Egyptians Love Me

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bonaparte et son Etat-Major en Egypte (detail), 1863

An ongoing series in which the great colonialists justify themselves

These days most people seem to have forgotten that I invented Egyptology. They remember my military genius. My daring island escapes. Me sitting masterfully astride a rearing, terrified white horse (unless it was a brown horse, but the colour is not important: I had many horses in my time), defying the elements and fearlessly crossing the Alps. And, I don’t doubt, the fact that I invented the law in France. But they often forget that La pierre de Rosette… c’est moi! Even those who don’t forget say that I ‘attacked’ and ‘annexed’ Egypt as a colony in order to do it. That I was unwoke! Crétins! I was on a mission civilisatrice, bringing the genius of Liberty and Enlightenment to the oppressed Mohammedans.

In any case I wasn’t attacking Egypt when I invaded it; I was attacking India! I did it to save Tipu Sultan in Mysore. Even the most mediocre of military strategists – even the ‘boot man’ – knows that. You know that the lumpen representative of the English oligarchy appropriated his boot from the Germans, don’t you? And then hid his act of cultural vandalism by switching the type of leather used, tightening the fit, removing or adding a few tassels – it’s not important, whichever, you get the drift. And now you people celebrate him as the inventor of some sort of foot condom. The man invented nothing! The man was a thief, a dandy and a fop! His greatest follower was Beau Brummell; everyone else thought he was a bore. And what kind of country celebrates a cobbler? One that Europe doesn’t need. Anyway, in case you won’t take my word for it, here’s an account, by one of your contemporary historians, of him in action in India (where he was oppressing the natives, btw, stealing their land so he could exploit it for his own profit) while I was liberating Egypt (the Ottomans had lost control and chaos was the only true ruler) in order to save Mysore: ‘The commander chosen for this operation was Col. Wellesley, but advancing towards the tope after dark on the 5 April 1799, he was set upon with rockets and musket-fires, lost his way and, as Beatson politely puts it, had to “postpone the attack” until a more favourable opportunity should offer.’ Sad.

You know he only got the job in India because his brother was Governor-General? And that Wellesley wasn’t even his real name? He changed it from Wesley because the dispenser of this nepotism thought it sounded more ancient. (I know! Not even his own idea! There’s a lot of that in his ‘career’, btw.) The tool didn’t even know who he was – that’s why I never bother to mention him by name. At least I knew that I was French. Or Italian. In any case I ruled one nation and defeated the other, so it doesn’t really matter. I was a revolutionary; he was a reactionary.

While the Muslim-bashing puppet of capitalism was lost (he hurt his knee in the ‘battle’), I was woke. When he was running away from Muslim muskets, I was telling my soldiers about how they had to respect Muslims, their muftis and prophets, their customs and habits, the role of women in their society, the Quran and mosques. I took my men to see the tops of the pyramids before our first battle (your historians say I couldn’t have because they weren’t visible from where we were, but I was there, they weren’t). I was a cultural tour guide. I even wrote to the Egyptians to calm their fears: ‘People of Egypt,’ I said, ‘they have told you that I come to destroy your religion, but do not believe it; [tell them] in reply [that] I come to restore your rights, punish the usurpers and that I respect God, his prophet and the Quran more than the Mamluks.’ (I was a bit worried about the Egyptians’ grasp of history so I added in another bit reminding them that the Mamluks were unwoke slaves from the Caucasus – foreigners – rather than people with rights that anyone should be concerned about.) We’re all Muslim – that was the general drift.

Indeed, it was me who directed the 1798 celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday. I even dressed up in oriental clothes and a turban to make the Egyptians realise I was one of them. Muhammad Ali (the Pasha, not the boxer) wrote me fan mail; I wrote to a local sheikh about my plans to ‘establish a uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran which alone are true and which alone can lead men to happiness’. They loved me.

I set up l’Institut d’Égypte. You had to be French to be a member, but critical distance is important in these things. When some rebels asked me not to bomb the Grand Mosque when they holed up in it after the so-called Revolt’ of Cairo, I could explain to them in their own language why they were delusional: ‘God is too late!’ (For those of you who don’t understand the language, it’s a bit of a riff on God is great.) I even ordered the compilation of a French–Arabic dictionary for those people who weren’t such fans of distance. Some of my soldiers said I acted more like a Mussulman than a Catholic; some of the locals started calling me Ali Bonaparte. We even talked about conversion, but I told them that, much as I would have loved to, my soldiers were French (some of them at least) and thus a bunch of alcoholics who couldn’t possibly give up the sauce. That’s the reason why, btw, they eventually lost Egypt – after I had left – and later, the Empire: they were drunks; I was woke.

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