Friday 16 March 2012

How Curses Work

We've all seen him.  He's swarthy, usually (though not always) with a dark beard.  He's often wearing a fez (no, I'm not going to say it) and robes of some kind.

A fanatic.  And friend.

Sometimes, he leaves his home desert and comes to England.  He may be dressed in Western clothes and live in a house with Western furnishings, but he's got a secret room, or a shrine, or a sanctum behind a billowing curtain, in which he keeps his infernal idols amidst clouds of suffocating incense.


(cue dramatic music)

...the Egyptian Fanatic!

When he comes to England, he becomes the mirror image of the English Explorer Who Has Just Returned from Egypt (henceforth, the Explorer).  This man goes to Egypt for the love of antiquities and discovery, and comes back enchanted and bewitched by the place (by the place, mind, not the people); filling his big, wood-panelled home with Egyptiana.  The question of whether the Explorer has any right to this Egyptiana is raised only by the Egyptian Fanatic in England (henceforth, the Fanatic).

The Fanatic has come to England from his native land in search of something, some inscrutable justice, some devilish retribution.  He nurses a grudge.  He clothes himself in Anglo, middle-class normalcy.  He speaks impeccable English, albeit in a heavy accent.  (It doesn't have to be an 'Egyptian accent', just a generic foreign one will do.)  He is usually treated with courtesy (at first) by the bemused English middle classes amongst whom he mixes by default because of his wealth.  These people may come to suspect and despise him, but they're often tolerant enough at the start, though a working class or yokel character may get to utter some ignorant dislike of "strangers".  The middle class characters may even initially tut at this sort of hostility (what with them being so open minded and everything) but it will turn out that the yokel's xenophobia was (accidentally) quite justified.

I'm a racist stereotype.  Racist stereotypes are cool.
Because the Fanatic is there to cause trouble.  To raise the mummified body of a long-dead Egyptian High Priest from its slumber inside a sarcophagus and set it the task of killing all those infidels who dared to trespass upon the sacred resting place of the Pharaoh, etc.  The Explorer will be the target of the Fanatic's superstitious rage (it will continue to be looked upon as superstition, despite the fact that the spells work and the mummy really does come to life).  The Explorer was just trying to further the cause of science and knowledge, to preserve the ancient Egyptian past, perhaps to delve into mysteries Better Left Undisturbed... sometimes the Explorer has been arrogant in his treatment of the Egyptians, sometimes he was rude and dismissive to the particular Egyptian Fanatic who is now persecuting him, usually when said Egyptian Fanatic turned up and begged him not to open the pyramid / break the seal on the scroll / disturb the body / take the mummy to display in England.  In some cases, the Explorer is shown to be greedy for gold or glory or knowledge... sometimes he is even a touch fanatical himself.

But, at the end of the day, it is the Egyptian who is the real Fanatic.  It is he who has devoted his life to the single-minded cause of revenge, of worshipping the evil Egyptian deity, of seeking out all desecrators and having them strangled by a rotting corpse.  Sometimes he has fanatically loyal henchmen or assassins who will kill for him, with dirty great curved swords.  If ordinary Egyptians see these men (you know ordinary Egyptians by their muteness, cowardliness and by the fact that they do the donkey work at the Explorer's dig) they run away in terror.  Maybe the Fanatic is the last in a long line of priests, acolytes of a cult that has lasted for centuries, devoted to passing the task of protecting their god down through the generations.  He is bound to savagery via fanatical superstition and cultish tradition.  And the Explorer is the victim.  The Explorer's home is violated, the Explorer's wife (who is sometimes the reincarnation of the mummy's Queen / High Priestess / lover) is menaced, the Explorer is attacked... etc.

The wife thing is interesting because it adds the anxiety of the Caucasian woman desired, possibly symbolically ravished, by the Arab... and, it goes without saying, the woman is depicted as property that the men fight over.  The theft of her from her husband is usually a perverse echo of the noble thefts committed by the Explorer.  You take our treasures in the name of science, so we take your women in the name of... well... heh heh heh heh hehhhhhh!

So we see how the Mummy story stems from European (particularly English) anxieties about the morality (or consequences anyway) of raiding other people's ancient tombs and carrying their ancient artifacts and corpses away with you, back to England to recieve the fame and the fortune and the prestige.  More broadly, we see how stories like this stem from European anxieties about their empires, about their pith-helmeted sons swaggering around other people's countries like they owned them.  It isn't that these stories try to make the Explorer come to terms with what he's done wrong... it is that his behaviour (however dodgy it may occasionally be acknowledged to be) is absolved by the disproportionate and grotesque response of the inscrutable, pre-modern, occult, emotionally deranged, immature, vindictive, fanatical, fez-wearing brown person who comes after him, wielding fetishes, chanting invocations to obscene deities (our own images of tortured hunks nailed to crosses are never questioned), burning incense, reading horrible curses from scrolls and sending his decomposing henchman out to do his murderous dirty work for him.

