F O R W A R D
In the Name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful.
As Allah (exalted be his name) has said in the Holy Koran, "And as the favour of your Lord unto you, do you announce it and thus extol His Glory".
For this reason, and not from any worldly pride, I have decided to set down in book form the reminiscences of my life from the day of my birth until the present day.
As the world language of today is English, I have preferred to have my memoirs transcribed in English, that the glory of the past days, with all their pageantry and poetry, may not entirely pass from memory of mankind, and to show how fleeting and changeful is life - how "between the opening and shutting of an eyelid Allah effecteth a change in the affairs of men".
Prince Mohamed Aly Pasha
C H A P T E R I
THE GARDEN OF A THOUSAND DELIGHTS
"Love the beauties about thee, Oh Muslim, yet remember they are all but reflections of The Beauty of Allah". Aly Asir-el-Din
Know, oh people of the West, that a certain philosopher of the Orient has said that Beauty - physical beauty - is, alas, sometimes a curse to its possessor, for it often arouses hatred, envy, desire and cruelty in the hearts of those not so blessed - and the possessor often pays with the bitter coin for the unwanted, unasked gift. Yet the beauty of gardens is another thing - for who envies the beauty of roses.
I have seen many wonderful gardens in my travels about the globe. Yet always I remember - I shall always remember - the entrancing beauty of the Gardens of Koubbeh Palace where I was born.
Many moons have waxed and waned; stars perhaps have faded forever in the sky and much water has flowed between the banks of our beloved Nile since first I saw the light of the day in my father's palace of Koubbeh.
And so I was born in the Palace of Koubbeh - but a palace in an environment so different to today's that it is difficult to think that scarce half a century has passed since the joy cries of the serving maids of that very palace announced to my father that a second son was born to him.
Today, trams and motorcars rush by the environments of my old home. Then it lay in the midst of lovely gardens, far from the dust and turmoil of the great modern city of Cairo, surrounded by wide green fields and little peaceful villages, reached only by a long carriage road which connected it like a far-flung ribbon with the city proper.
No traffic disturbed this road save the patient plodding donkeys with their loads of blue-green berseem, the mettlesome Arab steeds of the princely visitors to my father and the high stepping horses of the comfortable, swaying carriages of the lady visitors to my mother's harem.
The harem itself was surrounded by a garden of over eight feddans - a garden of a thousand delights. This pleasance was unique among palace gardens, for not only was it filled with luxuriant tropical plants and flowers, but it, with the garden of my ancestor, Ibrahim Pasha at Shubra, was used as an acclimatisation garden for thousand of flowers, shrubs and trees, which were continually brought from all parts of the globe.
Strange exotic orchids flowered from the trunks of Lebak trees and beneath them, golden daffodils "tossing their heads in sprightly dance" swayed in the gentle, temperate breeze: hollyhocks and gladioli stood like flaming sentinels along paths that led to some pavilion bowered in star-flowered jasmine, whose perfume intoxicated the air; chrysanthemums, with their curling petals, bowed in the breeze to the scented carnations; clumps of cannas flared in the sunlight, while the shy violet peeped from shadows and added its perfume to the scent soaked air; cinerarias like blue stars gazed wonderingly at the strangely bluer Egyptian skies; and everywhere there were roses. There were golden roses and roses that were like the snow flakes of England. There were green roses perfumeless and strange, and roses like the rare coral that the divers bring from the deep seas. There were perfumed roses and roses that were red like the heart's red blood - but always there were roses; nodding roses, laughing roses, climbing roses, stately roses – but always roses, roses, roses.
And then there were trees; tall trees, short trees, fantastically twisted trees and straight trees; flowering trees and fruit trees; desert palms and little dwarf trees; boughy trees and slender trees, great gnarled trees and elegant trees; - but always trees; trees to delight the eye and to give cool shade; trees whose luscious fruits hung over for the hungry maid or child to pluck, trees whose great leaves dared the hot gold Egyptian sun to penetrate their leafy shade.
And among the trees there were grassy glades where my brother and I with my sisters played with golden balls which we tossed into the air with cries of joy; where the maidens of the palace played at battle-dore and shuttlecock; where they laughingly ran pelting each other with flowers; where, tired of their play, they lay at rest upon cushions of silk or satin and, dreaming the long dreams of youth, smiled amusingly or exchanged languidly some vague scarce-formed thought with some dreaming companion absently toying with a rose nearby. Some, more industrious than others, would sit engaged in delicate needlework, exchanging fragmentary morsels of harmless gossip as the hours drifted by.
