Category Archives: Egypt

Guarding Egypt’s Docks, 1941

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 47-49:

The only useful job we did in Alexandria was regular dock guard, which was not as dull as it sounds. Air raids were an almost nightly occurrence and there were other diversions as well….

Among our other duties in the docks we had to prevent the pilfering of stores. Local Australian ack-ack gunners were the worst offenders and since their officers seemed to condone it, we gave up handing over any men we caught and merely beat them up. The sailors from the merchant ships were also pretty bad. They would unload attractive stores such as NAAFI supplies during the day, then steal them at night and take them back on board. We caught several and they got quite stiff punishments from their captains when we handed them over. The Egyptian dockers were the other looters, but after we had shot one they became less of a problem.

For some reason the French sailors from the pro-Vichy naval ships that had been interned were allowed complete freedom to wander about Alexandria. Many had pro-Axis sympathies and frequently became involved in brawls, especially with our Spaniards, one of whom died of knife wounds.

During the evacuation from Greece most of the commando was on guard, not only to prevent unauthorised people from entering the docks, but to prevent any from getting out, whether civilians or servicemen. Most troops disembarked in an orderly manner with their arms, were entrained and taken off to camps; but we had a great deal of trouble with the Australians. They disembarked, luckily without any arms, with the one objective of getting into the town as quickly as possible to have a drink and a woman. They strongly resented our guards for preventing them from leaving the docks. ‘Yellow bastards, why weren’t you fighting in Greece?’ they taunted. ‘Why did you run away and leave all your weapons behind?’ countered the commandos. They soon came to blows and free fights started. More guards and military police were rushed to the scene to restore order. It was all very unpleasant.

The most impressive disembarkation that I watched was when HMS Ajax came in at high speed, made fast, and disembarked a battalion of New Zealanders with their arms in perfect order. She was speeding away again in under an hour, bound back to Greece to carry out further rescue work.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Mediterranean, military, New Zealand, war

Market for Mercenaries in Mughal India

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 155-157:

Afghans, Turks, Persians, Africans, Arabs, Mongols and Portuguese all flocked to the Indian subcontinent to make their fortunes in war.

Even so, the need for soldiers far surpassed the influx of voluntary global mercenaries. As a solution, African boys like Yasuke were forcibly brought to India and trained to become slave soldiers.

Many free Africans also made the journey, seeking the same opportunities as the Turks, Arabs or Portuguese. But the vast majority were children captured in Africa, as Yasuke had been, and sold to foreign slavers in coastal ports, most often Zeila (now in northern Somalia), or Suakin (in modern-day Sudan). Here, their young lives were traded for salt, Indian cloth or iron bars along with other commodities such as guns. If not immediately put to work on dhows or galleys, they were taken on Arab, Ottoman or Indian ships, north toward Egypt, Arabia, Turkey and Europe, or east toward Persia and India.

During the voyage, slave traders often chose to invest in their slaves, educating or even mutilating them to gain more profit at the next stage of sale. For instance, while some were taught their letters, many more young boys were castrated. Handsome eunuch slaves fetched astronomical prices partly because only 10 percent of the victims survived the cut. By the time the captives reached northern India, almost a fourth of those who’d boarded ships in Africa had perished. On arrival in India, the Africans found themselves in slave markets, where they were again sold and taken farther afield to wherever trade routes and eager customers waited—places like Gujarat, the Gulf of Cambay, the Deccan, Cochin (modern-day Kochi), and to Portuguese Goa.

First arriving in Gujarat in northern India, Yasuke and the others had been herded into underground cells, with only street-level barred windows for light and air. The conditions were dark, airless, cramped and horrific. (On the ships, they’d been kept above deck and out of chains, doing simple maritime chores.) He was thirteen now; the voyage from Africa had taken almost a year—as the ships he traveled on stopped to trade or take shelter from adverse weather on the way. He’d been stripped, subjected to a full body examination and checked that he’d not been overly damaged by punishments or abuse on the way from Africa. The slavers who inspected Yasuke were themselves of African origin, perhaps having passed through exactly the same slave cells years before. Their appraising eyes summed up the young Yasuke, observed his size and growth potential and purchased him on the spot.

