Cambridge’s “Levantine Leaven”

5 Nov

Cambridge’s ‘Levantine Leaven’


            In Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh talks of ‘four proud infidels … at the gates of Balliol’ on a Sunday morning, when the rest of Oxford is at church.  ‘Four Indians from the gates of Balliol, in freshly-laundered white flannels and neatly pressed blazers, with snow-white turbans on their heads, and in their plump, brown hands, bright cushions, a picnic basket and the Plays Unpleasant of Bernard Shaw, making for the river.” As quickly as these figures enter the narrative they have left. This famous passage is one of the only appearances of a non-European in Waugh’s Oxford. Students like this are accepted to have be present but we seldom know more than their simple presence.

In this article I want to use the case of Lewis Awad’s time studying in Cambridge in the 1930s and 1940s to try and catch more than a passing glimpse at the life of an ‘Oriental’ in Oxbridge. Most of the readers will, I suspect, not have heard of the Egyptian author Lewis Awad. Fewer still will know that he studies at Cambridge in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In fact so unknown is this fact that Wikipedia claims that he went to Oxford University. I can, here, confirm that he did study for a PhD at Cambridge and matriculated in Lent Term 1938. Awad can give us a rare glimpse into the lives foreign students who went to in the early 20th centuries English Universities. Beyond several archival records I have been able to consult, I have also looked at the book he wrote called ‘Memoirs of a Scholarship Student’ which is an account of his time at King’s College, Cambridge; A first-hand account by a student who in most literature of the time would play a bit-part.

Lewis Awad was not the stereotypical so-called ‘Oriental’ student. That is to say he was not the son of a wealthy Emir, Pasha or Bey. He was from a middle class Christian family in Minya, Upper Egypt. After his career at Cambridge he became a very important member of Egypt’s literary class. By the 1960s he was one of the biggest cultural critics in the country and literary editor of the main, state-run Ahram Newspaper. As well as collections of essays on Marxist politics and literature he wrote colloquial Egyptian poetry, translations of Horace and Aeschylus and much more.

Before coming to Cambridge, Awad took a BA with honours in the English Department of Cairo University. Cairo’s department was at the time vibrant but almost exclusively staffed by British lecturers. Robert Graves had a brief tenure as first head of the department but by 1933, when Awad enrolled, the department was led by Kingsman Robert ‘Robin’ Furness, accompanied by a jolly assortment of other Oxbridge types. C.H.O Scaife, Owen Holloway and Bryn Davies were particularly influential in Awad’s development as a student. It was Furness who suggested to Awad that he apply for postgraduate work at Kings College, Cambridge and the young Egyptian enthusiastically followed his advice. In a letter to Furness, Awad proposed six possible topics for research. As a sign of Awad’s anarchic sensibilities the sixth one of these was entitled Sodomy in Poetry. He rejected this as ‘entirely unacademic’, but added that he’d ‘do this some time or other for my own pleasure’. ‘No-one has had the courage to treat it’ he told Furness ‘I think I’ll have.’ As far as I am aware, Awad never got round to publishing the study. Eventually Awad settled on the more sober title: ‘The Theory and Practice of ‘Poetic Diction’ in English: with reference to the same in Arabic and French’.

Before coming to Cambridge to start his research Lewis Awad was clearly excited. Writing to Robert Furness he says ‘It is a damned glorious thing to have written a good thesis on a good subject’ and even wrote to Cambridge asking if he could do an M.Litt degree first followed by a PhD so as to be at Cambridge for as long as possible. Furness in turn was complimentary. ‘He is a very hard worker with an active and curious mind, a retentive memory, and a bent towards research’ he wrote to Cambridge. Awad took the boat from Egypt to France in 1937 and was Matriculated at Cambridge in early 1938. Cambridge at first did not disappoint. In his memoirs he is impressed by the architecture and history of the University. Though he is also overwhelmed by two enormous rule books that legislated on matters from what the students wear to when they can leave Cambridge. In his memoirs he notes ‘For all my life in Egypt no-one had ever asked me ‘Where are you going?’ or ‘What are you doing?’… For all my life I had lived by myself, with my own key, I could stay out wanted and have guests over when I wanted’. In his house outside college there was a curfew and guest were not allowed after certain hours. In spite of the absurd regulations Awad was looking forward the prospect of completing his PhD in Cambridge.

But, as it turns out, all was not to be quite what he imagined. He left Cambridge early, in the Summer of 1940. His thesis, supervised by G.H.W ‘Dadie’ Rylands was examined later – in 1942 – but not approved for a PhD. He was instead awarded the lesser distinction of an M.Litt. The same M.Litt that he had wanted to use to prolong his time in Cambridge in 1937. The precise reason for his departure from Cambridge is unclear. His friend Ahmed Abbas Salah thinks it is because his scholarship was cut off due to the Second World War. This seems the most likely explanation but in his memoirs Awad is a little more cryptic. Everything happened “randomly”. One day he was having tea in Cambridge the next he was in London with his tickets and passport. He does say in his Memoirs of a Scholarship Student that was he who made the decision to leave Cambridge but does not give a reason. In 1942 he was given the option to rework his thesis, which can be read in Cambridge University Library, but opted to take the M.Litt instead. So, the result of Awad’s studies was not the triumph he hoped it might be

Let us now return to the primary issue of this article: what can Lewis Awad’s stay in Cambridge tell us about the experience of an Egyptian student at Cambridge. In 2013 we are generally of the opinion that everyone born before about 1930 was an incurable racist. I am not going to attempt to disprove this entirely. Awad, as an Egyptian, was from a country that was, although not a British colony strictly, very much under British colonial influence. As an Egyptian, he was from a people that Lord Cromer has judged in 1908 to have ‘light intellectual ballast’. I do not want to retread ground that Edward Said trod so comprehensively in 1978 but Awad’s memoirs make it clear that it was not always easy being an Egyptian in Cambridge.

