Michael, my taxi driver, told me that he had fled to Australia from Egypt with his parents in 1956. His ethnic Greek father and his Egyptian Copt mother were no longer welcome in the country in which they, their parents – and indeed, their grandparents, were born.
They had to leave everything behind – their apartment, their furniture, their car and their bank accounts.
Michael told me his parents remembered Egypt under King Farouk as a wonderful country, where governments changed more often than not as the result of elections or on the floor of Parliament, a country which had a vibrant press, and a country which provided a cosmopolitan lifestyle, particularly in Cairo and Alexandria. But they also remembered the increasing presence of sinister groups hostile to the minorities, foreigners,the monarchy and the West.
That period is the context of The Alexandria Quartet, four celebrated novels by British author Lawrence Durrell, published between 1957 and 1960. Both a critical and commercial success, the novels are about events and characters in Alexandria, Egypt, before and during World War II.
The first three, Justine, Balthazar and Mountolive relate the same events from the perspective of three fascinating characters, the fourth is the sequel, Clea. (You can purchase the four in one volume at a special price at the time of writing of $ 20.82, tax and post free, here.)
Egypt, until the fifties, was a country in which they and so many people like Michael’s parents – the Greeks and the Copts, the original inhabitants of Egypt descended directly from the Ancient Egyptians, as well as Jews, Italians and others, lived side by side in peace with the Arab Muslim majority. They all worked together to make Egypt more vibrant and more free than many countries.
It wasn’t a perfect country, and the King did not lead the life of a saint, but as Egypt emerged from colonialism and foreign influence, it worked. It worked under a model strongly influenced by the British, a constitutional monarchy with considerable freedom, and most importantly, one which respected the Christian and Jewish minorities. Criticise the British, as they all did, but they brought the virtues of sound government both when they imposed their protectorate which restored sound finances and delivered sound administration, and with the model they suggested and left behind.
Criticise the British too for being slow to realise that holding on to the Canal Zone was not necessary and attracted opprobrium from most Egyptians, even friends and including the King.
Notwithstanding the massive propaganda by Egypt's republican dictatorship against the late King Farouk, and his personal tastes and weaknesses, Egypt under the king and his gracious Queen Farida was a civilised country in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived peacefully side-by-side.
…Soviet-CIA supported coup…
During the second world war the Nazis had encouraged the development of anti-British forces in the country, a role taken over after the war by various German advisers, the Soviet Union and, inexplicably, the American CIA. They all supported an army coup to bring the monarchy down.
This occurred with the 1952 coup d'état against King Farouk led by General Naquib and Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. As a result Egypt fell under a dictatorship from which even now she does not know whether she has escaped.
Minorities like Michael’s parents were persecuted and expelled. The loss was not only theirs but also Egypt’s.
The Russian communists no doubt rejoiced over this; the Americans wondered what on earth they had unleashed.
…immigrants flee to Australia….
Michael’s story reminded me of several clients who came to the law firms in which I had worked as a young articled clerk and solicitor in the late 50s and early 60s. They had fled from Egypt and told me much the same story, a story of a wonderful yet imperfect country spoiled when the King was overthrown.
Little wonder that in recent times Egyptians have been looking back to the time of King Farouk with fond nostalgia.