THE SUEZ CANAL
One look at a globe, you will see why the Suez Canal raised such universal fascination and furor – it connected East and West, London and Bombay, Occident and Orient. It is not the technical challenge overcome that makes the Suez a prince among canals: other canals posed more complex problems — Alter Strom, Basingstroke, Lehigh. Rather, it is its special character, and its time and place, that mark the Suez. This grand canal sat poised at the dawn of the modern world, promising impossible things — to form a conduit to the fulfillment of human potential, the reuniting of male and female, mythic and scientific, the modern culture of progress and Ramses’ ancient mysteries. It represented the hope that Egypt could be vaulted into the world-dominance it enjoyed during the time of the Pharaohs.
The Canal also represented a worldwide war between classes. At the same time that the Egyptian lower classes were hand-digging 75 million cubic meters of Suez sand, Russian slave workers (“Obligatory Labor Service”) were laying thousands of miles of track for the Trans-Caspian and Trans-Aral railways, connecting St. Petersburg and Moscow to the Sea of Japan. And in America. Chinese workers were being paid half-wages to blast through conifer thickets of the Sierra Nevadas and lay the foundation for 1900 miles of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
One powerful idea lurking below the surface of “The Boatman’s Daughter” is Orientalism. The setting of The Boatman’s Daughter is an excellent showcase for Orientalism – the idea that literature is a battlefield, and a dominant culture seeks to capture the “other” culture in its language, art and literature. The era of the Suez Canal is one of the most vivid historic ‘windows’ through which to see the dynamics of East interacting the West. The Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights) is an example of a British-authored narrative which depicts the East as seen through the lens of the West – not as it is, but as the West imagines it to be.
Edward Said is the father of Orientalism. He set out a very useful framework of rules that govern cultural misunderstandings which are so prevalent today. Said, who taught at Columbia, wrote that all art and all literature is “political” – that is, each work reflects a political viewpoint, in this case the conqueror’s vision of the captured. On a personal note, I am one degree of separation apart from Edward Said. We attended the same prep school, years apart, and shared a tennis coach (Mr. Alexander, a patient man who played for the Egyptian Davis Cup). So I got that going for me.
A second idea beneath surface of “The Boatman’s Daughter” is money.
The financing of the Canal was the true crime, and a most excellent account of it can be found in Zachary Karabell’s brilliant book “Parting the Desert.” While the middle-class citizens of France bought shares, putting up much of the money to finance the Canal, it was the Caliph who guaranteed the cost. He had stars in his eyes of all the fees his Canal would gain in profit. And the costs grew out of all proportion, while the eventual revenues were only a fraction of what the nation needed to repay the debt. Within ten years, European bankers owned the mighty Suez Canal, Egypt’s pride.
The dynamics of capitalism can be hard to portray in an adventure story but they are incredibly important, just as are global economics today are vital for students to read about and understand.
A tributary story here is that of cotton, and how the American Civil War provided a giant opportunity for Egyptian cotton to take over the world market. It was a turn of events that shaped Egypt in the modern era. Yet the vast cotton fields in Charbal and Arbaza (over which Salima ballooned, in Chapter 16) were owned by foreign interests, and value drained from the soil and populace as surely as the antiques were dragged out of the pharaohs’ tombs in the Valley of Kings.
Just as every family has certain stories they keep re-telling, stories that help define the family and showcase its values, so do nations. The American national narrative usually evokes hard work, pride in the land, and self-determination. China’s national story, on the other hand, tends to warn against humiliation (guochi) at the hands of foreign powers. This powerful narrative theme has risen to the surface in China’s recent dispute with Google and other foreign “invaders.”
Such national narratives change as each generation seeks to conceive of itself a little differently in this shifting world. As our leaders vie for rule in elections, we often have a competition of narratives.
The Suez Canal is an important part of Egypt’s national narrative, in ways I don’t fully understand. Laurie Brand, a scholar from USC, suggests in her recent book Official Stories: Politics and National Narratives in Egypt and Algeria that the Egyptian narrative has much to do with the resilience of authoritarian regimes. Ouch!
One way or another, my tale of Salima and company crosses into these deep waters. The manner in which we tell our stories “deserves careful exploration” (in Laurie Brand’s words).