Luwis Awad: Memoirs of a Scholarship Student (excerpt)

21 Mar

This is an excerpt from Luwis Awad’s account of his undergraduate degree at Cambridge University and his trip there and back (via South Africa). It is written in colloquial Egyptian Arabic but I have resisted the temptation to add ‘innit’ or any ‘yoof-speak’ as that is not what the intended effect is.

In my opinion the use of colloquial in the context of a travel memoir is more nationalistic than anything. The only colloquial book written before this was Bayram al-Tunsi’s book about his experience in Paris. So it seems that colloquial Arabic was originally used to express Egyptian-ness in a foreign land.

This book was written in 1942 but ‘lost in the corridors of the censor’ until 1965. This section comes from Awad’s reactions at his first arrival in Cambridge:

Luwis Awad: Memoirs of a Scholarship Student

[Mr Beves the tutor] gave me a copy of the College Statues and a copy of the University Statutes: “Read them very carefully please and try not to break any rules.”

I took the two books but my heart filled with terror. These people aren’t as feckless as I thought they were.

–       “Very pleased to meet you mister Awad … If you need anything just come and see me. I am here from five until seven everyday except Sunday … Goodbye … And, Awad, next time you come, make sure you are wearing a cap and gown.”

–       “Goodbye, sir”

I was in a great hurry to read these rules that I started reading in the street as soon as I left. This prepared me for the fact that these books that I held in my hand would be the key to my new existence. Before I even went to look for a house to sleep in I went to a café opposite college so I could study the rules and I found myself confronted with a colossal number of strange, new rules – new to me, that is, but old, historically speaking. So I began to pick them apart and test myself on them, one by one.

I found out that I had to leave the café and buy a special cap and gown and if I went to see a tutor, or the dean, or a supervisor I had to wear it. Or if I went to any official room, lecture, library or college chapel. I found out that I had to wear them in the street and in cafes; anywhere under the sun. And if I didn’t wear them I had to pay a fine: 13 Shillings for the cap and 13 for the gown (though undergraduates paid half). And I discovered that every college had specially assigned houses where students who could not find a place on-site lived; these houses were subject to all the rules of that college. I was going to have to live in one of these off-site houses. I couldn’t go out after 10 and if I was already out I had to be back by midnight. I could not let friends in after 10 and they could not stay later than 11. And I was not allowed to have a girlfriend around after 10 unless, of course, I had written permission from the tutor, and the tutor did not give out written permission easily, there had to be a good reason… Then I read that the owner of the house had to lock the door at 10 on the dot and every minute after then that you came back had to be written in the weekly report to the tutor. There was also a book of observations, which noted whether you came in with or without your university clothes…

Then I read that students, during their studies, had to stay in Cambridge for 3, eight-week terms a year and during that time they were not allowed to leave town without permission of their tutor. And if they forgot, their names would be noted and when they got back they would have to repeat the term. Yet more… everyone had to dine together in hall six days a week. Then at the end of term you had to leave town and you weren’t actually allowed to stay any more. But, even then, you still had to swear to uphold the rules of the university, and not to go into any pubs or bars that were off limits and when you came back you had to go straight to your tutor so say hello. You also had to say goodbye to him before you left on vacation. One more: You always had to say hello to the university proctors who made sure all the students were adhering to the rules if the met them in the street. I don’t know which of the rules I should tell you and which I should leave out … the list is simply endless.

And that’s not even everything. After I’d been in Cambridge for a while, I learnt that there are two types of rules: the written ones, like the ones I explained above and the unwritten, inherited traditions. I got hold of book, not exactly an official manual, called “dos and don’ts”. It was full of advice to new students about things they should not do. It was absolutely hilarious. For example it said you should never ogle the daughter of your landlord; ogle the neighbour’s daughter instead. It had a section too telling you the kind of students you should steal bikes from and the kind you shouldn’t.

Somewhere, right in the heart of these rules, I found the best one of all. I found a clause which said that it was forbidden for undergraduates to play marbles on any of the staircases in the official university buildings… Of course what the English know well is everything needs to be handled in a way befitting the history of this venerable institution. After reading this I learnt how the English constitution can permit the king to sell the fleet, disband the army, open the prisons and let all the prisoners out. He even free to dispose of the county of Wales how he likes, either to give it to someone or to sell it for its full value, since he personally owns it. But still he is not allowed to smoke cigarettes at official functions. Later on I found out that why the king had to swear to persecute Catholics and slaughter them wherever they went… I also found out there were no unions in London except for the jewellers union who had a right to keep ducks in the river Thames … And that office of the prime-minister was not officially recognised or given a salary until 1937 (NB I’m not sure where he is getting this pieces of info from but I’ve never heard them before – RCC)… After this I knew that the people I would be living amongst were a complicated people and that a long time and careful attention were needed to understand them. On that day, all I understood was that I couldn’t play marbles on any of the staircases in official university buildings.

I left the café for the tailor in order to buy a few things. I found that this task was not as simple as I had imagined. I realised that there were lots of different kinds of gown: long ones, short ones, ones with ribbons like a police officer, ones with twisted tassels on the back, red ones, ones with open sleeves, ones with closed sleeves. I was very excited by this array of gowns so I said to the tailor:

“Ok. Wait for me while I ask my tutor what I need and I’ll come back”

“I know everything. You just tell me…”

So I told him everything about my college, my level, the degree I was doing. He went to the back and instantly brought me the correct attire, and before taking my money he said:

“Don’t you need a scarf, sir?”

