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Follow the Leader: Rosita Forbes and Hassanein Ahmed Bey and their journey through the Libyan desert to Kufara
North Africa Travel / Telegraph 2002 (syndicated)


The expedition to the Saharan oasis of Kufara in 1920-21 was one of the crowning achievements of Rosita Forbes. Nothing can rob of her that glory. However I believe her account of the expedition, the celebrated The Secret of the Sahara, Kufara does not give enough credit to the Egyptian explorer Ahmed Bey Hassanein. Rosita Forbes does not misplace a fact let alone a date, a name, or a compass reckoning, but uses a much more subtle literary technique - humour - to denigrate Ahmed Mohammed Bey Hassannein and raise herself up as the leader of the expedition.

Rosita Forbes is a one-off, a truly heroic traveller. Indeed she seems to come straight out of the pages of an inter-war novel. She is like one of the heroic side characters that fly in upon the plots of Evelyn Waugh or Scott Fitzgerald. She was in dash and bravour the female equivalent of Peter Fleming. The 20s and 30s were the days of her great travels, fame and achievement.

Rosita was born in 1893 in Lincolnshire and educated privately which allowed her to acquire an obsession for maps and a desire to unlock the mystery of the unmapped world. A great and vivacious beauty, she married Colonel Ronald Forbes as a young 17 year old with whom she travelled through India, China and Australia. Her reputation as a fast and wilful woman was completed when she left her husband after a few years of marriage and travelled back alone across Africa. She then drove an ambulance during the latter part of the First World war after which she travelled through the Far East with a woman friend, pen-named Undine, the travels described in her first book Unconducted Wanderers, published 1919.

The following year saw her as a Paris based journalist with a strong interest in North Africa. This was a time of exceptional interest and she made the very most of her oppurtunities. On November 28th 1920 she arrived at the oasis of Jedabia, 190 km south-west of Benghazi in order to meet up with a well connected young Egyptian diplomat and explorer, Ahmed Bey Hassanein. Together they would travel south across the Libyan desert by camel to visit Kufra, the distant and reclusive Saharan oasis, that had once served as the headquarters of the Senussi, a Muslim brotherhood devoted to reform back to true religion. It was an extraordinary physical achievement completed when they rode into the Egyptian oasis of Siwa on February 19th 1921. The only account of it we have is by Rosita Forbes.

I loved it. It is very good account, detailed enough to bring the characters and the landscape alive, filled with historical insights, maps and sense of adventure, mystery, achievement and humour. The Secret of the Sahara: Kufara was well received and sold well. First published in 1921 it received even wider circulation in 1937 as one of the early Penguin Books (no 113) in the magenta livery given to paperbacks of Travel & Adventure.

My first reading was entirely uncritical, indeed there seemed very little to criticise. My eyes were only opened to its possible innacuracies when I began to investigate the career of the Egyptian diplomat and Saharan explorer, Ahmed Bey Hassanein. Within a closed circle I learned that he was widely admired for staying silent about the book, though his friends, colleagues and family considered the book a travesty. Even the National Dictionary of Biography entry on Rosita Forbes (normally not the most hostile critic) records the upset it caused in Egypt. In their eyes, the non-Muslim, non-Arabic speaking British female journalist was just a passenger. It was Ahmed Bey Hassanein who was the resourceful director and master-mind of the expedition. I was told that the reason that Rosita Forbes, reversed the roles in her book was in revenge for slighted love. It seemed a characteristically Egyptian explanation but not out of place for in their different ways both Rosita and Hassanenein enjoyed scandalous 'reputations'. According to this story Rosita had been in love with Hassanein, that they may have had an affair, but that he couldn't marry her and she put her revenge in the pages of the book. I didn't want to contradict this theory but knew enough about travellers and travel-writers to know that love or no love they also have a strong tendency to airbrush out other characters and place themselves in the centre of the stage. Indeed there is at least one famous, alive and productive travel-writer who makes all his travelling companions sign a contract of literary silence so as to guarantee that his account remains uncontradicted.

We will return to the text in a moment but let us first follow the path of Rosita Forbes's career as a traveller. She got married in 1921, produced a novel set in the Near East, The Jewel in the Lotus before continuing her exploration of Arabia and North Africa. El Raisuni, Sultan of the Mountains - a biography of the Moroccan bandit-governor of the western Rif was published in 1924. This was followed by a 1,000 mile journey through Abyssinia and the book and film Red Sea to Blue Nile, in 1925. A tour of the Balkans dominated 1928, her journey through Central Asia most of 1929 and 1930. The next book, Conflict in 1931 was about the Middle East. Eight Republics in Search of a Future - published in 1933 chronicled her long travel through South America two years before. Forbidden Road, Kabul to Samarkand published in 1937 covers her Central Asians travels followed by her Raj book India of the Princes in 1939. Real People (1937) and These Men I Knew (1940) and Appointment in the Sun (1949) conclude her impressive list of works. These three books are basically half memoirs but include a number of good adventures from her journalistic assignments for the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times and interviews with leading men of the day (such as Hitler, Abdel Krim of the Rif rebellion, Ibn Saud founder of Saudi Arabia and Kemal Ataturk founder of modern Turkey). Indeed it is almost easier to make a list of the strong men of the 1930s she did not meet.

