Mohamed Ali Eltaher



Page 69



Ali Ahmad Bakathir was one of Egypt's most famous playwrights during the forties and fifties. While he hails from Indonesia, he is originally from Hadramout in Southern Yemen. A large Arab community of traders from Hadramout in South Yemen had immigrated to Indonesia and settled there for a very long time. It was thanks to these traders that Islam was spread in those far away lands. Among his famous plays one could mention "The Caliph's  Jester" which was staged at the Royal Opera House in Cairo in 1954, and the "Hodja's Nail" also staged at the Opera in 1955. Bakathir’s wife and his adopted son Fawzi often visited the Eltahers and vice-versa.

An exciting adventure has linked Bakathir and Eltaher when the latter escaped from prison and hid in various parts of Egypt between 1940 and 1941. The friendship that linked the two men went back to 1933 when Bakathir came to Egypt from Indonesia via the Hedjaz and his ancestral homeland Hadramout to enrol at Egyptian universities. He was admitted at Cairo University from which he eventually obtained his B.A. degree in literature. He then obtained a teacher’s diploma from the Teachers’ Higher College. Once he had completed his education, and while getting ready to return to his native country Indonesia, the Second World War erupted and he found himself unable to travel to the Far East.

He remained in Egypt and worked as a teacher while authoring a number of successful historic and literary novels. Every time the Ministry of Education or one of the cultural organizations announced a competition for a novel or a play, Bakathir participated in it. And every time he did that, he not only won the prize, but also got his work recommended for printing at no cost to him. His outstanding output reached a point where in 1947 the Ministry of Social Affairs launched a competition for six novels covering predetermined subjects and announced an appreciably high financial prize. The ministry received five hundred submissions. After it had reviewed this mountain of novels, the evaluation committee chose six out of them. When the envelopes containing the names of the winners were opened, it turned out that Bakathir had amazingly won two of them. A newspaper suggested jokingly that he should be barred from participating in any future competitions…

Bakathir provides assistance to a prison fugitive

A year after World War II was declared, British authorities in Egypt intimated to the Egyptian government their desire to arrest Eltaher and jail him as discussed earlier in the biography because of the articles he was writing and publishing against British colonialism in Egypt and other countries of the Near East, as well as against French colonialism in North Africa and greater Syria, Dutch colonialism in Indonesia and Italian colonialism in Libya. The British did not complain about Eltaher’s writings against Italian occupation of Libya, since Italy had allied itself with Britain’s enemy Nazi Germany!

When Eltaher succeeded in escaping from the prison’s hospital he disguised himself as a Muslim clergyman from the countryside and kept moving continuously around Egypt.   One of the cities he hid in longer than in others was the city of Mansourah, which has a long well known history.

One night, while walking along one of the side streets Eltaher was surprised to see his friend Ali Ahmad Bakathir pass in front of him. So he followed him, then came closer to him, put his hand on his shoulder and greeted him. Bakathir quickly recognized Eltaher from his voice. The two then walked together while Eltaher was telling him his story. They eventually ended up in Bakathir’s house where the latter told his story and that he had been appointed as English language teacher at Al-Rashad High School after he was cut off from his family in Indonesia. He also informed him that he had been living in that house in Mansourah for a few months. He also added that he was not alone in the house because he had gotten married in the meanwhile and that one of his wife’s relatives also lived with them.

The following morning Bakathir went around town to find a suitable place for Eltaher to live in that could provide him with a refuge from government agents working for the British colonial power until things settled down. Bakathir succeeded in finding a small apartment that suited the purpose in a narrow alley of the “Mit Hadar” neighbourhood. The lease was drawn in Eltaher’s assumed name but Bakathir acted as a guarantor. Had Bakathir not been living and working in Mansourah, it would have been difficult for Eltaher to find a refuge for himself.

Bakathir and Eltaher in 1942 in Mansourah in front of the Talkha Bridge

During that period a significant incident had happened in Egypt when the aircraft of Field Marshal Aziz Pasha El-Masri crash-landed at Qalioub, north of Cairo. Aziz Pasha was known for being against British occupation of Egypt, and was considered by the British as being a Nazi sympathizer. The British had suspected him of trying to defect to the Germans whose forces were at the borders of Egypt in the western desert when his aircraft crashed. A 500 Egyptian Pounds bounty was posted by the Egyptian government for whoever would give information that would lead to his arrest along with his two companions, Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf, the pilot of the aircraft, and Hussein Zulfiqar Sabri, the co-pilot. The amount was substantial enough in those days to attract a lot of hopeful hunters.

Eltaher kept all that in mind, and estimated that he could be mistaken for Aziz Pasha. This prompted him to move fast. He picked up all his belongings and books and packed them in a bundle and went to Bakathir’s house. He told him the story and left the bundle as well as his house keys with him and recommended that he avoid going to that area, because if anything happened, they would certainly come asking about Eltaher by his assumed name. The police would have asked the landlord for information about Eltaher, and he would have told them that he did not know much because he had rented the place via Bakathir. If the latter were to be asked, all he could say was that Eltaher had gone to Cairo to bring his family, but without telling them that he had left the keys with him. Having given Bakathir these instructions, Eltaher left Mansourah, not to Cairo, but to Domiat (Damietta), then Tanta, then Alexandria, then Zaqaziq. He returned to Mansourah the third day. He took position not too far from Bakathir’s house to observe him until he saw him and established contact. Bakathir reassured Eltaher that nothing had happened during his absence and nobody came to ask for him.

