Lady Gregory and the Egyptians
By Andreu Claret, Executive director of the Anna Lindh Foundation
Perceptions of the other remain a primary issue in relations between countries; the effort to surpass stereotypes and do justice to different cultures, writes Andreu Claret
Preparing a visit to Dublin and doing some research into the relations between Ireland and the Arab world, I found what seems to me a significant contribution to the task of facilitating knowledge of the other. I refer to the visit of Isabella Augusta (Lady 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 other. The story is about a young traditional Irish woman who discovered herself through 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 mis-transliteration not uncommon in English at the time). Both booksellers were only 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 for a letter that deserves a better place in the history of the Irish ideas!
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, Turko-Circassians and Albanians were in charge of the army’s high ranks and the sovereignty of the Khedive was quite limited. Isabella Augusta, aged 29 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.
Sir William Gregory, who was 37 years older than Isabella, a former governor of Ceylon and was 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 keep British influence. Lady Gregory was more interested by the man: Orabi Pasha, a colonel from a fellah background depicted by the British media with the characteristic Victorian stereotypes of the ignorant and ruthless Arab who deserved the most absolute mistrust.
The founder of the Abbey Theatre and her husband sailed for Catania on 1 April 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 that 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 40 years of British occupation of Egypt and 70 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 changing 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 tells a lot about the then role of the media and political debate on British policy in the Middle East, Lady Gregory’s long missive was published in The Times on 6 January 1883, a few days after Orabi embarked for Ceylon where he spent his years of exile after his death sentence had been commuted to one of banishment for life.
Her approach to Orabi was more human than political. The challenge was trying to deconstruct in one page of The Times the caricature that 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 etern, 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 Quran to them”). But coming from the wife of one of the most prominent club men and dining-out personalities of London, the portrait of the Egyptian colonel and his family that emerged in Arabi and His Household had a deep impact on a public opinion shaped by “absurd tales of his ferocity and bloodthirstiness”.
Born in a conservative class identified with 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 forever: “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 knowledge of the other and 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 English opinion-makers of the end of the 19th century as the release of thousands of Wikileaks cables 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.