Her interest in the power and the charisma of rulers had led her on some extraordinary quests and privilieged interviews but also led her dangerously close to an admiration of the fascist strongmen of that era. It was rumoured that she had a passing affair with Mussolini and certainly interviewed Hitler a number of times. By 1940 her reputation was diminished if not finished and she would end her life as an expatriate exile in the Bahamas.

Now neglected she will no doubt one day be recognized as one of the great British women travel-writers and put on the pantheon alongside Isabella Bird, Freya Stark, Lesley Blanch and Marianne North.

Having saluted her personal achievement it is time to examine the text of The Secret of The Sahara: Kufara.

READINGS

The cumulative effect reduces Hassanein Bey to an endearing but childish figure, a useful ally. Hassanein Bey was too much of a gentleman of the old school of manners to publicly criticise Rosita Forbes. Even in his own book, The Lost Oasis, which describes his own much more extensive Saharan exploration he does not air one word of criticsm.

He was the son of the Sheikh of the Al-Azahar mosque (the Egyptian equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury) and the grandson of the Admiral in Chief of the Egyptian navy. His connections at court were impeccable and he had been hand picked by King Fuad to finish his education at Balliol College at the English University of Oxford which he represented for fencing. On his return to Egypt he worked for the Ministry of the Interior at Cairo and during the period of British enforced martial law was attached to the staff of General Sir John Maxwell. During the First World War he was a key player in the Anglo-Egyptian strategy that turned the Senussi brotherhood (whose influence was very strong in Eastern Libya and the central Sahara) from a relentless enemy to a sworn friend. At the start of the war the reigning Senussi pursued a strong pro-Turkish and pan-Islamic policy of attacking the British army in Egypt supported by arms and advice from Germany and Turkey. Half way through the war the Senussi brotherhood realized that they had backed the wrong horse, and the pro-British (or should one say pro Anglo-Egyptian) cousin took over. Hassanein Bey was in the 1917 mission, led by Colonel Milo Talbot that patched up a dignified peace with Sayed Idris El Senussi. It was only this vital contact that allowed the 1920 expedition to take place. For Hassanein Bey had already proved himself a trusted and influential friend and so was welcome to travel through the mysterious lands of the Senussi desert and stay in their oases. Originally he planned to travel with his old Balliol friend, Francis James Rennell Rodd, who spoke four languages fluently, had traveled through Libya, Egypt, Palestine and Syria during the First World War and was a recognized figure within the Intelligence Services. Rodd would later make two great expeditions into the central Sahara (in 1922 and 1927) which provided him for the material of his book about the Tuareg, People of the Veil. It was Francis Rodd who first asked Hassanein Bey if Rosita Forbes could join the expedition, and then at the last moment was unable to come himself. Again there are rumours of a failed relationship, though there were plenty of other ways in which the sophisticated Rosita Forbes would have got to know the Rodd family. Francisís father, Lord Rennell Rodd, was a recognized society figure, both as a published poet and a career ambassador, whilst his younger brother Peter was married to the novelist Nancy Mitford whilst his sister Gloria was married to the painter, Simon Elwes. However she engineered the invitation, it was quite clear that it was Hassanein Bey was in absolute charge of the expedition. Rosita Forbes came along as no more than the friend of a friend.

For his great Saharan expedition which set off in December 1922 (for which he was awarded the Founder's Medal by the Royal Geographical Society) Ahmed Bey Hassanein decided to travel without any guest companions. In the first introductory chapter he compares the desert with a woman. "It is though a man were deeply in love with a very fascinating but cruel woman. She treats him badly, and the world crumples in his hand; at night she smiles on him and the whole world is a paradise."

Hassanein Bey would rise to become Royal Chamberlain to the young King Farouk and the chief advisor to the Dowager Queen. He remained one of the key figures of Egyptian politics and society, the very cornerstone of Anglo-Egyptian accord until his accidental death in a road accident on one of the Cairo bridges over the Nile in 1947. In Egypt it was believed that his death was not an accident, but that it had been ordered by the King in order to finally silence the love affair between Hassanein and the widowed Queen.

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