On a dangerous mission to Cairo

While Eltaher was on the run, his wife remained in their apartment on Shoubrah Street in Cairo. But she was under strict ongoing surveillance day and night by the police, the Special Branch and the Arab Affairs Bureau agents whose commanders were all working for the account of the British. Despite all this surveillance, she remained the major point of contact between her husband in his hiding place and the various nationalists and the many gallant people in Egypt and the Arab World. One day Eltaher asked Bakathir to travel to Cairo to deliver a letter to his wife. Bakathir agreed and left for Cairo with the letter in his pocket.

Before doing that, he and Eltaher planned the steps to be taken in order to carry out this mission: Once he arrived at the apartment building where Mrs. Eltaher lived, Bakathir was to avoid taking the elevator and take the stairs instead to the fifth floor. In those days taking the elevator meant having the building concierge accompany the guest in the elevator. Bakathir was not to even ask the concierge about Mrs. Eltaher’s apartment so that the undercover policeman sitting at the entrance of the building does not overhear him and suspect him. Assuming he was asked which apartment he was going to, he was to say that he was visiting Mr. Abbas Gamgoum. Gamgoum and his wife Nefissa were Eltaher’s next door neighbours and knew everything about Eltaher and his flight from prison.  Upon arriving at the building, Bakathir was to act in a manner that reflects somebody well familiar with the building and accustomed at climbing to the floor he is going to, all that to avoid the suspicious eyes of both the concierge and the undercover policeman. Eltaher finally advised Bakathir that Mr. Gamgoum will be very reticent and will deny having anything to do with the Eltaher family.

Making contact and delivering the letter

Bakathir rang the bell at Mr. Gamgoum’s apartment door, which was just next to the Eltahers’ apartment. He answered the door and invited the unknown, but safe looking, guest in and accompanied him to the living room without having any clue as to who that person was. Once seated, Gamgoum asked him if there was anything he could do for him. Bakathir replied by using words and topics that only Eltaher and Mr. Gamgoum were familiar with. Nonetheless Gamgoum remained reserved. At that point Bakathir reached in his pocket for the letter which had Mrs. Eltaher’s name and asked Mr. Gamgoum to have his wife Mrs. Nefissa hand it over to her. Bakathir pointed out that the name on the envelope was in Eltaher’s handwriting, which Mr. Gamgoum recognized, and thus felt more relaxed. He asked his wife to take the letter to Mrs. Eltaher.

When Mrs. Gamgoum explained to her that an emissary from her husband was waiting for her at their apartment, Mrs. Eltaher rushed there and of course recognized Bakathir immediately and took possession of the letter. Her happiness was great as she had had no news from her husband for about two months. It is interesting to note that British authorities were under the impression that Mr. Eltaher had sneaked out of Egypt to Lebanon or Palestine, and had sent its agents to investigate and look for him in the homes of friends and relatives over there, at a time when he had not left Egypt at all!

Eltaher’s hidden papers

Eltaher noted that he had too many papers lying around in his hideout, especially those on which he had scribbled notes for his memoirs. He suddenly realized that he had to put these papers in safekeeping away from him. But who dared take responsibility for these “scorpions” as Eltaher described his papers and the writings on them, at a time when their value to him was as valuable as his own life, as he described this episode in his book “Zalam El-Segn” (Prison Darkness). He eventually remembered a trick he had read about in some American novels. He bought a framed picture of a European village, removed the glass from the frame, disposed of the picture and substituted it by a picture he ripped out of a magazine of a pretty beduin girl and put it in the frame. He then hid all the papers he wanted to safeguard between the picture and the supporting backing carton. He then hung the picture back on the wall.

It did not take him long to realize that that was not enough, because if the police managed to discover his hideout, they will automatically confiscate everything in the room including the picture, thus exposing it to danger whether the police left it behind or took it with them. However he noted that every time Bakathir came to visit him he always looked at the picture with particular interest. Bakathir liked the picture so much, that one day he asked Eltaher if he would give it to him! Eltaher did not wait to be begged, and without any hesitation he removed it from the wall and gave it to him without telling him anything about its secret. Happy to have the picture, Bakathir took it home and hung it in his den without having any clue as to the treasure hiding inside it.

As the days passed Eltaher made it a point to visit Bakathir a bit more than he usually did so that he could reassure himself about the picture. During every visit Bakathir would talk to him about the beauty of the picture and its impact on his visitors, who would look at it intently even though it was simply removed from a magazine and had no intrinsic artistic value! Eltaher thought he was unlucky with all this unwanted attention, especially when Bakathir asked him one day if he could give the picture to a friend of his who insisted that he would like to have it for himself. At that point Eltaher could not but divulge to Bakathir the secret of the treasure hidden inside it.

When Bakathir heard about what was behind the picture, he was astounded. From that day on he kept particular good care of it and would not let anybody bring it down from the wall. As the number of pretenders grew, he finally resolved to remove it and hide it in a box full of books and thus avoided the refined curiosity of those who have good artistic taste, but whose genius relative to recognizing the value of art did not blossom except on the day Mohamed Ali Eltaher hid his papers inside the picture’s frame!

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