An English Eccentric in Egypt

Article excerpt

THE British Isles have bequeathed to the world, among many important benefits, an agree able legacy of eccentrics, many of whom for one reason or another have discovered the full measure of their potential only when living abroad. The following, in an extract from a journal kept when travelling in Upper Egypt in early 1976, is about one of them, Umm Seti, The Mother of Seti.

Extract from my journal dated 20 January 1976:

Drove to Abydos to look at Seti's temple. Usual journey across scrubby country that becomes gentler and more varied north of Nag Hammadi. Full of stern men in indigo robes, swathed in scarves against the cold and riding small donkeys. Unpredictable and wild country; people mock and jeer, have loud voices and are prone to violent and unexpected gestures. Another drama of Egyptian rural life was beginning as we returned from Abydos, armed police advancing in extended line on a village of jumbled brown houses among palm trees; in the distance indigo men and confused running figures. Road a lethal combination of switchbacks, erratic local buses and taxis all driving far too fast, and unsteady overladen animals.

But it was Umm Seti's day. Born Dorothy Eadey in 1903, the only child of respectable middle class parents, Umm Seti was determined to come to Egypt from the age of six. Earlier, at the age of three she had suffered a severe fall down some stairs. The local doctor believed it had killed her but after lying in a coma for some time she recovered and was thereafter often found weeping complaining that she wanted to 'go home'. At six she had been given a book about Egypt in which there was a picture of the Temple of Abydos. She showed it to her father saying that it was the home to which she wished to return and crying because it was 'all broken down'. Sent to a convent school in Brussels she confided to an aunt that like Hero she would swim the Hellespont to the Asiatic mainland to make her way to Egypt if she could find no other way of getting there. She was quickly removed and the family subsequently cancelled plans to emigrate to Australia in face of her determination to jump ship at Port Said.

Her formal education was negligible. Before the family moved to Plymouth she spent her time in London playing truant in the Egyptian Rooms at the British Museum ('a fat little girl wandering about the place'), where the great Egyptologist, Wallis Budge, took a lilting to her and taught her to read hieroglyphics. As a young woman she worked for a Wafdist (Nationalist Party) publication in London ('I went about telling everyone that the Egyptians were quite capable of governing themselves - God forgive me!') where she met her future husband, a Wafdist lawyer. After her marriage, which was opposed by her family, (and quite probably by his) she achieved her ambition to live in Egypt.

Umm Seti was undoubtedly a headstrong and difficult child. But she seems to have come to some sort of understanding with her father who looked, she claimed, like the statue of Ka-Afer at the Cairo Museum. Indeed there seems to have been a bond of sympathy between the two. She related how as a young woman at Plymouth hearing of the escape of a prisoner from Dartmoor, she stole out at night to leave a jacket and a pair of shoes for him to find. Returning into the darkened house she bumped into her father bent on the same errand. They swore each other to secrecy. I do not recall that she ever referred to her mother.

Her marriage did not last long. She could not or would not cook and her mother-in-law was reputed to be the best cook in Egypt. Nor did she enjoy social life. By mutual consent the couple divorced after a son was born and she took the name Bulbul Abdel Magid. She was co-opted onto the staff of the Egyptian Antiquities Department working under Professor Hassim. After a good deal of badgering on her part the Department made her responsible for the Temple of Abydos in 1956 where, as Umm Seti, she has remained ever since. …