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by  butroshanna

Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2013
Word Count: 2420
Summary: From FEAST to FAMINE is the saga of a wealthy landowning family that spans the period from the end of the First World War through the 1952 Revolution (an era of great plenty and opulence in Egypt) to the fifties and sixties ending with the death of Nasser in 1970 (a period of military dictatorship, socialism and deprivation).


Early one morning in the fall of 1920, Amin Wahba Pasha was closeted in the study of his house in Luxor for over an hour with Monsieur Salvago of the Sugar Refinery Company. They were going through the annual October ritual of studying the final accounts prior to his receiving the payments for the sugarcane crop that had been delivered to the Refinery late that spring. Once more he was disappointed; the price of sugarcane had gone down by another 8% this year. After the five boom years of the war, this was the third year in a row that the revenues of his sugarcane crop had fallen.
Wahba Pasha had always been proud of the fact that he managed single-handedly the cultivation of his estate and was not an absentee landowner like many of the pashas and beys who were living it up in Cairo and Alexandria. Often goaded and cajoled by his wife and daughters to lease his lands and move the family to their new Cairo residence, he now wondered whether this might not be a good time to follow their advice.
Wahba Pasha had spent his whole life cultivating his sugarcane plantations. He woke up every morning at 5:00 am. After devouring a breakfast of foul medamis with eight eggs and several pieces of chicken, he took his motorboat which was docked in front of his mansion in Luxor, to the Western shore of the River Nile where his lands were located. His foreman waited for him with two horses and they toured the lands where he personally supervised every phase of the sugarcane cultivation, harvesting, and transportation to the railway depot where the harvest was loaded into the trains going to the Sugar Refinery Company in Kom-Ombo.
In January 1921 Amin Wahba Pasha decided to retire and lease his land to the Sugar Refinery Company. He was fifty years old and had made a fortune during the war. He moved to Cairo to the new mansion he had purchased in Fagallah, one of the more elegant suburbs of Cairo, with his wife and two daughters, Genevieve and Julia accompanied by their husbands and children.
Once settled in Cairo, Amin Pasha purchased a four-acre lot of land in Dokki facing the Western shore of the River Nile which at the time was sparsely populated farmland. He hired one of the leading English architectural firms in Egypt to design and build a stately mansion there.
Two years later, when the construction of the mansion was completed, he moved there with his retinue of secretaries, valets and servants leaving his wife and two daughters with their husbands and children at the Fagallah house. The new palace consisted of three floors, each floor approximately 600 square meters, with a four-car garage on the side street. There was a small guardhouse near the entrance gate of the house, where the bawab or guardian lived, and huge gardens surrounded the house. The cellar had the kitchen and the servants’ living quarters, the first floor composed the reception area and the second floor contained the family living quarters. Both floors had verandas facing the Nile. The third floor had the guests’ area, a separate laundry room and a large terrace. An elevator served the three floors. The mansion soon became known as “Sarayet Wahba Pasha” or “The Palace of Wahba Pasha.”
The Pasha retained the two bedroom/bathroom suites facing the Nile for his own use. He resided in one of these and the other one, which he called the “Pink Room”, was kept for the use of his inamorata of the moment. His private secretary resided in one of the third floor guest-rooms.
Once settled in his new mansion Amin Pasha started to lead a double life. To all appearances he was a philanthropist, a man respected by all, not only for his wealth and connections, but also for his upright character. He was a prominent member of the Coptic Church devoting time and money to charitable causes. Two or three times a week he played the role of the family man, he went to visit his wife and family at their Fagallah residence carrying toys and chocolates for his grandchildren. But there was a darker side to his life that few people were aware of. He led a secret life of debauchery which was facilitated by his private secretary, Ahmad Mansour, a seedy character who somehow managed to gain the Pasha’s confidence. Bolbol Effendi, as Mansour became known, procured young girls of different ages, sizes, colours, and national origins for the Pasha’s pleasure. He would parade several young girls in front of the Pasha; the one chosen would stay in the mansion living in the Pink Room until Amin Pasha tired of her.
