Sonallah Ibrahim: العمامة والقبعة (The Turban and the Hat)
In 1798 the French, under Napoleon Bonaparte, occupied Egypt, usurping the the Mamluks. While we have various accounts by French writers of what happened during the three year occupation, we ony have one Egyptian one, by Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti. Instead of simply giving us a version of al-Jabarti’s work, Ibrahim cleverly invents an unnamed narrator, who is a pupil of al-Jabarti and both he and al-Jabarti are writers of their accounts, though our narrator keeps his well concealed from everyone, his master included. Al-Jabarti will only write about the important events and the important people Our narrator says that he will write about the ordinary people, which, to a certain degree, he does, so that we see how the ordinary people, including Muslims, Copts and even the ordinary French soldiers, reacted to what happened.
We know and are told that al-Jabarti altered his account, as it had been somewhat favourable to the French and critical of the Turks, who replaced the French (though not for long, as Muhammad Ali took over soon after).
Our narrator’s account opens with the French sweeping through Egypt, defeating the Mamluks at the incorrectly named Battle of the Pyramids (the battle took place nine miles away from the Pyramids but Napoleon so named it as he could see the Great Pyramid in the distance).
While the French were not particularly welcomed, not least because they were not Muslims, the Mamluks were not liked either, as their regime was quite repressive. However, many of the well-off fled Cairo, including al-Jabarti, leaving the city to the poor.
Napoleon astutely wrote to the city, telling them that he would respect their religion and arrives, taking over the palace of a local bigwig. While al-Jabarti is away, our narrator takes advantage of his absence and essentially rapes a slave girl. This will not be the last time, he sexually assaults a woman.
The French do not prove to be very beneficent rulers, though they had promised the locals they would free them from the repression of the Mamluks. They levy taxes, hand out often arbitrary punishments and introduce French-style bureaucracy, even requiring people to sweep up around their houses. Are the French better than the Mamluks? The narrator and his friend argue about it:
Anyway, overall we’re better off than we were under the Turks and the Mamluks.
—Are you mad? They were Muslims, not Christians.
—I heard from my teacher that the French aren’t really Christians. They’re materialists.
Our narrator acts as a sort of spy for his master, venturing into the streets when there is some upheaval and reporting back. His master notes down what interests him while our narrator gives his point of view.
Inevitably there is a lot of turmoil, not helped by the French defeat at the Battle of the Nile and the British blockade of the area.
The key event for our narrator is when the French set up the Institut d’Egypte, a place of learning-cum-library and our narrator, who speaks some French, visits regularly and even helps with some translation and copying. More importantly, he meets Pauline Fourès, who will later become Napoleon’s mistress. The pair have an on-again-off-again relationship throughout the book as he becomes obsessed by her and she is not averse to catering to his needs, even when she becomes Napoleon’s mistress and he gives her a fine house near his. French men are effeminate. Their women prefer the strong men of the Orient, says his Copt friend
Pauline is not the only famous, historical French person he meets. Others include Gaspard Monge and Claude Louis Berthollet. We also learn of French planning, including the Suez Canal and making Palestine a Jewish homeland.
Our narrator accompanies Napoleon and his army to Acre where Napoleon plans to oust al-Jazzar. This is interesting for several reasons. Firstly Napoleon actually loses as al-Jazzar, aided by the British, holds off Napoleon. Nevertheless, Napoleon declares victory. The second point is that the French seem particularly brutal in this campaign and against both Muslims and Christians. The third point is the suffering of the French troops as they travel across the desert on foot, to which Napoleon seems indifferent. This is something that will re-occur in the Retreat from Moscow. Logistics seem to have been very badly planned.
Back in Cairo, some French convert to Islam and we see the hypocrisy here as exemptions are allowed for the French converts not to be circumcised and even to drink wine, provided, of course, they pay a certain amount of money for this exemption. It is an illustrator called Denon who reveals to our narrator some of the ancient Egyptian finds he had made on the French expedition to Upper Egypt. But is is also Denon who sums up the French occupation: We came to Egypt for the welfare of its people. But we burn the roofs of their houses and their tools and their plows to cook our food. Their pots are broken, their wheat is taken and their chickens and their pigeons are eaten. Then we double their taxes. And when they obey and come to pay, sometimes our men make a mistake: because there are so many of them, carrying sticks, they think they’re some kind of armed group and they open fire.
Napoleon is appointed consul and returns to Paris, while, with a little help from the British and their Turkish allies, the occupation seems to be ending but it ends with a bang, not a whimper. There is chaos everywhere, as various groups seek revenge or seek to drive out the French, who naturally resist in a similar vein. Without the cooperation of the English, there could be no independent authority for Egypt. England will get to exercise its influence; Egypt will recover its prosperity ,al-Jabarti comments.
Through his narrator, Ibrahim gives an excellent account of events during the French occupation, telling us both the important events but showing how the ordinary people fared (as always, not well). The French, as foreign occupiers, come in for a fair amount of criticism, though presumably Ibrahim is also criticising the British when they occupied Egypt and other future foreign invaders of Arab lands. Barbarity comes from all sides, and he criticises them all. He mentions future events such as the Suez Canal and the creation of Israel, which were indeed discussed back in Napoleon’s days. However, he has positive things to say about French learning and study. Al-Jabarti, as we know, was not very favourable to the French, partly, of course, because they were not Muslim, which means they gave women greater freedom and because of their promotion of égalité, fraternité and liberté which he did not agree with. Our narrator, however, while still highly critical of the French, is more sympathetic to them. However, whatever view you take, this is certainly a fascinating account.
First published in 2018 by Dār al-mustaqbal al-ʻarabī
First English translation in 2022 by Seagull
Translated by Bruce Fudge