Sketches, by Benjamin Disraeli

An Interview with a great Turk

When I was in Egypt the great subject of political speculation was the invasion of Syria; not that the object of the formation of the camp at Alexandria was generally known; on the contrary, it was a secret,-but a secret shared by many ears. Forty thousand well-disciplined troops were assembled at Cairo; and it was whispered at Court that Abdallah Pasha of Acre might look to himself, a young and valiant chief, by-the-bye, whom I well know, but indulging in dissipation, extraordinary even in the Levant. I was exceedingly anxious of becoming in some manner attached to this expedition; and as I was not without influence in the proper quarters, there appeared little probability of my wish not being gratified. With these views I remained in Egypt longer than I had intended, but it would seem that the invaders were not quite as ardent as their intended volunteer, for affairs at Alexandria progressed but indifferently. Orders and counter-orders, marches and counter-marches, boats pressed on the Nile for the passage of troops from the capital, which were all liberated the next day, many divans and much smoking; but still the troops remained within pistol-shot of the citadel, and months glided away apparently without any material advancement.

I had often observed that although there was in most subjects an excellent understanding between the two Pashas, Mehemet Ali and Ibrahim, a degree of petty jealousy existed between them on the point of their mutual communications with foreigners; so that if I happened one morning to attend the divan of the Grand Pasha, as the Franks styled the father, I was sure, on some excuse or other, of being summoned the next day to the levee of the son; I was therefore not surprised when, one day, on my return from paying my respects to the divan at the citadel of Cairo, I found a Nubian eunuch in attendance at my quarters, telling me that Ibrahim Pasha was anxious to see me.

I accordingly repaired without loss of time to the sumptuous palace of that chieftain: and being ushered into his presence, I found the future conqueror of Syria attended only by his dragoman, his secretary; and an aide-decamp.

A pipe was immediately brought me, but Ibrahim himself did not smoke. After the usual compliments, ‘Effendi,’ said Ibrahim, ‘do you think the English horses would live in Egypt?’

I was too practised an observer of the Turkish character to suppose that English horses were really the occasion of my summons. The Turks are very diplomatic, and are a long time coming to the point. I answered, however, that, with English grooms, I was of opinion that English horses would flourish in any climate. A curt, dry, uninteresting conversation about English horses was succeeded by some queries, which I had answered fifty times before, about English pistols: and then came a sly joke or two about English women. At length the point of the interview began to poke its horns out of this shell of tittle-tattle.

‘If you want to go with the army,’ said his Highness, ”tis I who am the person to speak to. They know nothing about those things up there’ (meaning the citadel).

I answered his Highness that I had attended the divan merely as a matter of ceremony, and that I had not interchanged a word with the Grand Pasha on the subject of the expedition.

‘I suppose you talked with Boghaz?’ said Ibrahim.

Boghaz was the favourite of Mehemet Ali.

‘Neither with Boghaz nor any one else. Your Highness having once graciously promised me that I should attend you, I should have thought it both impertinent and unnecessary to apply to any other person whatever.’

‘Tahib!’ exclaimed his Highness, which meant that he was satisfied. ‘After all, I do not know whether the army will march at all. You have been in Syria?’

I answered, in the affirmative, a question which had often been addressed to me.

‘Do you think I could march as far as Gaza?’ inquired Ibrahim, with a smile.

This was a question of mockery. It was like asking whether the Life Guards could take Windsor. I therefore only returned the smile, and said that I did not doubt the enemy would agree to settle affairs upon that condition.

‘Tahib! Well I think I can march as far as they speak Arabic!’ This was a favourite phrase of his Highness.

I answered that I hoped, if I had the honour of attending his Highness, the army would march till we could see another ocean.

‘It is all talk up there,’ replied Ibrahim; ‘but my life is a life of deeds.’

‘Words are very good things sometimes,’ I replied; ‘that is, if we keep marching at the same time.’

‘God is great!’ exclaimed Ibrahim; and looking round to his officers, ‘the Effendi speaks truth; and thus it was that Redchid beat the beys.’

Ibrahim alluded to the Albanian campaign of the preceding year, when the energy of the grand vizier crushed the rebellious beys of the ancient Epirus.

‘What do you think of Redchid?’ he inquired.

‘I think he is worthy of being your Highness’s rival.’

‘He has always been victorious,’ said Ibrahim; ‘but I think his sabre is made of gold. That will not do with me.’

‘It’s a pity,’ I observed, ‘that if your Highness find time to march into Syria, you had not acted simultaneously with the Albanians, or with the Pasha of Scutari.’

‘May I kill my mother but it is true; but up there, they will watch, and watch, and watch, till they fall asleep.’

The truth is, the Orientals have no idea of military diversions; and even if they combine, each strives to be the latest in the field, in order that he may take advantage of the other’s success or discomfiture. Mehemet Ali, at an immense expenditure, had excited two terrible revolts in European Turkey, and then waited to invade Syria until the armies of the Porte were unemployed. The result with some will justify his policy; but in the conquest of Syria, the truth is, Ibrahim himself used a golden sabre, and the year, before, the contingents of the pashas, whom he was obliged to bribe, were all busied in Europe.

The night previous to this conversation the style of the military oath of the Egyptian army had been altered; and the troops, instead of swearing allegiance to the Sultan, had pledged themselves to Mehemet Ali. The Grand Pasha was so nervous about this change, that the order for it was countermanded twice in four hours; however, what with gratuities to the troops, and the discreet distribution of promotion among the officers, everything went off very quietly. There was also a rumour that Mehemet Ali intended immediately to assume the title of Caliph.

This piece of information is necessary to explain the following striking observation of Ibrahim Pasha.

‘Effendi, do you think that a man can conquer Syria, who is not called a caliph? Will it make 40,000 men 80,000?’

I replied, that I thought the assumption of the title would have a beneficial effect at foreign courts.

‘Bah! before the Yahoos hear of it, I shall be at Damascus. Up there, they are always busying themselves with forms. The eagle in his flight does not think of his shadow on the earth!’

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19