Andreu Claret writes:
The passion for manuscripts, ancient Bibles and Korans of the mining magnate and collector Chester Beatty did more than anything else to promote curiosity and interest in other cultures and civilisations among Dubliners. His enthusiasm and sensitivity can be appreciated in the magnificent museum which exhibits his collections in Dublin Castle, which I had the privilege to visit recently. With such a legacy, the role of Chester Beatty in building cultural bridges between Ireland and the cultures spread along the Silk Road has been well established and it may appear as a rarity in a country which is far from the Mediterranean.
Nevertheless, preparing my trip to Dublin and doing some research in the relations between Ireland and the Arab world, I found what seems to me another significant Irish contribution to the task of facilitating knowledge of the others. I refer to the visit of Isabella Augusta Gregory to Cairo during the winter of 1881/82, a few months after her marriage to Sir William Henry Gregory, and a famous but forgotten long letter she wrote in The Times of London in favour of Ahmed Orabi, the leader of the first Egyptian revolt against foreign domination.
I would never have had the audacity to write about Lady Gregory without the suggestion of some Irish friends who invited me to share my journey into her stay in Egypt. I accepted because it is quite a fascinating story, which tells us about her life but also about any process of understanding the others. The story is about a young traditional Irish woman who discovered herself through the knowledge of the Egyptians, a woman introduced to politics and nationalism thanks to the opportunity she had to witness the nationalist revolt led by Orabi.
I finally decided to write on this episode of Augusta’s life after visiting two bookshops in Dublin, trying to find the original version of the letter published by The Times and printed later as a booklet, Arabi and His Household (1882), (“Arabi” was a mistransliteration not uncommon in English at the time). Both booksellers were only too eager to show me some of Lady Gregory’s poems inspired by the love affair she had in Cairo with Wilfred Blunt.
What a surprise to find that a letter which deserves a better place in the history of Irish ideas is only available online today, far from Dublin or London in the Melbourne Argus from the National Library of Australia (http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/8488934). By the way, the forgetting of this remarkable episode of Lady Gregory seems to be replicated in Egypt, where Lady Gregory’s stay in Cairo and the letter in favour of Orabi are not included in the official narrative of the Egyptian process of independence.
The Gregorys arrived in Cairo in December 1881, a few days after a failed first coup in a revolt promoted by a group of colonels led by Ahmed Orabi and inspired by the patriotic idea that Egypt should be run by the Egyptians. The country was under the grip of foreign elites. British and French controlled the finances, Turco-Circassians and Albanians were in charge of the army’s high ranks and the sovereignty of the Khedive was quite limited. Isabella Augusta, aged twenty-nine when she travelled to Cairo, was deeply impressed by what she saw and heard upon her arrival. “I first felt the real excitement of politics, for we tumbled into a revolution,” she commented many years later in her autobiography, mentioning an event which is considered both a military revolt and a social and nationalist uprising against the domination of the European countries, particularly Great Britain, worried about the control of the Suez Canal, opened twelve years before.
Sir William Gregory, who was thirty-seven years older than Isabella, a former governor of Ceylon and now a conservative member of the House of Commons elected for Dublin, supported the democratic reforms requested by the Egyptian colonels, but he distrusted their real intentions. His wife, like her secret lover, was excited with the revolutionary mood of Cairo and fascinated by Orabi. William Gregory advised the Gladstone government to support the reforms as the best way to retain British influence. Lady Gregory was more interested by the man: Orabi Pasha, a colonel from a fellah background depicted by the British media with characteristic Victorian stereotypes of the ignorant and ruthless Arab deserving of the most absolute mistrust.
The founder of the Abbey Theatre and her husband sailed for Catania on April 1st, 1882, and before they reached England, the chance of Orabi’s revolt succeeding had deteriorated. Just after their arrival in London, a joint British-French squadron docked in Alexandria, where Orabi refused to resign. A large-scale rebellion was sparked, followed by riots, and scores of Europeans were killed in a city which had started to become a cosmopolitan Mediterranean capital. The end of the story is well known: Alexandria was bombarded by the British, the so-called European quarter was destroyed by fire, and Orabi proclaimed a kind of jihad. In mid-September, he was defeated in the battle of Tel al-Kabir, which is considered the beginning of forty years of British occupation of Egypt and seventy of domination.
With Orabi and his comrades-in-arms in the hands of the Britain’s chief representative, Blunt and Augusta launched a campaign to stop his execution. But they could not succeed without challenging the distorted perception of Orabi and the Arabs among English and European public opinion. And here comes the famous letter. Supported initially by her husband, who continued to advocate a soft British policy towards Egypt, and after long vicissitudes which tell a lot about the then role of media and political debate about British policy in the Middle East, Lady Gregory’s long letter was published in The Times on January 6th, 1883, a few days after Orabi embarked for Ceylon, where he spent years of exile after his death sentence had been commuted to one of banishment for life.
Lady Gregory’s approach to Orabi was more human than political. The challenge was trying to deconstruct in one page of The Times the caricature which had been built by some journalists she described as “hysterical correspondents” and who were requesting exemplary punishments for the insurgents in their telegrams from Cairo. Aware that the cause of Orabi could not be defended easily among the readers of the newspaper, she opted for humanising a man who had been demonised for more than two years.
Her Orabi has all the features of an Orientalist portrait. (“His face is grave, almost stern, but his smile is very pleasant” (…) “He speaks very earnestly, looking you straight in the face with honest eyes” (…) “Each night, when the day’s work was done, it was round him that the soldiers gathered, and he preached, or spoke, or recited the Koran to them”). But coming from the wife of one of the most prominent clubmen and dining-out personalities of London, the portrait of the Egyptian colonel and his family which emerged in Arabi and His Household had a deep impact on a public opinion shaped by “absurd tales of his ferocity and bloodthirstiness”.
Born into a conservative class identified with the British rule, Lady Gregory experienced a decisive transformation witnessing Orabi’s revolt. She spent only a few months in Cairo, but this short episode of her life occupies a full chapter in her autobiography under the expressive title “Education in Politics: Egypt”.
She underlines that those years changed her life and her way of thinking for ever: “For whatever political inclination or energy was born with me may have run its course in that Egyptian year and worn itself out,” she wrote, in a significant demonstration that the knowledge of the other and the discovery of oneself are two faces of a single process.
I am not able to assess how Lady Gregory’s initiative influenced the course of British policy towards Egypt. But a letter published by The Times could have a similar impact on the English opinion-makers of the end of the nineteenth century as the release of thousands of Wikileaks telegrams today. “It made every woman in England Orabi’s friend” concluded Greenwood in St. James’s Gazette. And in the London of 1883, as it happens in the Europe of today, improving perceptions about the Arabs was, and is, an essential prerequisite for engaging in any rational and respectful policy with them.
Andreu Claret is the executive director of the Anna Lindh Foundation, a regional institution which promotes cultural dialogue and civil society exchanges across the Mediterranean and has its headquarters in Alexandria (Egypt).