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February 23, 2016

Freya Stark 1936

Freya Stark, in Arab dress, in 1936

On 5 March 2013, I wrote about Freya Stark’s East is West, and the Copts (i): the Innuendo about the Jews. Today, I would like to write about her recruitment of Copts to what was called The Brotherhood of Freedom (إخوان الحرية), which she set up in Egypt to combat the Nazi propaganda during WWII, particularly as the German army was posing a real threat of occupying the Middle-East, at the time occupied by Britain and France, as it marched across North Africa on its way to Egypt before El Alamein in 1942 put an end to its threat.

As a reminder, Freya Stark (1893 – 1993) was a British explorer and travel writer, and an Arabist, who was fluent in Arabic. During World War II (1939 – 1945) she worked for the British Ministry of Information; and was a member of the British Intelligence Service. Her work, as a war propagandist, was focused on contact with the peoples of the Middle-East and winning them over to the British side – in Yemen, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Transjordan and Iraq. In Egypt, she founded the Brotherhood of Freedom in Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, and many other cities – “a network of Allied sympathisers aimed at convincing the Egyptian people that they were better off with the British devil they knew than with the Axis monster they did not;”[1] and the membership of the movement reached some 75,000 strong.[2]

The Brotherhood of Freedom was supposed to recruit people who were for democracy represented by the Allies and against tyranny represented by the Axis. In Egypt, Stark’s target population was the Muslims and Arabs of Egypt: she met with the emerging middle-class of the effendis, but she made contact with everyone she thought would be influential and could be won over, even the students and graduates of Al-Azhar, the bastion of traditional Islam. To cajole them into joining her committees, Stark told them that Britain was the best friend of the Arabs; that her rule was not based on imperialism but common interests and ‘safe transit’; that she would support the movement for Arab unity; and that she would resist the Zionists’ claim to Palestine.[3]

Her view of the Arab World – North Africa (including Egypt) and what the Arabs call ‘the island of the Arabs’, the land bordered by Persia, Turkey, and the sea – is interesting: “In speaking of it, it is important to remember that its unity is one of language, largely of religion, and of the civilization they have produced; it is not a unity of race.”[4] Her definition is basically that of the Arab nationalists; and even when she says Arab unity is one “largely of religion” she adds a footnote to modify any misunderstanding she may have created: “Not entirely, since the Christians and most of the other minorities would consider themselves ‘Arab’ in the area referred to.”[5] Downgrading the separate identities of the Christians of the Middle-East was part of the game – and the game was to be as Arab as could be. The Copts in her estimation, formed one-fifteenth or so of the country’s population.[6] Their race was evident: “The Copts are most like the original people of Egypt; even now you can recognise their slender profiles and long-lashed black eyes, opaque and lustrous, in any pharaoh’s tomb.”[7] However, she adds: “They have kept the Christian religion taken from earlier conquerors, but they have long since adopted the Arabic language for ordinary conversation.”[8] One feels that, this, for her, seals the identity of the Copts – Arabs, whether they agree or not, like it or not.

Stark spent Christmas 1940 in Luxor with Sir Miles Lampson, who was High Commissioner for Egypt and the Sudan (1934 – 1936) and later Ambassador to Egypt and High Commissioner for the Sudan (1936 – 1946).[9] After he, and his Lady, left Luxor with pomp, she stayed behind until January 1941. And she went to recruit the Copts of the city to her Brotherhood of Freedom:

When all this was over, I looked round; the car had vanished; the red carpet was being rolled up along the platform; I found a one-horse garry with a hood, picked up two Brothers who were hanging modesty on the outskirts of the grandeur, and went to encourage a Coptic committee that was venturing in a timorous way to declare itself democratic, like a cautious swimmer with one eye on the Fascist wave ahead. Sayyid Mahdi el Idrisi of the Senussi and a young Muslim school teacher had started our society in Luxor, and it was a diplomatic success to bring the Coptic community in as well.[10]

Stark describe the fears of the Copts of Luxor in joining the Brotherhood which they knew was not just about which side to stand with in WWII but also about embracing the movement towards unity in the Arab world as she espoused it as part of her propaganda work:

It was chiefly due to a jaunty neat little old gentleman in a grey suit and stiff high collar who had (he informed me candidly) been consul for the Germans: he would have been consul with equal nonchalance for anyone who was socially desirable: what he collected was not principles, but people and curios, a panoply of photographs and promiscuous blue idols plastering his room until there was scarcely standing space: but he found means to settle a committee of Brothers in among the knick-knacks and Mr. Tadros Shenooda and Iskandar Mahrous,[11] both young and

“Like one that on a lonely road

Doth walk in fear and dread,

And having once turned round, walks on

Nor turns again his head,”[12]

shepherded the little flock along.

One cannot blame a minority in the East for being cautious about its steps; the fact that they are too often intractable when co-operation would pay is far more remarkable (and regrettable sometimes); and one of the reasons for welcoming the movement towards unity in the Arab world to-day is that it tends to minimize the very narrow nationalistic and also the bigoted religious boundaries.[13]

To her credit, Stark is not blaming the Coptic minority here for their fears; but, clearly, she pretends to know better: joining the Arab movement for unity would be better for the Copts. Many Copts disagreed with her then as they do now. In 1952, seven years after she published her book East is West, young Muslim and Arab officers in the Egyptian army seized power; and, in the name of Arab nationalism, they started a campaign to unify the Arab World, with what can only be described as disastrous effects to all, including the Copts, who were exposed to a strong wave of Arabisation that sought to erase their unique Coptic identity.

Anyway, Stark’s efforts to recruit the Copts in Luxor extended to court the highest Coptic ecclesiastical authority in Luxor – the Coptic bishop of Luxor. She does not name him, but he was Bishop Basilios (1936 – 1947):

The Copts of Luxor did not hesitate long, and their Bishop never hesitated at all. I was taken to see him at the moment when, with jewelled hand and long robes, he came across the stone flags of his palace to take a service in the church below: he spoke kindly and asked me to go with him. Through the dim aisle, quietly filling, we walked, in procession, and a chair was placed for me in the chancel, in surprising proximity to the episcopal throne. It was an afternoon service, and it ended with a sermon; and when the preacher came down from the pulpit, the Bishop asked if I would like to ascend to speak to his congregation about democracy from that elevated and conspicuous place. I have regretted my cowardice ever since, for I do not imagine that the chance to address a congregation in church will ever come my way again; but it had to be done in Arabic, and I felt myself unworthy. I went instead and met the ladies of Luxor at tea.[14]


[1] Malise Ruthven, Obituary: Dame Freya Stark, in The Independent (Monday 10 May 1993).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Freya Stark, East is west (London, John Murray, 1945). Introduction, pp. ix-xviii. See also pp. 56-62.

[4] Ibid, xi.

[5] Ibid, ix, n.1.

[6] Ibid, p. 51. This was, in many experts’ views, was considerable underestimation.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sir Lampson, later Lord Killearn, was in Luxor with Lady Lampson.

[10] East is West, p. 89.

[11] Stark does not identify this “jaunty neat little old gentleman in a grey suit and stiff high collar.” I could not find more about Mr. Tadros Shenooda and Iskandar Mahrous. I hope somebody from Luxor will help us with finding more about them.

[12] Stark is quoting here the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) in his The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 450.

[13] East is West, pp. 89-90.

[14] Ibid, p. 90.

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