He was now a member of a military caste called Habshi—African warriors, often horsemen, who fought for local rulers or were loaned out by a mercenary band leader to whomever was willing to pay. Some of these bands numbered in the thousands, but most were only a few hundred strong. The Indians called the Africans Habshi—a word derived from “Abyssinia,” the ancient name for Ethiopia—because a large majority of the Africans destined for India had started their sea journeys there. During the span of recorded history, it is estimated that as many as eleven million Africans were trafficked to India as slaves, primarily to be used as soldiers. During Yasuke’s time, when soldiers were in peak demand, estimates reach into the tens of thousands.

Yasuke spent his first years in India training to use weapons, to ride a horse, to kill and fight. Too valuable to be used as mere fodder (the weakest slaves, who were judged to have little military worth, were often used as human shields, driven before the main force to absorb bombardments), he took the field only after training. Throughout, he would have been both brutalized and baptized into the cult of the killer, through actual battle, but also by carrying out commissions such as executions for his new masters. In his teens, he’d likely supped with assassins, marched and fought beside fifty thousand men, helped slaughter entire villages, joked and bet as comrades fought to the death in camp over some village girl, missing token or misheard comment. He also grew taller and his muscles hardened. He learned to kill with his hands. To ignore the gore and screams of new friends and foe alike. By eighteen, he was a valuable warrior. Now training young boys, as he’d once been a lifetime ago. His body a chronicle of ever-fading scars, a book written in blood.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Europe, Iran, labor, migration, military, Portugal, slavery, Somalia, South Asia, Sudan, Turkey

Nasser & the 1966 Defence White Paper

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 234-235:

When I reached Jedda early in March, 1966, the Egyptians had already broken the ceasefire and resumed bombing in all areas of Royalist Yemen. For a brief period after the Haradh Conference President Nasser seemed to lose heart, and began withdrawing troops from the country; from its peak of 70,000 their number dropped to about 20,000 at the beginning of February. At that moment the British Government issued their notorious Defence White Paper, announcing our withdrawal from the Persian Gulf, and the situation changed overnight. Nasser saw a fresh opportunity to seize Aden, and began to reinforce in the Yemen until he had nearly 60,000 troops there. More important, the White Paper marked the final eclipse of British prestige among the Arabs. Only two weeks previously Goronwy Roberts, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, had toured the Gulf and given the Rulers positive assurances that the British would stay. Hitherto the Arabs had trusted the British, despite many disappointments, to the extent that the phrase ‘word of an Englishman’ had become a part of their vocabulary; after the White Paper it ceased to have any meaning.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arabia, Britain, Egypt, military, nationalism, war

Yemeni Men’s Attire, 1960s

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 145, 160-161:

After a very refreshing bathe in a stream I changed into Yemeni dress. I put a white ma-arraga on my head and swapped my trousers for a khaki iz-zar, which I found much more comfortable, although I missed the pockets; only the Egyptians wore trousers in the Yemen, and I was taking no chances. For a similar reason I had to accustom myself to another Yemeni habit — to squat while passing water; according to the tribesmen, ‘only dogs and Egyptians pee standing up,’ and I had no wish to be shot in mistake for either.

On their heads, which were often shaven, perched skull-caps, or white embroidered pill-box caps called kofias, or the hand-woven basketwork ‘flower pots’ I have already described; they wound cashmere shawls or lengths of khaki cotton round their caps or hats, in the form of turbans. Tattered jackets of European design hung from their shoulders over shirts and vests, and over the jackets ran crossed bandoliers, each carrying about fifty bullets. Every man wore a long cummerbund, which served the double purpose of belt and pockets. Thrust into this belt, behind the jembia, which is a defensive weapon, was a long, straight knife used in the attack, and behind it reposed an assortment of articles, allegedly nine in number and all beginning with the Arabic letter for M: there was a pair of scissors, a needle, tweezers for extracting thorns, a bunch of keys, a pen — usually with ball point — writing paper, a purse, and sometimes a watch strapped round a knife. Everyone wore an iz-zar, with underpants of cotton, and some men wore the baggy Moslem trousers under the iz-zar. Most of the tribesmen went barefoot, but some favoured Japanese ‘flipflops’, and others a type of plastic sandal with studs, such as I used to see displayed in West End London stores at extravagant prices for wear on the beaches of the Mediterranean.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arabia, Britain, Egypt, military, nationalism, travel, war

Congo Stanleyville in 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1797:

Stanleyville was a town of pastel inter-war buildings more suited to the French Riviera than Africa. It was there, after Lumumba’s arrest, that Antoine Gizenga declared himself Prime Minister of the Congo, dismissing Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu as traitors. The Congo now had two rival governments to go with its two secessionist states. Gizenga, a depressed-looking 35-year-old with a mouth like a trout, appealed to the Soviet Union for help.

