Martin Kramer, “Pen and Purse: Sabunji and Blunt,” in The Islamic World From Classical to Modern Times: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lewis, eds. C.E. Bosworth, et al. (Princeton: Darwin, 1989), pp. 771-80. Scroll down for a letter concerning this article, written by the late Albert Hourani to Martin Kramer.
It is well known that the early Arabic newspapers, particularly those published by émigrés, could not bear their own weight financially. They were subsidized, usually in a secret way, by interested parties. Far from constituting open and sincere platforms of opinion, newspapers often amplified the views of silent benefactors, who were prepared to pay to see their political notions in print. In many cases it is difficult if not impossible to trace the fine lines linking journalists to their patrons. But without such evidence, the history of the Arab “awakening” becomes unintelligible, since the Arabic press provides the earliest evidence for its existence.
In the annals of early Arab journalism, John Louis Sabunji occupies a position of minor eminence. A former priest of the Syrian Catholic Rite, Sabunji entered a turbulent career in journalism, publishing several Arabic newspapers in London and openly calling into question the Ottoman sultan’s right to the caliphate. His newspaper Al-Nahla (The Bee), which he published in London from 1877, was one of the most influential of the early Arabic political journals, and one of the boldest.
Sabunji must have been a heavily subsidized journalist, as another study has suggested.1 But the identity of his patrons was necessarily inferred, since none of Sabunji’s relationships with his benefactors could be documented. Now a packet of Sabunji’s letters sheds new light on his reluctant dependence upon one of his most important clients: the English Arabophile, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt.2
Sabunji’s first employment in Blunt’s service was not as a journalist, but as a tutor in Arabic to his wife, Lady Anne Blunt, in 1880. In this capacity, Sabunji did more than instruct Lady Anne in the intricacies of the language. Her husband had just published a series of strongly anti-Turkish articles in The Fortnightly Review. The articles, which were later published together under the title The Future of Islam, proposed the severing of the Arabs from Turkish rule and the establishment of an Arab caliphate. Blunt was the first to challenge the traditional British support for Ottoman territorial integrity in Asia, and he prompted a spirited debate in London.
But as Blunt himself later wrote, his Fortnightly Review pieces “found their way, to some extent, in [Arabic] translation to Egypt.”3 Such translations were prepared by Sabunji and Lady Anne,4 so that even in Sabunji’s limited capacity as Lady Anne’s tutor, he became swept up in Blunt’s anti-Ottoman agitation. Early in 1881, while the Blunts were away in Arabia, Sabunji began his own campaign, in a newspaper appropriately called Al-Khilafa (The Caliphate). According to Sabunji, this newspaper consisted of “very strong articles against the Turks, their bad administration, and their claim to the title of ‘El-Khelaphat.’”5
There is no evidence that Blunt subsidized this newspaper, although it echoed an indictment of the Ottoman caliphate made by Blunt himself. But after Blunt’s return from Arabia, he did propose that Sabunji accompany him on his forthcoming trip to the Hijaz and the Yemen. Blunt would need the help of an interpreter, were he to get in touch with the “future leaders of reform and liberty in Islam” whom he hoped to identify.6 Sabunji seemed the very best choice.
Although the two men apparently did not enter into a formal contract, Sabunji did set down terms in a letter to Blunt. Sabunji would not be Blunt’s servant, but his “attaché interpreter,” cooperating with Blunt “in your plan as much as it is in my power,” in return for payment and a generous application of patronage. Blunt would cover Sabunji’s travel expenses and provide him with £100 “so that I may settle some of my little affairs, before starting.” Sabunji also asked Blunt “to procure for me an English passport, if it be possible; and I shall try my best to procure a Persian one, if the [Persian] Ambassador be in London before I leave.” On their return to England, Blunt would offer Sabunji a remuneration left “entirely to your sound judgement, and well-known generosity. You and Lady Anne have always treated me kindly and with princely generosity.” Finally, Sabunji asked that Blunt seek to “procure for me some appointment in the British Service, through your good recommendation and influence. . . .I am perfectly convinced, that there will be no lack of energy, or will in this matter on your part, if there will be any hope for success.”7
The deal was done. Blunt set out for Arabia in November 1881, in his quest for men who might refashion Islam. But during a stopover in Egypt, he became fascinated by Ahmad Urabi, whose movement of military officers and Egyptian nationalists quickly won his sympathy and support. And at Blunt’s side was Sabunji, his “attaché interpreter,” who had a dual role. According to Blunt, Sabunji “had a real genius” for collecting information. On arrival in Cairo, he “was presently busy all the city over seeking out news for me, so that in a very few days we knew between us pretty nearly everything that was going on.”8 Sabunji also accompanied Blunt to his meetings with Egyptians, where Sabunji’s role was that of translator, and he was at Blunt’s side when Urabi first received this odd Englishman who so wholeheartedly embraced the Egyptian cause.
