s governor at the time.

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