“What kind of scarf”

“Here every college has its own colours and there are scarfs in college colours. This, for instance, is your college scarf…”

He went and brought me a purple scarf with a white trim, exactly a metre and a half long. As soon as I saw it I was thrilled.

“How much is it?”

“Seven Shillings and sixpence”

A bargain! And it meant that as soon as I left the tailor’s I would be like those people I had seen riding bicycles, with their scarves flapping in the wind!

Afterwards I found out that there were one thousand different things in the college colours or with the college crest: from leather cigarette cases to cufflinks to calling cards to diaries. At this point a terrible fever descended upon me and I began to feel very odd.

The woman who I lived with first – Mrs. Mercer – in Newnham Road was saintly woman, though she looked rather strange and was almost as tall as two people put together. Her husband was blind and all day he worked on sheets of paper for the blind, with raised writing. She told me that he got a lot out of this work because it meant he made books available to people who had the same affliction as him.

When Mrs Mercer found out that I was Egyptian she was really happy. She said that she and her husband had lived in Egypt for a long time. He had been a mechanic in the occupying British army and she was a maid in the house of the wife of one the leaders.

Her husband came up to me, with great difficulty, and started talking about Egypt in 1919. He told me about the revolution, the students, and the assassinations. Then he told me that he was blinded in one of the many demonstrations. Truly, I do not now how to describe how I felt then. Of course, I was a little sorry for the man … but what about the people he killed? How could I face living in the house of a man who, some time ago, had been crouching behind sandbags in the street, firing machine guns at my countrymen, and mowing them down with water canons… Of course it wasn’t personally his fault – he was following orders – and I understand that if they had said grab every Egyptian you meet in the street and kiss him on both cheeks he would have done that too. Really, I was annoyed with my tutor because he knew about all of this and still sent me to this man’s house. But I didn’t think too much about all this and said to myself that it was probably just coincidence, or necessity, maybe he didn’t know or the man forgot to tell him.

They had a daughter called Joan, who was still going to school. She looked 18 but she was in fact just 14. Joan took me away to show me the town, but I wish she never had… She would stop every other step and tell me:

“This is college x… this is college y… Do you have colleges in Egypt?”

“Yes, Joan”

We walked a little while until we came across a park.

“Do you have parks in Egypt?”

“Yes Joan”

We walked a little further and the bus went past us

“Do you have buses in Egypt?”

“Yes Joan”

My face went red in a mix of anger and embarrassment but I concealed my feelings. What did this little girl think we were? Barbarians?

We passed by a street light and she said, I kid you not

“Do you have street lights in Egypt?”

I couldn’t keep it in any longer and said, really rather angrily

“Of course we do. What do you think we are? Animals? I need to talk about this to your father… Come on. Let’s go home”

“I’m really sorry. I was just asking” She said “I know that Egypt is a desert and that there are bedouin in it.”

There was no point her apologising. I was going to talk to her father. Though, it turned out there are a lot of people in England whose view of Egypt is that it is a vast desert with the Pyramids in the middle and a few palm trees… And this is the people who are supposed to be running the world! Would the fellahin in Egypt, even though they are illiterate, make that kind of mistake about India or Europe?

As we were having tea her father said

“Don’t bother yourself with he mister Awad, she’s only 14”

Poor Joan. Her father would have to tell her off. I regretted making all that fuss now… After this, though, I discovered that it was not only 14 year old girls who made this mistake but University students of 18 or 20, educated and the children of important people. Once, for instance, the current professor of English language in the literature department (in Cairo University?) sent me a letter saying that I should go and meet one of his friends who was a professor in the University of Cambridge. This was a one Gilliam (?) Davies who taught languages in his (old) college. I went to meet him on Sunday and found the whole family gathered together for tea and they gave me the kind of welcome that makes you feel like you will be indebted to them as long as you live. But professor Davies had a son who was a student in St John’s college reading Life Sciences.

This young man, for the whole time, sat asking me bizarre, extremely stupid questions until his father shut him up.

“Do you bathe in milk in Egypt?”

I don’t know where he got this odd idea from. If I knew that he was talking about our aristocracy I would have told him” “Yes, and we eat gold and drink the tears of peasants too” … but I knew that he was serious. So I replied

“I wish”

“In Egypt do you sit under palms trees, open your mouth and let the dates fall in?”

“Of course not”

If I thought he was joking I would have said yes because in Egypt we actually do something similar to that… we sit under the Government’s palm tree and salaries fall into our mouths. We don’t take up arms to enter the battle of life and take food from the lion’s mouth, but instead we lie on filthy mats like the beggars in India and send out pigeons to collect food for us, while foreigners do all our work. But I realised that he was being deadly serious. I realised too that most English people did not know anything about Egypt except the stories they had read in the Old Testament.

But anyway, I was annoyed when I had to leave Mrs Mercer’s house after a few weeks. December 1937 had not even finished before I was permanently living with Mrs Wilkinson in 13 Garden Walk for the foreseeable future. I mean permanently in the way that after 3 years, If I hadn’t I left for Egypt I would still be living in that house.


4 Responses to “Luwis Awad: Memoirs of a Scholarship Student (excerpt)”

  1. 1950s skirts on 1990s attitude. March 23, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    What an interesting perspective.

  2. Mark Iliff March 23, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    Fascinating. Thanks for posting.

  3. Oliver May 19, 2013 at 11:46 am #

    Please clarify- ‘…instead we lie on filthy mats like the beggars in India and send out pigeons to collect food for us, while foreigners do all our work’.

    • raphaelcormack May 19, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

      Currently in Cairo and the Arabic is at home. I’ll look at it when I get back to the UK in June isA.

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