Here a girl, in silks of rose and silver, tossed a golden tassel to a Persian kitten, withdrawing it with a little twist of her slender white wrist as the kitten pounced at it.
By a narcissus encircled pool, one fair girl braided her golden hair, gazing at her white and gold reflection, dreamed, no doubt, of some mysterious, unknown noble husband that her royal mistress, my mother, would one day choose for her.
Two girls, with flowing hair and little pearl embroidered caps, walked by with embracing arms, whispering and laughing softly as their little feet moved noiselessly across the sward. Here one gathered an armful of flowers for the palace - flowers no lovelier than herself - while a little group of three were busily engaged in nibbling sweet meats - crystallized fruits that once grew in that very garden - sweet meats that invariably drew us children - as children all over the world.
Occasionally a tall, black eunuch passed, to be greeted with respectful salutations, or half impudent sallies from this garden of girls - according to his rank or to his good humour.
And all through the garden ran little silver streams. They refreshed the plants, they cooled the air and added to the delight of eyes and ears with their crystalline waters, Beneath the trees they ran, hither and thither. By the more formal flower beds they meandered, or across the grassy sward where they were spanned by little rustic bridges; they widened into pools, where laughing girls threw morsels of oaks to the gold fish that darted there like flames in the sunshine.
I remember one morning stealing way from my guardian to one of those shallow pools and stealthily bathing - fully dressed; there I splashed to my heart's content, until a grave eunuch, attracted by my shrieks of delight, came and bore me struggling and dripping wet into the palace where I was severely reproved by my mother - although she could not altogether hide her laughter at her "little fish" as she jestingly called me.
Here were lotus lilies, like so many great white moons fallen from the skies, floating for a space upon the waters of that enchanted garden.
About the edges of these ponds grew the slender bamboo, or the papyrus or the ranunculus: but often a jacaranda shed its hyscinthine bells upon the still waters of some palace pool or the scarlet bougainvillaea ran riot in the sunlight and stained the waters to the colour of ruby and vermilion. Sometimes these little lakes opened out into deeper and wider streams and upon them some of the girls in their delicate draperies would float in little boats, singing softly or thrumming upon lutes or other stringed instruments, while some girl with a crystal clear voice sang her heart out in some bewilderingly beautiful Circassian or Turkish song.
I remember that in the gardens of my grandfather, the Khedive Ismail, in the pond that is in what is now the Zoological Gardens, these gay girls had had fashioned a large flat bottomed boat into which they inveighed unsuspecting girl visitors from other princely harems. This boat was so built that the action of rowing loosened the planks of its bottom, with the result that quickly the water rushed into the boat and it slowly sank - to the horror of its occupants and to the shrieks of merriment of the designing onlookers. Of course, the pool being shallow, the innocent occupants quickly found that the water reached only to their waists and after swaying for a minute among the water lilies - like water lilies themselves - they laughingly waded to the shore to their mischievous friends who hurried them to the palace, where dry silken garments awaited them.
As if the great trees were not enough to shade the delicate girls and princesses from the sun, everywhere in the gardens of Koubbeh were pavilions and kiosks. Some were with sliding screens of mashreebeyeh; some were of beautiful wood and glass that glittered like jewels in the sunshine or the moonlight: yet others were carved stone with copper roofs that gleamed green and red gold in the light of the setting sun.
Yet all were lovely - and all placed to look upon some particularly charming vista of sparkling cascades, gleaming meres, rose gardens or jasmine-perfumed glades. Here were rich cushions of silks and satins, often sewn with seed pearls, where one weary of wondering or of playing among the trees and flowers might rest. Here chess (or shatarang, as it is called here), draughts (dameh) and backgammon (tawlah) were played if desired: but these games were more often played indoors for, with the inherent oriental love of beauty, the young princes and princesses and the maidens of the palace usually found the loveliness of the gardens delight enough. Here, in one of these pavilions, I once found some solitary girl musing on the garden spread before her. With childish curiosity I asked her, "Of what do you think?"