In 1919 Farid Wahba, Wahba Pasha’s only son, was among a group of seven students from Victoria College who were sent to continue their education in Oxford University. Farid enjoyed Oxford life at Pembroke College which broadened his outlook considerably and encouraged his love of history. In 1923 he graduated with honors and returned to Egypt. For a while he lived with his mother and sisters at the Fagallah mansion but he couldn’t bear the commotion and noise created by his nephews and nieces and he did not get along with his brothers-in-law. He rented a dahabia which was moored on the banks of the Nile not far from his father’s mansion. The dahabia belonged to a prince of the royal family who was about to get married and had to relinquish it along with his houseboy and valet, Sobhi.
Amin Pasha was right. The years at Victoria College and Oxford had made a gentleman of Farid. His experience in England had introduced him to a different way of life, to a culture which he embraced wholeheartedly without rejecting his own background, traditions and beliefs. He came back a polished man comfortable to socialize with his European friends but refusing to emulate their customs and traditions as many upper-class Egyptians had a tendency to do. At the age of twenty-three he was a quiet and mild-mannered man, very different from his boisterous, arrogant and aggressive father. Even though he had the typical dark skin of the people of Upper Egypt, the saiidis as they were called, he was a handsome man who had inherited the looks and personality of his mother. He was a shy, thoughtful and sensitive person.
He worked for a little over two years at the prestigious law firm of El-Alfy which handled the Pasha’s affairs but the work bored him. He didn’t enjoy writing legal briefs and getting involved in the trivial quarrels of unimportant people. He wanted to do more with his life. He didn’t need the salary; his father gave him a generous allowance. He finally decided to quit his job after his involvement with the Cattoun Case.
Moise Cattoun Pasha came from a family of Sephardic Jews who held a privileged position in Egypt. Banking, commerce, and real estate formed the basis of his fortune. Cattoun Pasha knew Wahba Pasha through his interests in the Kom-Ombo Sugar Refinery. His wife, Adele Cattoun, was an elegant and stunningly beautiful woman in her early forties. She and her husband were active members of Cairo’s social scene. They attended opera premieres and charity functions and the glittering balls at their mansion in Garden City often led to traffic congestion in the neighbourhood.
According to a briefing that Maitre El-Alfy gave Farid Wahba, the case was a sordid affair. The eighteen-year old son of the Cattouns had been briefly involved with a gay man who was now blackmailing the parents. There were letters and pictures.
Farid Wahba showed up at the Cattoun Mansion one morning punctually at eleven. Cattoun Pasha received him in his large office. Their meeting lasted for nearly an hour. Farid listened to the details of the affair, asked questions and took notes.
“I think I have all the information I need for the time being,” he told Cattoun Pasha as he got up to leave.
“Why don’t you stay and have lunch with us? We’ll have a casual meal upstairs and you will meet my wife.”
Cattoun Pasha led Farid upstairs to the living room.
“Adele, this is Farid, Amin Wahba Pasha’s son. He works for Maitre El-Alfy and will be handling our case.”
“I am very happy to meet you Farid,” Adele Cattoun said as she extended her hand to Farid. “I’m glad that Moise had the inspiration to ask you to stay for lunch.”
Farid sat in the comfortable armchair next to hers. He glanced at her and noticed that she was looking at him. He blushed. She looked lovely in a long pale blue silk dress.
While the servants served cocktails. Adele Cattoun made every effort to make Farid feel at ease, she could see that Farid was shy and intimidated. She took a cigarette in her mouth and when Farid got up to light it she noticed that his hand was slightly shaking.
Cattoun Pasha dominated the conversation during lunch. He talked, among other things, about his friendship with Wahba Pasha and the visit to Luxor he and his wife had after the War as a guest at the Pasha’s house.
“Please serve yourself properly,” Adele told Farid as the suffragui
was passing the plates. “Moise and I both eat like birds.”
