24 October 2010
The evening of Sunday 6 September some 79 years ago in the town of Port Said on the northern tip of the Suez Canal should not have been different from many others. The boat traffic through the canal flowed as usual—well, not quite. One of the boats carried a person who, despite simplicity to the extreme as far as looks and personal tastes went, was able to disturb the peace of the world’s greatest power at the time. This was Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948), and he was on board ship en route from his native India to Britain—the colonial superpower which occupied his country and oppressed his countrymen. Gandhi was the “father of the [Indian] nation”, and the peaceful perpetrator of passive resistance against the British colonialists, which finally brought down the occupiers and gave India its independence in 1947. Gandhi’s birthday, 2 October, today marks the International Day of Non-Violence.
Cairo’s foremost daily Al-Ahram described the scene. “There on board stood the Oxford graduate, wearing nothing but a scrap of cloth worth five piastres [a piastre is 1/100 of an Egyptian Pound], wire rim glasses worth three piastres and the simplest thong sandals worth a mere two piastres. These ten piastres of clothing tell Great Britain volumes. It tells it that its hundreds of millions of pounds of gold mean nothing to this prophet who, when sitting at the table of kings, refrains from partaking in the diverse delicacies as he only dines on a small repast of dates and goat milk.”
Egypt was at the time busy with its own nationalist movement that was also attempting to obtain independence from the British occupier. Perceiving an occasion to affirm the relationship between the two nationalist movements, the popular Wafd Party organised a delegation, headed by the former parliamentary representative from Suez, to greet Gandhi upon his arrival in Suez. The Indian leader also received telegrams welcoming him to Egypt from Wafd Party leader Mustafa al-Nahhas and Safiyya Zaghlul, wife of the late Egyptian nationalist leader. And in Port Said on that memorable Sunday, Gandhi was given a resounding welcome by the masses, despite being banned by the British ruling authorities from setting foot on Egyptian soil.
The gifts the Egyptian reception committee presented to the Indian leader were most unusual for what was tantamount to a state visit. One was a vessel of honey inscribed with the Qur’anic verse: “From their bellies comes a variegated coloured syrup that contains a curative for people.” A second gift was a large, grey, camel-wool shawl “to protect the leader from the cold during his stay in the British capital”. Finally, Gandhi was presented with 20 litres of goat milk and a large quantity of dates—Egyptian, not imported.
The occasion was called to mind last week when the Indian embassy in Cairo collaborated with Port Said governorate and Port Said University to hold an Indian week in the town. On hand to open the festivities were Port Said governor Mustafa Abdel-Latif and India’s ambassador to Cairo A.R. Swaminathan. The ambassador hosted a meeting with the members of the chamber of commerce in Port Said to discuss with them opportunities of bilateral trade with India.
The week’s events included a seminar on the Indian-Egyptian relations, a photography exhibition on Gandhi, a book fair for Indian publications, yoga sessions, as well as shows of the widely popular Indian films. Indian tea was served.