The Uninvited Guest | The Nation


The Uninvited Guest

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Among a host of other encounters that receive briefer treatment are the notably different French and Egyptian attitudes toward the treatment of the plague (the Egyptian methods being the more advanced) and the culinary (Bernoyer found the Egyptian white cheese gibna bayda "disgusting"). More controversial still was what might be called the fiscal encounter when, to pay his troops, Napoleon resorted to a whole host of seizures, forced loans and exactions imposed on everyone from the wealthy wives of the dead or departed Mamluks to the poorer members of Cairo's many hundreds of tradesmen's guilds.

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...

And then there was the encounter with Egypt's heat. Napoleon's troops marched in woolen uniforms, carrying heavy packs, through a July heat that sometimes reached as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit. They were, as Gen. Charles François Dugua put it, "roasted by a sky aflame." They weathered dust storms, flies and mirages--and left behind them a trail of corpses. To make matters worse, their commander, who had no experience of desert warfare, had neglected to provide them with water canteens. In the mad rush for the few wells that had not been spoiled by the local inhabitants, many of the soldiers were simply crushed to death.

Here and there Cole betrays a weaker grasp of Egyptian history. As André Raymond has clearly shown from his study of Egyptian wills, the eighteenth century was not simply one long "disaster," the real economic problems coming only in its last twenty years. Cole is also confused about the notorious problem of so-called land "ownership," better understood as a set of rights involving access to the land and its products. And he seems to think that the shortage of small coins was a particular problem at the time of the French occupation--hence the popularity of French uniform buttons--rather than a centuries-old shortcoming of Middle Eastern mints. There are also too many of Cole's verbal infelicities: "crocs" for Nile crocodiles, Napoleon's "oversexed" Josephine, Napoleon's aide "chatt[ing] up" the husband of the beautiful Madame Fourès while his master tries to seduce her in another room. And some of the claims are, frankly, weird, as when Cole credits the French expedition with inventing both the modern belly dance and modern Egyptian tourism.

Napoleon's Egypt covers just the first year of the occupation. After that we can only assume that much the same dynamic that he has previously described as a cycle of "insurgency, terror and peaceful exchange" continued. (Just over two years later, what remained of the French force was winkled out by the British and allowed to sail home in the summer of 1801, without their arms and without the Rosetta stone.) Of course, one can also imagine a learning process by which the French began to replace their overly romantic expectations with the hard-won military/colonial knowledge of a General Petraeus. But as far as I know, no one has yet done this kind of detailed research.

While the exact meaning of this peculiarly modern occupation tended to escape those mostly Egyptian and French academics who attempted to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 1998, Cole's concentration on the military and cultural aspects of the encounter gives it something of a newer and richer contemporary meaning. Much less convincing is his claim that the French occupation of Egypt was the most important cultural encounter between Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East since the Crusades, and that France's moment in Egypt was a world-historical event. "In his often cruel and cynical way," Cole writes, "Napoleon was inventing what we now call 'the modern Middle East,'" a risible claim that, apart from the use of the trendy notion of "invention" itself, suggests that it is open to single great men not only to bring into being new geostrategic concepts at the stroke of a pen but also, avant la lettre and regardless of the precise historical period in which they operated, to "pioneer" a "form of imperialism that deployed liberal rhetoric and institutions for the extraction of resources and geopolitical advantage." This formulation makes Napoleon sound suspiciously like George W. Bush, while giving too much weight to an event that, however strange, bloody and bizarre, is important more for its significance in Middle Eastern history than in European. Indeed, the principal result of Napoleon's invasion was not to establish a pattern of colonial domination but to force the region's leaders to respond to the obvious threat posed by this remarkable projection of French military, and then British naval, power.

As for Egypt, many other invasions soon followed. A relatively small British military force landed at Alexandria and was repelled in 1807. Then came hundreds of upper-class British tourists deprived of their usual European grand tour. Then a motley band of archeologists, tomb robbers, cotton merchants and exponents of the supposed aphrodisiac powers of medicines made from crunched-up mummified people and animals. Meanwhile, Egypt's own Napoleon, its new ruler, Muhammad Ali, emerged from the Nile Valley with his new army, levied French-style from the native peasants. Ali would lead his forces into Arabia, Palestine, what became Syria and Lebanon, and the Sudan. And Egypt's occupation of most of its neighbors lasted longer than the French occupation of Egypt.

In a sense, Cole's title is misleading. For as his book suggests from the start, Egypt never was, and never could be, Napoleon's. No less improbable was "Cromer's Egypt," as many referred to it after the British occupation in 1882. Nor could there be "Nasser's Egypt," although Gamal Abdel Nasser had a stronger claim, having rid the country of foreign rulers and foreign occupiers after many centuries. The title (if nothing else) of Paul Bremer's account of his stewardship, My Year in Iraq, seems nicely modest by comparison.

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