"Why - Oh Highness", she smilingly replied, "I think of all the beauty - and I think of the snow covered mountains of my country: far, far away."
"Are you happy here, Gulbeyaz (White-rose) ?" I queried.
"Surely, little princeling", she answered, "Here I am of the favoured maidens of your royal mother, who one day will find me a noble husband.
Before I was - nothing - the child of poor peasants: but Allah is The Bestower, The Generous, and my destiny - why who knows how great it may be, inshallah."
In another kiosk, it was the custom of several long haired dancing girls, with rosy-hennaed finger tips, to practice gravely and gracefully some new step with which to please their mistress.
I remember often seeing, sitting in one of the pavilions, a lovely Egyptian girl with a throat of gold plucking at her lute and composing words of a new song: for you must know that not only were many of the musicians poets but so were even members of the royal family; for part of the culture those days was the appreciation of everything lovely and, from time immemorial, princes and princesses were taught and encouraged to speak in beautiful impromptu verse as occasion demanded.
This particular girl - a mere child - has been passing the gates of the palace garden one day, singing, just with the joy of living. My mother, the Princess Amina, listening at her window was so entranced by the child's voice that she sent one of the eunuchs to bring her in. The little peasant child was abashed by all the magnificence about her: but my mother putting her arms about her, gave her some sweet meats and promised her a "beautiful present" if she would sing. The little girl, under all this gracious kindness, forgot her shyness and standing by the side of my mother sang - sang like a bird. My mother, who loved music, was enraptured; and, causing inquiries to be made as to the parentage of the young girl, arranged with them for the child to be brought up in the palace in order to be trained as a singer. The best teachers were procured for her - the great Abdu eventually being her professor; and this little passing, peasant girl soon became one of the first singers in the whole of Egypt. Thus is the destiny of mankind accomplished by the will of The Director of Destinies.
I remember an amazing incident that once happened in connection with this girl:
My mother was extremely proud of her ‘find' and never tired of teasing the princesses of other palaces at their entertainments by saying laughingly, "Ah yes! But, by my Faith, I have a singer far, far better than any of yours!" The other princesses, jealous for their own favourites, implored my mother to arrange for them to hear this "unknown nightingale". My mother, therefore, arranged to make a magnificent entertainment that her vaunted "nightingale" might prove her boast to be no little thing.
The night of the entertainment, a sumptuous collection was spread for the guests, and the young girl - a great favourite with the servants of the harem (but, alas, like many children, a trifle greedy) flitted from table to table tasting the good things here and there and (aware that life's sweetest joys come soonest to an end) hastily helping herself to liberal glasses of ice cream, of which she was particularly fond.
Before the arrival of the guests, my mother called her "nightingale" to her that she might sing a song or two in order to see if her voice was not especially beautiful that night, so that she might more than charm the coming expectant guests. What was the horror of my mother to find that instead of a voice of liquid gold pouring forth, nothing but husky croaks and horrible falsettos came from the girl. "Oh, Allah! What have you done to your beautiful voice, you naughty girl?" cried my mother in horror stricken despair.
"Nothing", was the distressed reply, "Nothing - except I ate some glasses of ice cream".
"Ice cream!", my mother wailed, turning in horror from the hands of her hairdressers. "Oh, thou child of misfortune! And my guests are coming to hear a nightingale - and you - you, tonight the frogs would put you to shame! Oh calamity! Oh day of blackness!"
The unfortunate and injudiciously greedy singer sighed respectfully - but, I fear (remembering her stolen feast) with little real repentance - and folded her hands meekly as she was hurriedly despatched to a far room of the palace in which she was locked up as punishment; my mother meanwhile making what apologies possible to her expectant, waiting guests.
The time passed in the brilliantly lit reception room, where the gorgeously gowned, magnificently jewelled visiting princesses chattered and laughed and feasted. In the midst of all the gaiety my mother's heart felt a pang as she thought of her unfortunate favourite sitting unhappily in some dark, far room of the palace. She might have spared her sympathy. The greedy little girl at that moment comfortably sitting on a heap of cushions in her dark room, industriously engaged in munching some peppermint sweets which she had delightedly discovered in one of her pockets.
After about half an hour, this entirely unrepentant girl, her sweet meats being finished, decided to pass her time by singing. After her first song, sung in low voice, she discovered to her amazement and delight that the peppermint sweets had warmed her vocal cords and that her voice was now clearer than before she had eaten the ice cream.