Thus, as always in the stories told by imperialist cultures, is the imperialist absolved by the inhumanity of his own victims.  This task may be best accomplished by tales of the uncanny precisely because it requires such a massive leap outside the realms of reality.

The Fanaticism of the West

It's quite something, the way our popular culture has managed to associate Egypt almost entirely with curses, fanaticism, evil and the theft of white womenfolk, given the nature of actual European relations with that country.  Egypt, after all, has never invaded Britain.  Britain, however, has invaded Egypt.  A lot.

In July 1882, British warships began bombarding Alexandria.  Supposedly, this was done because the Egyptians refused to surrender some coastal forts.  In reality, the forts were no threat, as the British knew at the time.  By the end of the shelling, much of Alexandria lay in ruins.  This was blamed on rioting mobs by the British but the evidence shows that a huge amount of the damage was done by British shells.  Estimates of Egyptian dead and wounded range from about 600 to 2,000, many of them civilians.  Gladstone, who was always ready to push aside his tearfully-proclaimed moralistic scruples about empire when the time came to protect British imperial interests, told one queasy colleague in the Liberal cabinet that they had taught "the fanaticism of the East that the massacre of Europeans is not likely to be perpetrated with impunity".

Gladstone was referring to riots that had claimed the lives of 50 Europeans (and of 250 Egyptians at the hands of Europeans) before the shelling.  The riots were an expression of outrage over European interference in and domination of Egypt.

A fanatic. 
The construction of the Suez Canal, in the decade from 1859, benefited only Britain.  It was the principle waterway leading to the glittering jewel in the imperial crown: India.  It secured British strategic and trade domination.  It led to the bankrupting of the Egyptian economy.  The Egyptian government had to go to European shareholders and banks for loans to pay for its share of the construction costs.  Through ruinous terms, huge interest demands, siphoning off of money in commissions, payment in overvalued bonds, etc. - fraud, in other words - the Europeans bilked Egypt into bankruptcy, whereupon the defaulting government effectively fell into receivership to European bondholders.  Gladstone himself - the great, principled, lachrymose humanitarian - was a bondholder.  Egypt came under the effective control of European creditors and governors.  Payments were extracted from Egypt with utter ruthlessness.  The fellahin - the peasants - suffered most.  They were subjected to terrible brutality, whipped and tortured and imprisoned into paying up even during years of failed harvests and famine.

The Khedive, Ismail, made some efforts to frustrate Euro control of his country, but when he became too intransigent, Ismail was simply removed by the British and replaced by his son Tewfik.  The Europeans in Egypt, aside from the arrogant racist contempt they showed the Egyptians, lived high on the hog even as the Egyptians sank into greater poverty.  Opposition grew, much of it Islamist in character - understandable, given what Christians were doing to Egypt - but also largely of a nationalist and democratic character.  This was the "fanaticism of the East".

When the British and French started reducing Egypt's army to help pay the debts, many people feared that this was a prelude to a military occupation... understandable, given the French occupation of Tunisia.  The Army - under General Urabi - went over to the nationalist side.  It's been said that Egypt fell under Army dictatorship, but this is false.  The Army programme was surprisingly moderate, demanding an end to the autocracy of the Khedive and an economy not entirely yoked to debt repayments.  But this was not acceptable to the European bondholders.  With neither side backing down, force would inevitably decide.  Anglo-French warships were dispatched to intimidate the nationalists.  The anti-European riots - quite understandable, given the years of intense provocation - provided the Europeans with a self-righteous cause.  The coastal forts provided an immediate pretext.  And so, Alexandria was shelled.  Civilians were crushed, blasted, blown, burned and smashed to pulp.

British humanitarian interventionists gallantly
save Egypt from the fanatical Egyptians.
Gladstone, with the overwhelming support of the Commons, ordered a full invasion.  In the early morning of the 13th September 1882, a British expeditionary force launched a surprise attack against the Egyptian army at Tel-el-Kebir.  The British techniques of colonial warfare were well honed.  The result was an easy victory and a pitiless slaughter.  57 British soldiers were killed and nearly 400 wounded.  Nobody bothered to count Egyptian dead (they didn't do body counts then either) but estimates range from 2,000 to 10,000.  Gladstone was delighted and rushed to make political capital out of his great victory.  It should go without saying that the subsequent British occupation of Egypt had the character that all imperial domination inexorably assumes.  The prisons filled, the secret police ran rampant.  Torture and military terrorism became institutional and systematic.

If, by the way, a lot of this sounds depressingly familiar to you, eerily reminiscent of imperial adventures in our own recent times, then stand by...

