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The Uninvited Guest | The Nation

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The Uninvited Guest

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Try as we might, it is difficult for most of us to imagine what it's like for a country to be invaded and occupied. Photographs help: pictures of German troops marching down the Champs-Élysées in 1940 with not a Frenchman in sight, pictures taken that same year of a British policeman on patrol with a German officer in the newly captured British Channel Islands. The terrible incongruity of it all, the violation of what seemed the natural order, the sinister sense of foreboding, of a world turned upside down without any of the familiar certainties to hang onto.

About the Author

Roger Owen
Roger Owen is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History at Harvard University. His books include Cotton and the...

Our best bet, though, for understanding what it's like to be on the receiving end of a military occupation by foreign soldiers is to watch films made recently in Iraq from an Iraqi point of view. There the sudden appearance of helicopters, or a checkpoint on the road ahead, or the spectacle of British or American soldiers in battle gear entering a busy square, bring an immediate sense of menace. All at once there is shouting from one side, screaming from the other, the sound of doors being kicked in, orders harshly given (often in a foreign language: English, that is), weapons cocked, shooting and explosions. Such confrontations are hardly more pleasant for the soldiers, who find themselves in a strange place, surrounded by what always seems a hostile crowd. If these men have itchy fingers, it's partly because they are insecure, frightened, angry and scarred from having seen some of their comrades blown to bits.

So it was in Egypt when the country was unexpectedly invaded and occupied by Napoleon's army in the summer of 1798. The French troops first landed in Alexandria before marching--tired, thirsty and beset by Bedouin irregulars--through the towns and villages to Cairo, parts of which soon turned violently against their new occupiers. Then further military expeditions up and down the land, with none of Napoleon's soldiers safe anywhere as the initial efforts to woo the native inhabitants only provoked further ambushes and violent acts of resistance and revenge. As Ahmed Hashim puts it so succinctly in his book Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, occupations are resisted simply because they are occupations.

It is Juan Cole's contribution to the already vast literature on the subject that he brings out the brutality of the encounter between European occupiers and a predominantly Muslim Arab population. In most of the historical literature on Napoleon's invasion, the French are depicted not as an invading army but as a benevolent expeditionary force, awakening Egypt from its centuries of sleep. On their so-called mission civilisatrice, the French bring the famous savants--the scientists, architects and draftsmen who make sketches of the temples and pyramids, provide pictures and accounts of contemporary Egyptian industrial and agricultural machinery, tell us what Egyptians ate and how they prayed and what they wore. There are battles in such accounts, of course, but even these are presented, from Napoleon himself onward, as short episodes in an otherwise amazing projection of the European Enlightenment toward an Eastern land.

And so it goes. I have in front of me a book, Egypt in 1800: Scenes From Napoleon's "Description de l'Égypte", published in 1988, whose co-editor, Robert Anderson, onetime honorary secretary of the Egypt Exploration Society, opens his introduction with the assertion that "Napoleon's invasion" was a "romantic alternative to an invasion of Britain"; that everywhere the army went it was accompanied by men like Vivant Denon, the future director of the Louvre, who made quick sketches of the Nile temples along his way; and that the French officer pictured in his uniform in the Alexandria bazaar, a tall shako on his head, "looks no more incongruous than European tourists in the traditional quarters of Egypt's cities today"!

Juan Cole, who combines cool academic scholarship with the more impassioned writing of his daily blog on the Middle East (www.juancole.com), will have none of this: no savants, no Rosetta stone. Instead he proposes to study what he calls "cultural encounters" between peoples from two different worlds: some bloody, some tragic, some predictable, some simply hilarious. This is what makes his approach stand out from the more conventional accounts of the French occupation, such as J. Christopher Herold's still excellent Bonaparte in Egypt (1962).

It is unfortunate that, given the paucity of documents that illustrate the Egyptian side of the story, most of Cole's material comes from the French. Nevertheless, Cole, a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan, has mined a number of rich, recently discovered memoirs and letters by some highly literate, highly sensitive members of Napoleon's entourage, mostly soldiers and engineers, whose very different experiences of Egypt do much to bring the personal aspect of these encounters vividly to life.

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