When he first arrived in Cambridge Awad was sent to live with the Mercers. Mr Mercer had served in the British Army in Egypt during the 1919 revolution and been blinded in a riot. Awad wrote “Truly, I don’t know 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.” Young students assaulted him with a barrage of stupid questions like “Do you bathe in milk in Egypt?”, or “In Egypt do you sit under palms trees, open your mouth and let the dates fall in?” Perhaps it was for this reason that Awad seems to have spent a lot of his time with other Egyptians at Cambridge, particularly an informal group called the Pharaonic Society. He also frequently went to Paris and met Egyptians such as Mohammed Mandur, who would go on to become another important literary critic in Egypt.

Ahmed Abbas Salah thinks that at Cambridge Awad experienced racism and the “disorientation that results from a contradiction between a progressive intellectual outlook and conventionally racist behaviour.” Though Salah admits that “any bitterness Awad harboured about his time in Cambridge was kept firmly under wraps.” From reading Awad’s own account one could challenge this conclusion. That is to say that his time at Cambridge does not seem to have been daily discrimination in the way you might think.

When he first arrived he went for an introductory chat with the Dean Donald Beves he was told he would not be living in college. Awad was worried, “It was forbidden for me [to live in college] because I was Egyptian” perhaps “when you were a dark skinned Egyptian like me you have to walk around trembling with fear all the time.” But his worries are soon put to rest when Beves says that it was simply that only undergraduates who were fresh out of school were put in college so they could be more closely monitored. The night before he leaves Cambridge he spends an evening out dancing with a English friend’s sister. Perhaps the most vivid example comes from the boat Awad takes back from England to Cape Town in 1940. The main two groups of passengers are Egyptian students (support for the view that scholarship money was cut off) and English soldiers. At the beginning the atmosphere was tense. The English did not mix with the Egyptians and the Egyptians did not mix with the English. However, when there is a dance party organised and people start to drink everything changes. “You could see everyone singing and everyone dancing, or rather jumping up and down. You could see one Egyptian holding two glasses of whiskey at the same time, one in the left and one in the right and two Englishmen bending down to drink from them. You could see an Egyptian riding on an Englishman’s shoulders.” So it does not seem quite correct simply to say that Awad suffered a large degree of overt racism.

After Cambridge he taught at Cairo University for a while and went to Princeton where he successfully completed a PhD on the Prometheus Myth. Clearly this was an academically much more successful trip and he also continued to correspond with people from Princeton. On paper Awad had a better time at Princeton (though it is hard to truly know of course) yet Princeton was not free from ‘Orientalist’ views. One tutor of English said of his arrival in the department with a Palestinian and a Turk “It seems to me that such a deluge out of the Near East is very unfortunate. If they were to be scattered in to a thousand graduate students in English at Columbia, or even two or three hundred at Harvard they could be easily assimilated, but three exotics out of the deserts of Asia Minor added to twelve or fifteen graduate students in English is too much.” He added that “Mr Tewfik Sayigh and Mr Ahmet Uysal might be saved for the Levantine leaven of some other institution.” No doubt people at Cambridge said similar things but we do not seem to be able to ascribe the differences in his success at the two institutions simply to these kinds of views.

I am not for a second trying to white-wash 1930s Britain from charges of racism. This would clearly be a hard task and not one I have any interest in undertaking. Yet it seems clear that despite the somewhat noxious views people often held many were still able to deal with people on an individual basis civilly, kindly or even as friends. In fact, though Waugh ignored those Indian reading Bernard Shaw, many did not and we should acknowledge the part that many foreigners played in the cultural life of Europe. To speak of just Egyptians, we could mention George Heinen and Ramses Younan, their time in Paris and formation of the Art and Freedom group. Or we could look at Ahmed Zaki Abu Shadi, poet and beekeeper who founded the Apis club outside Oxford in 1919, about whom the writer and artist Joy Garnett is currently constructing an archive. Or perhaps Egypt-based Lebanese Actor, George Abyad who took part in several Comedie Francaise productions at the beginning of the 20th century.

All of these people, Awad included, had a cosmopolitan world-view. “It is the duty of enlightened men to save culture from the Philistines”, said Awad on the drive to translate more American literature into Arabic. Yet not everyone in the Europe of the early 20th century shared their ideals and neglected them. Still today they are too often ignored. Maybe now is time to bend down and take a sip from the proverbial glass of whiskey in the hands of that Egyptian party-goer and see the history of British higher education as more than a history of Dead White Males.

With thanks to the Mudd Library in Princeton and the King’s College Archive.



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