Jumping up from her cushions with a little squeal of delight, she began to sing unrestrainedly. Her voice, sweeter, purer, clearer, lovelier than ever, fluttered down in golden notes - down through the corridors of the palace into the reception rooms themselves. The guests ceased their chatter and laughter and listened in amazement and delight.
"Princess Amina!" "Who is this?" "Where is she? - This nightingale?"
"Princess Amina, where have you hidden this marvel? Are you afraid we will look upon her with the eye of envy?" We kiss your hand! We pray you, show us this hidden singer".
My mother as astonished and delighted as her guests, but guessing that by some unexplainable means her "nightingale" had recovered her voice, hastily sent an eunuch to bring her now forgiven favourite singer to the waiting assembly. Quickly the richly apparelled and jewelled girl appeared and to the whispered question of her royal mistress, explained with a little giggle what had happened. The rest of the night the "nightingale" sang to the excessive delight of her mistress and my mother's royal guests. After the departure of the last of the visitors my mother, after reproving the girl for her greediness, presented her with a pair of magnificent diamond earrings of her own; a reward from the generous princess to one of her maidens who had pleased her.
I remember, once, as a child, walking toward one of those jasmine covered kiosks and standing entranced at the sight that met my gaze: a little ebony skinned Sudanese toddler, mother naked, escaped no doubt from its parental care, had run into a pavilion where were sitting two Circassian maidens of dazzling fairness. The child was holding two great scarlet lilies, which it was offering to the girls. Although scarcely six years old at the time, cannot forget the scene of the little grinning ebony child with the scarlet flowers in its hands and the ivory skinned girls with their kindly laughing and their soft voiced, "Oh little one! Thank thee! Thy gift is sweet!" their gentle kisses on the little black one's forehead and their presents of sweets to the tiny negress, ere she was sent scampering away to her mother.
As I look back and remember this scene, I can scarcely wonder that these girls, who after all were just maidens of the palace, I repeat, I scarcely wonder that when later many of them married princes or pashas, they were such sweet, simple hearted ladies. I use the word "ladies" in its proper sense.
It must be remembered that many of these girls came to us as children, entirely ignorant of their ancestry. But as to whether it was due to the careful religious and social training in the royal palaces, as to whether it was due to some inherent virtues in the girls themselves, we never - or practically never - heard of one who, after being given in marriage to some Price or Pasha or high dignitary, did not at once blossom out into a very distinguished - I may even say aristocratic lady. They developed an astonishing piety, as though grateful to Allah for the destiny allotted them by Him: they were charming, good wives and mothers, soft voiced, never loud or affected either in voice or manners, kindly and generous to the poor and to their own servants; ready to reward, but firm and haughty if the necessity arose; gracious to their friends - in fact, all that royalty implies. And yet some of these girls were of unknown origin.
Such is a slight description of the garden of the palace of Koubbeh were I was born. If it was a garden of a thousand delights during the day, it was an enchanted garden by night when the flowers gave forth their overwhelming fragrance and the mishmish (apricot) branches were like boughs of stars in the uncertain light of the moon. Then the gilded peacocks hid among the cypresses; the doves ceased their cooing and the bees having plundered their fill from the flowers darted no longer from blossom to swaying blossom, while the butterflies folded their painted wings in sleep.
All was quiet in the garden of stars, save for the owls calling "Where! Where, Where!" save for the long drawn out crying of the Karawan. Then the trees cast strange shadows upon the earth and it was though the giants and the aferit held revel within the garden walls. But seldom - save for the palace guards - did humans set foot deep in the shadows at night: for nights grow swiftly cool in Egypt - and, beside, those were perilous days in spite of the high walls and efficient guards. The afternoons were for the gardens - but the nights were for the luxury and light and laughter of the palace within - the palace of my father at Koubbeh.
Ah! That old Palace which, ere they took flight,
Men named the World - That House of Day and Night -
That feast a hundred Jamshyds left behind,
That house Bahrams reclined in with delight!
translated by Aly Asir-el-Din
When I am old, and have forgotten love,
I'll find me some sweet garden where the dove
Calls in the trees: a place where roses glow
And still blue pools reflect the heavens above.