The menu consisted of a fish plate, lamb cutlets with spinach and fruits for desert. As soon as Adele had been informed that Farid was staying for lunch, she quickly asked the cook to prepare a plate of rice for him.
After lunch they adjourned to the living room for coffee.
“Adele will be handling this case,” Cattoun Pasha said as he got up. “I have to return to the office.”
The Cattoun Case was quickly settled through another law firm that Maitre El-Alfy dealt with from time to time that specialized in these types of affairs. The man was contacted and threatened with police action; he was given a sum of money, much less than what he demanded. The pictures and letters were obtained.
Farid Wahba phoned the Cattoun residence and was put through to Adele Cattoun.
“Mme Cattoun, the affair is settled. Could you please send someone to the office to pick the letters and pictures we obtained from the man?”
“I’m playing bridge tomorrow at the Woman’s Club. It’s not too far from your office. I’ll come by myself. I’ll be there after six. I want to thank you personally for what you’ve done.”
The next day she arrived a little after six in the evening. Apart from Farid, the offices were empty. It was a Saturday afternoon and everyone had left early. They sat comfortably in Maitre Alfy’s spacious office and Farid offered her a glass of whisky. Farid felt good as he was sipping his whisky, he had an urgent desire to talk. He was not shy anymore. Inevitably they talked about the subject that preoccupied everyone in Egypt, the first elections that had been held since the British Occupation of Egypt.
In the beginning of 1919 a group of Egyptian politicians, headed by Saad Zaghloul Pasha, formed a delegation to meet the British High Commissioner. They requested permission to attend the Peace Conference to present Egypt’s case for independence. The British government refused the request of the delegation and, frustrated, these politicians formed the Wafd Party (wafd means ‘delegation’ in Arabic) to pursue the fight to end the British Occupation of Egypt.
There were major riots in 1919 and the disturbances lasted until 1922. Zaghloul Pasha was arrested and deported to Malta with two of his companions. In 1922 the British unilaterally proclaimed Egypt “an independent sovereign state” with Fouad as King of Egypt. Zaghloul Pasha and his companions returned in triumph from their exile. Nevertheless, the British maintained an army of occupation to protect the communications of the British Empire.
“On the evening of the elections, I was walking home near Sawiris Square when it was announced on the radio that the Wafd Party had won in a landslide,” Farid said. “People started dancing and chanting in the streets. I am not usually an emotional person but I had tears in my eyes. This is a memorable moment in the history of the country. Egypt is in the process of changing.”
Farid Wahba was now all excited. Nothing could stop him from talking now. He told her about his aspirations of joining the Wafd Party and becoming actively involved in politics. Nearly an hour went by. Adele looked at her watch and got up to leave. Farid got up and handed her the envelope that contained the letters and pictures. He stood next to her to bid her goodbye.
“I have to go. I enjoyed our little conversation. Thank you for resolving our little problem.”
As she pronounced these words she turned around to face him. Intoxicated by the smell of her perfume, Farid lost his head. He put his arms around her waist and kissed her passionately in the lips. Never had a woman been so surprised. She enjoyed his kiss even though she knew it was crazy. She wasn’t sure whether to be angry or simply laugh it off.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted as he released her.
A bizarre feeling invaded her. She was not sure whether she was excited or disgusted. She found his sudden transformation from a timid man to a daring seducer irresistible. She put her two hands on his cheeks and kissed him on the lips. Her lips were very soft. They lingered on his. He led her slowly towards the couch and started to undress her. She offered no resistance.
Afterwards as she was dressing up and straightening her hair, she told him:
“And I thought you were shy.”
Farid insisted on walking her to her car. He told her as she was getting into her car:
“When can I see you again?”
“Do you really want to?”
“Of course I do.”
She reflected for a few seconds. She was not going to prolong this ridiculous adventure. She had no intentions of seeing him again.
“I’ll call you one of these days when I have time.”
Once settled in the back of her chauffeur-driven Bentley, she started to laugh.
“My God! What a fool I’ve been. Seduced, at my age and by the son of a Pasha. He treated me like a little shop girl and I enjoyed it.”