Representing Egypt’s Last Revolution for US Kids
In 1961, Rick Brant and his friend Scotty went to Egypt, got involved with smugglers and helped the Egyptian police capture a band of revolutionaries. It was all in a day’s work for Rick, whose father runs the Spindrift Research Foundation and who has had encounters with crooks and spies all over the U.S. and Europe.
The Rick Brant series consists of 23 novels, written by Harold Goodwin (under the pseudonym John Blaine) and published by Grossett and Dunlap between 1947 and 1968. It was written for a slightly older audience than more popular juvenile series like The Hardy Boys. It was said to be distinctive in two ways:
- The science is absolutely accurate (for the period), unlike other popular science adventures like Tom Swift, Jr. or Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Goodwin was a writer of popular science articles in addition to this series and kept his science up-to-date and not too speculative.
- Descriptions of the locales in which the stories take place are carefully researched.
It was the latter that intrigued me when I ran across The Egyptian Cat Mystery at Project Gutenberg. How would Cairo–the city, the people, and the politics–be represented for juvenile readers in 1961–the year I was born! So I downloaded it into my kindle and read it during the long hours between events at my kids’ swim meets this summer.
The story turns on the efforts of counterrevolutionaries to overturn the 1952 Egyptian revolution which was, at the time the book was written, less than a decade old. The revolution was popular both in the US and the USSR, where King Farouk was seen as a decadent monarch living in opulence under the thumb of the British empire.
In the novel, counter-revolutionaries have stolen a Pharaonic artifact and sold it to an unscrupulous U.S. collector. They use Rick Brant and his friend, who are accompanying a science consulting effort, as unsuspecting agents to smuggle the money (hidden in what is supposed to be a prototype plastic tourist item) into Egypt to help fund their efforts at overthrowing the new government.
When the initial effort to turn the cat over to what the boys think is a merchant consortium goes awry, the boys become suspicious, and begin deliberately finding ways to thwart efforts to get the cat, all the while trying to figure out why everybody wants a cheap plastic cat so badly.
The geography is well done, as advertised. I can actually picture many of the places they visit, and even the streets they are on as they flee the villains (they run right past the old AUC campus in Tahrir twice, without mentioning it–it’s just a wall to them).
Egyptians come off quite well. Their scientists are as smart as our scientists, their legal system efficient, their people friendly. Their guide is at first a stereotyped Oriental dragoman, but as he becomes the boys’ friend and ally it is revealed to be an act he puts on for tourists.
Of the counter-revolutionaries, one of the police officials tells the boys:
We have groups that think the monarchy ought to be restored. We have others that think our foreign policy is too neutral, or that it isn’t neutral enough. And we also have people who don’t like our currency controls because they prevent tremendous profits from speculation.
In another passage, one of the Egyptian scientists explains to the boys:
There are some who do not like the controls on trade and exchange that our government had to impose,” Farid explained. “Mostly they are people who had things pretty much their own way before the Republic was formed. They used to get special treatment from government officials who were in their pay, and they grew rich. Now, that’s impossible. So they plot revolution to bring the bad old days back again–bad old days for most Egyptians, that is.
Thus, although these novels have a strong right-wing bent, the Egyptian revolution is seen as a positive thing that benefited most Egyptians, ushered in modernity, reduced corruption, and improved overall prosperity. Nasser’s initial efforts at currency control and tariffs are seen as necessary evils. Clearly this was a time in the US when one could be a conservative without being a neoliberal who condemned every market control as an essential evil in itself.
The police (who will be the villains of Egypt’s next revolution 50 years later) play an interesting role in this book.
On the one hand, inspector Ismail ben Adhem is the clever, confident character who figures out the mystery, wraps it up and saves the boys (in contrast to other novels in the series where the boys solve the mysteries), but it also becomes apparent that he has ruthlessly used them as stalking horses to draw out the bad guys, putting their lives in danger at least twice. (“You were never in any real danger except for a stray bullet,” the inspector tells them mildly.)
Several things struck me as interesting as I read this novel.
First, I have written about nostalgic nationalism, the desire for a past that was more coherent, fraternal, and meaningful than the present. The film Nasser 56 epitomized this concept. As I read descriptions of the imagined revolutionaries in this book, I couldn’t help but think of the decadent pashas of that film, sitting in their opulent mansions, frustrated by how the new government is destroying their profits, waiting for the revolution to fail. I could easily imagine them, five years later, still frustrated by the new government, organizing the revolutionary activity described in this book.
Second, I was struck by the hopefulness of the tone of the book, the faith that the Egyptian Arab Republic is a good idea, a new government that will benefit most Egyptians, and the sad irony that it turned out quite differently, that the new government evolved into one that eventually needed replacing if it was to meet the needs of the Egyptian masses.
And finally, I was curious as to whether Americans will write international thrillers–for juveniles or adults–that will take place in the new Egypt, and how they will represent it to their readers.
There is one irritating thing in the novel that is ubiquitous in US representations of the Middle East that drives me nuts, that I have to sound off on. Ismail ben Adhem asks them to call him “Ben.” That would be like me saying, “My name is Mark Peterson, but you can call me ‘Son.'” Or Aladdin in this Disney film naming his monkey Abu (“Father of…).