‘If the imperialists think that we will surrender’, he said, ‘or if they think they will kill off the Congolese people’s liberation movement, they are wrong’.

Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev authorised a $500,000 payment to Pierre Mulele, the Stanleyville representative in Cairo. Spies suggested that Mulele skimmed some cash for himself. The Soviets looked the other way. Gizenga needed money to keep his 6,000-strong version of the ANC loyal.

‘It is clear that if the army does not receive wages it will refuse to fight,’ reported Czech newsman Dushan Provarnik from Stanleyville:

The Gizenga government has to pay its soldiers at least the same money that Mobutu gives his own soldiers, i.e. 2,000–6,000 Congolese francs depending on grade. Under the existing circumstances, when the government has no revenues, as taxes have not been raised, these expenses are a heavy financial burden.

Attempts to supply Gizenga with arms and advisors were less successful. A Czech air bridge from Prague through Egypt failed when Nasser refused access to his airspace. Lumumba’s former confidant Kwame Nkrumah seemed happy to help but somehow Soviet weapons sent via Ghana never reached the Congo. The Ghanaian leader did not reveal he was talking trade treaties with the Americans.

Leave a comment

Filed under Belgium, Congo, Czechia, economics, Egypt, Ghana, military, nationalism, U.S., USSR, war

Al-Azhar’s Shia Legacy

From Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020), Kindle pp. 270-271:

Geopolitics had clearly obliterated all sense of history in Egypt. No one even mentioned Al-Azhar’s own Shia past. The religious institution dated back to the Fatimids, the fourth Islamic caliphate and a Shia dynasty that ruled from the tenth to the twelfth century over a territory extending from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. They were the descendants of Fatima, daughter of the prophet and wife of Ali. This was the only and last time since Ali’s own brief rule in 656 that direct descendants of the prophet had ruled as an Islamic caliphate, and therefore the only time that the caliph and the religious leadership had been one. One of the first universities in the world, Al-Azhar was first built as a center of Shia learning and named in honor of Fatima, who was known as al-Zahraa’, the brilliant. Cairo itself had been built by the Fatimids as their new capital in 970. The Fatimid reign was one of flourishing arts and abundant scholarly works. There were no forced conversions to Shiism, but a tolerance for minorities that left a lasting pluralistic legacy. When Saladin defeated the Fatimids in 1170, Al-Azhar was shut down for over a century and Sunni Islam became the state religion once again. Centuries later, in the land of the pharaohs, Islam still stood at the intersection of Sunnism and Shiism; on a popular level, for centuries, and until the very recent past, there had been no divide between them. But for a few decades now, just as in Pakistan, there had been efforts to curb the mawleds in Egypt, the colorful, exuberant celebrations of the birthdays of saints and the prophet. Some of this was the result of state-led efforts to organize the chaotic festivities, or even of Sufi-led reforms, but many Egyptians attributed the changes to the influence of Saudi puritanism.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arabia, Egypt, Mediterranean, religion, scholarship

Rising Intolerance Since 1979

From Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020), Kindle pp. 2-3:

The year 1979 and the four decades that followed are the story at the heart of this book. The Saudi-Iran rivalry went beyond geopolitics, descending into an ever-greater competition for Islamic legitimacy through religious and cultural domination, changing societies from within—not only in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but throughout the region. While many books explore the Iranian Revolution, few look at how it rippled out, how the Arab and Sunni world reacted and interacted with the momentous event. All the way to Pakistan, the ripples of the rivalry reengineered vibrant, pluralistic countries and unleashed sectarian identities and killings that had never defined us in the past. While Pakistan is geographically located on the Indian subcontinent, its modern history is closely linked to the trends that unfolded in the Middle East, and the country features prominently in this narrative. Across this Greater Middle East, the rise of militancy and the rise of cultural intolerance happened in parallel and often fed into each other.