In 1916, the British forced 1.5 million Egyptian men to work for them - and 'requisitioned' (i.e stole) huge amounts of crops, animals and buildings - in aid of the British war effort in the Middle East... which took the form, essentially, of an invasion and occupation of Iraq (or Mesopotamia as it - essentially - was then).  One of the big causes of WWI was the race between the British and German empires to control Iraq (they'd both recently switched their major railroads over from coal to oil).  That's another story... suffice it to say that the first British regiments in 1914 were sent to Basra and, by 1917, the British had invaded Iraq wholesale.  The point here is that this process further worsened the terrible impoverishment and suffering of most of the Egyptian people.  This, together with insulting British refusals to allow Egyptian nationalists to put Egypt's claim for independence to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, lead to a nationwide rebellion.  Initially, the British lost control of much of the country... but they machine-gunned, bombed, burned, hanged, flogged and beat the Egyptians back into line, killing more than a thousand in the process.  Unrest continued and, by 1922, the British granted Egypt formal  independence.  It was very formal indeed, and left Egypt a financially-dominated, militarily-occupied client state.  Resistance and repression continued.

By 1946, the British were forced to withdraw to the Canal zone.  The British knew that the Canal was still vital to their trade and strategic interests.  However, the Egyptian government demanded full British withdrawal.  Showing their customary dedication to democracy, the British instead poured more troops into the country and threatened a renewed national occupation.  Winston Churchill increased troop numbers again and, under his watchful eye, British forces started bulldozing whole villages in retaliation for guerrilla attacks.  Eventually, heroic resistance to ferocious British repression brought the country to the point where, with massive rioting in Cairo, a powerless puppet king and an entirely rebellious Egyptian army, Egypt had become ungovernable.  British elites backed down, realising that they could not risk a reoccupation of the whole country.

After a CIA-sponsored army coup in 1952, Nasser took over Egypt.  He began trying to renegotiate with the British over the Canal Zone.  Churchill told Eden that the Egyptians should be driven back "into the gutter from which they should never have emerged".  But Churchill was forced to agree to withdraw British troops from the Canal by 1956.  Nasser wanted Egypt to tow an independent course.  Seeking protection from Israeli aggression and getting no help from Eisenhower, he turned to the Soviets and nationalised the Suez Canal.

Another fanatic.  
The French, who hated Nasser because he was supporting the Algerian bid for independence from France, offered to cut the British in on their alliance with Israel.  Together they came up with a secret, illegal conspiracy.  The Israelis would attack Egypt and occupy the Canal area.  Britain and France, posing as peacemakers, would demand that both sides withdraw from the Canal.  Obviously, it would be impossible for the Egyptians to agree.  The British and the French would then invade the Canal area, ostensibly to separate the warring sides.  Once in, the European invaders would overthrow Nasser and end his irritating attempt to run Egypt for Egyptians rather than for the benefit of European imperialists.  Aside from the moral repugnance and hypocrisy, it was a lunatic scheme; a last and desperate roll of the dice by two declining empires.   But I'm not giving you a 'conspiracy theory'.  Of course, Eden, Macmillan, Kilmuir and the rest lied their heads off until their dying days, denying the whole thing... but it's a matter of historical record.

The Israelis launched their unprovoked surprise attack.  French collusion was more or less open.  Nobody was fooled by the pretence.  The Egyptians, quite reasonably in my view (call me nutty), refused to withdraw from their own territory.  So, the British began bombing Egypt.  Again.  Soon, British troops were invading Port Said, where they put down resistance using the usual ruthless violence.  About a thousand Egyptians died at Port Said.  They were mostly.... it gets depressing having to say this over and over.... mostly civilians.

The Americans, however, were not prepared to tolerate this half-arsed attempt by the detumescent powers of Europe to impinge upon their own ascendancy.  They condemned the invasion and launched sanctions.  The British and French had to agree to a ceasefire without having achieved any of their war aims.

With typical self-deception, we remember this sordid and bloody affair as the Suez 'Crisis'.

The Brits were out of Egypt by 1956.  For once, the British had to keep their word.

So why do we keep on telling stories about Egyptian curses, when it's clear that we have been the curse upon Egypt?  Looking at the reality of Anglo-Egyptian relations - i.e. decades of swindling, abuse, domination, invasion, oppression, impoverishment, repression and slaughter of them by us - it's a little hard to understand why we keep telling stories about how sinister and frightening Egyptians are, about how their culture and heritage and history is an uncanny minefield of curses that threaten to destroy us.


(cue dramatic music again) it?

To Be Continued...

1 comment:

  1. 'Fanatic' literally means someone who is devoted to a god. So I guess it all depends on which god you're devoted to.