Archives of a Cairo Policeman: Bimbashi McPherson

I have been away for a while so not able to update the blog. I have more substantial things coming up but right now I am going to take the chance to tell everyone about an amazing archive I just consulted in the Bristol Records Office.

It belongs to a man called J.W. McPherson. He is most famous for publishing a book called Moulids of Egypt. He privately printed it in Cairo in 1941 and it describes a lifetime spent attending both Muslim and Christian saint’s festivals in Egypt. I recently found a copy in Boston.

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I heard through Kurt Thometz that his papers were quite something and that they were still with the family. In the 1980s someone had published a book of his letters, to tie in with a BBC documentary. Kurt had heard that there might be a journal and that he kept a huge amount of stuff.

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After a brief online search and via that catalogue of the National Archives, I found a single entry about the papers of Joseph Williams McPherson with no other details except the fact that they were in Bristol.

Long story short, I have spent the past few days in Bristol looking through them and they are astounding. He seems to have kept every scrap of paper and photograph he could and one of the four boxes contains a huge number of postcards, photos and other ephemera.

He did not have a journal but in all his time in Egypt ,from 1901-1942, he kept copies of the letters he sent home to his family. Sending these copies to a bookbinder in Bristol he produced thousands of pages (in 25 volumes with photographs and other ephemera inserted in small pockes) that function as a journal.

They are interesting for a number of reasons and here a just a few:

  1. He was Head of the Secret police during the 1919 revolution in Egypt and in his collection he reproduces the report he sent to Milner about the political affairs of the country. He also reproduces many of the other police reports of the time, including the time he snuck into an anti-British sermon in a Coptic church disguised as an Italian anarchist. In his ephemera are two “seditious publications” which he confiscated.
  2. In the mid-20s he was working for the prison service and spent some time in the Sinai. During that period his main job seems to have been detaining what he called “Jews and Palestinians” who were trying to travel from Palestine to Egypt without the proper papers. His reports seem more focused on the Jews. There are some fascinating characters who come through including a man called Joseph Friedman who was a Bolshevik who was one of the organisers of May Day riots in Jaffa in 1921 (McPherson’s account of meeting him should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt due to his evident suspicion of both Communists and Jews). A note at the end of his report on Friedman says that he was later hanged for the “Cathedral Outrage” at Sophia in 1925. McPherson also had suspicions that one of his prisoners who was posing as a Chinese Buddist was in fact none other than the Bolshevik Moses Lieber. This suspicion was fired by the fact that he spoke Russian and Yiddish and apparently had told the Jewish market trader in the local town that he was Jewish “and wrangled all sorts of tit-bits, and a hat and suit of clothes.
  3. Having spent 40 years in Egypt and telling stories of his life in huge details there are numerous aspects of social history that can be gleaned. For instance, in his early days in Egypt he frequently recounts the food he eats with the elite Egyptian families who invite him to dinner. In one instance he describes a lunch with the Omda at Saqqara that as follows[as he wrote it] (he said the vegetables were eaten “by each one dipping a piece of his bread into the same dish as did Christ and His disciples long ago:

    SOUP

    PIGEONS   LAMB    CHICKENS

    MALUKHIA

    BANNIA RAGOUT         SAUSAGES

    MISH-MISH (Apricots)      FATEII (Honey Cakes)     SANUBER (Pine Cones)

    KALEB RAGOUT (Highly Seasoned)

    RICE & BLANCMANGE       BATEEK (Red Melon)

  4.  He also writes frequently about his many servants. As he acknowledges this is not rare for a Brit living in Egypt, servants in the Middle Eastwere deployed in writing in a similar way to how taxi-drivers are now. One marks McPherson apart is that he (apparently) got one of his servants to write his own autobiography, which McPherson translated in his letters. It tells the story of a young man called Salih whose life is beset by miseries until he comes to work for McPherson. Of course if it is genuine (which I largely believe it was) it was written with McPherson in mind. Still, as a piece of life writing it is a fascinating construction as for this young man, “telling your life story” seems to mean telling a long list of the tragedies that have befallen you and the forces beyond your control that made them happen. It is written with the narrative inevitability of a folk tale.

 

The papers contain so much more than just this and also include travel to many other Eastern Mediterranean destinations. They are an extremely useful resource for anyone working on Egypt and I hope others will use them.

 

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