Everywhere I went to conduct interviews for this book, from Cairo to Baghdad, from Tehran to Islamabad, I was met with a flood of emotions when I asked people about the impact the year 1979 had on their lives. I felt I was conducting national or regional therapy, sitting in people’s living rooms and studies: everyone had a story about how 1979 had wrecked their lives, their marriage, their education, including those born after that year. Although this is neither a work of historical scholarship nor an academic study, it is more than a reported narrative: I dug deep into archives, pored over thousands of newspapers, interviewed dozens of people, and built a virtual library of the history of those four decades. The result is a new reading of known events, some forgotten, some overlooked, most heretofore seen in isolation. Brought together, spanning four decades of history and seven countries, they shatter many accepted truths about the region and shed an unprecedented light on how the Saudi-Iran rivalry evolved and mutated over time, with consequences no one could have foreseen in 1979.

Although geopolitical events provide the backdrop and stage for Black Wave, this is not a book about terrorism or al-Qaeda or even ISIS, nor is it about the Sunni-Shia split or the dangers that violent fundamentalists pose for the West. This has been the almost obsessive focus of the headlines in the West. Instead, these pages bring the untold story of those—and they are many—who fought and continue to fight against the intellectual and cultural darkness that slowly engulfed their countries in the decades following the fateful year of 1979. Intellectuals, poets, lawyers, television anchors, young clerics, novelists; men and women; Arab, Iranian, and Pakistani; Sunni and Shia; most devout, some secular, but all progressive thinkers who represent the vibrant, pluralistic world that persists beneath the black wave. They are the silenced majority, who have suffered immensely at the hands of those who are relentlessly intolerant of others, whether wielding political power or a gun.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Middle East, nationalism, Pakistan, religion, war

Slavery in Mauritania

From A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, by Alexis Okeowo (Hachette Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 33, 38-39, 40:

In 1981, Mauritania’s government abolished slavery, becoming the last country in the world to do so. But the presidential decree offered no legal provision to punish slave owners. In 2007, under international pressure, the government passed a law that allowed slaveholders to be prosecuted. Yet slavery persisted, even as the government and religious leaders denied it. In 2013, the Global Slavery Index estimated that at least 140,000 people were enslaved in Mauritania, out of a population of 3.8 million. Women and children make up most of Mauritania’s slave class. When boys come of age, they sometimes manage to leave their masters’ families. Adult women are considered minors by Mauritanian custom, and female slaves face greater difficulty escaping. In the countryside, entire communities of slaves live in the service of their masters, on call for labor whenever they are needed….

Over the course of centuries, Berbers from North Africa and Arabs came to inhabit what is now Mauritania. They took black African slaves, creating an entrenched racial hierarchy. Over time, the bloodlines of the masters and the slaves mixed and they came to share a language—Arabic or an Arabic dialect—and cultural practices: As the masters imposed their traditions, the slaves lost their own. As a result, and disturbingly, slave owners often referred to their slaves as family. In modern Mauritania, people speak of the mingled Arab-Berbers as White Moors and the slaves as Haratin. White Moors, a minority, hold most of the country’s wealth and political power. Haratin, who have dark skin, are a permanent underclass, even after they are freed. Haby and Biram, the activist who freed her, were Haratin. Somewhere between these two castes are Afro-Mauritanians, ethnic groups also found in Senegal that have never been enslaved. People endured slavelike conditions in nearby countries, but slavery in Mauritania was unusually severe and persistent. Because of those extreme conditions, the antislavery movement in Mauritania had become among the most radical activist movements in Africa….

I arrived in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, in late January 2014 from my home base in Lagos, Nigeria. I wanted to see the place where, almost unbelievably, widespread slavery still existed, and to meet the man who was fighting back. It took two flights: one to Senegal, which lies just under Mauritania, and its seaside capital city, Dakar, where I stayed for a night with a photographer friend in her apartment that faced the sea. After a quick pancake breakfast the next morning, I boarded a Senegal Air flight to Nouakchott.

I was a little uneasy before going. I had been to North Africa just once, to Egypt, and, even though Mauritania was not considered wholly North African, the racism and xenophobia I had seen in Egypt against black immigrants made me wary.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Egypt, Mauritania, Mediterranean, NGOs, slavery