Indeed, so adeptly did Sabunji fulfill his mission that in June 1882, Blunt sent Sabunji to Egypt in his stead, to conduct private diplomacy on Blunt’s behalf. “Sabunji is to go instead of me, and will do just as well.” For his trouble, Sabunji would receive £30 a month plus expenses, and left for Alexandria with a £100 advance and Blunt’s explicit instructions.9 Blunt’s Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt reproduces Sabunji’s dispatches to Blunt, written during the crucial months of June and July 1882, and culminating in the British bombardment of Alexandria. Sabunji, dining at Urabi’s table and sitting up late with the nationalist leaders, kept Blunt apprised of the mood in the nationalist camp, and supposedly transmitted Blunt’s detailed advice to Urabi. In his book, Blunt expressed his great satisfaction with Sabunji’s performance of his mission as “my representative”:
I could hardly have used more influence personally with Arabi and the other leaders than I succeeded in exercising through Sabunji. Sabunji was an admirable agent in a mission of this kind, and it is impossible I could have been better served. His position as ex-editor of the “Nahleh,” a paper which, whether subsidized or not by Ismail, had always advocated the most enlightened views of humanitarian progress and Mohammedan reform, gave him a position with the Azhar reformers of considerable influence, and he was, besides, heart and soul with them in the national movement. As my representative he was everywhere received by the Nationalists with open arms, and they gave him their completest confidence. Nor was he unworthy of their trust or mine. The letters I sent him for them he communicated to them faithfully, and he faithfully reported to me all that they told him.10
It is striking, then, to read a rather disparaging comment on Sabunji’s service in Edith Finch’s biography of Blunt. Without providing details, she contradicts Blunt’s clear testament to Sabunji’s reliability: “Although not able wholly to trust [Sabunji], Blunt used him for what he was worth, first as his teacher in Mohammedan thought, afterward as secretary and finally, in the time of the Nationalist uprising in Egypt, as his emissary.” Indeed, according to Finch, Sabunji “turned out later to be something of an Oriental scallywag,” although she accepts Blunt’s testament to Sabunji’s trustworthiness during the crisis of 1882.11
From what seed did this distrust spring, from when did it date? The answers to both questions are to be found in a revealing letter from Sabunji to Blunt. Sabunji arrived back in London in late July or early August 1882. There he found his patron Blunt busily writing about the Egyptian drama, with a considerable emphasis upon his own mediation attempts during the crisis. Blunt’s piece, entitled “The Egyptian Revolution: A Personal Narrative,” was to appear in The Nineteenth Century, a leading London journal of opinion. Inevitably, Sabunji figured in the draft of this account, and Blunt was surprised to discover that this did not please Sabunji at all. True, Sabunji voiced no opposition when Blunt first mentioned the references to Sabunji in his narrative. But there soon followed a letter from Sabunji, seething with resentment at the possibility that his employment might become a matter of record:
Since I left you, I have been thinking, whether it would be expedient or not, to have my name mentioned in the paper you are about to publish. After due consideration I came to conclusion that that portion of the narrative concerning myself, not only would not add any valuable strength to your argument, but it would weaken also [a] great deal my relations with my friends. Since you represent me in your narrative as a hired agent, to carry out your designs, you put me just in that same light in which my bitter enemies attempted to expose me with regard to Ismail. The difference in the eye of the public would consist only in the change of the name of the hirer. You know, however, that our agreement was a confidential one, and it was never meant to be published in the papers. Now, by your putting me before the public in such an unfavourable light of a hired agent, of a tool, as your narrative suggests, you simply confirm my enemies’ former calumnies and pain my friends’ hearts. What excellent recompense for my earnest and honest work! In a time like this, frothing with prejudices, and while the nation’s passions have reached the apex of their effervescence, the most logical reasons and the most convincing proofs will produce no effect whatever. They would rather irritate than sooth. As to myself not being a British subject, nor an Egyptian, I need not give reason to anyone of my political doings, and nobody has any right to question me about my political views; hence, it would be useless to take upon yourself the responsibility of my political career. By doing so, you as an Englishman inconvenience yourself without doing any good to me as a stranger to both belligerent parties. But if you intend presenting the public with a complete and too naive narrative of your eastern politics, you might do so without mentioning the names of those who assisted you. The simple saying that you had carried on your political transactions with the leaders of the National party through the help of trustworthy Mohammadan & Christian friends would do just as well.12
This twisted logic for the suppression of the truth could not conceal what must have been Sabunji’s reason for fearing its publication. Despite the fact that Blunt footed the entire bill for Sabunji’s Egyptian adventures, and regarded Sabunji as his exclusive “agent,” Sabunji must have presented himself in Egypt as an independent actor, working not in Blunt’s employ but on his own. Indeed, nowhere in Sabunji’s dispatches from Egypt did he give any indication that he had informed the Nationalists of his mission and its sponsor. Urabi once introduced him as “a friend of Mr. Blunt,”13 but Sabunji obviously sat with the Nationalists as his own man, never making a clean breast of the fact of his employment.
Blunt was indeed “too naive” to have assumed that Sabunji could have presented himself in Egypt as acting in Blunt’s private service–a naiveté matched only by Sabunji’s, for assuming that the notoriously indiscreet Blunt would not wish to publish his version of the Egyptian saga in full. It is Sabunji’s prospect of being found out in a lie which gives his letter of protest a certain vulnerable poignancy.
Did Sabunji’s failure to represent his position frankly to the Egyptians shake Blunt’s confidence in his “emissary”? Blunt not only kept Sabunji but obliged him, omitting all reference to Sabunji from the article. Yet if Sabunji’s Egyptian friends had not even known that he was in Blunt’s service, then Blunt’s own initiatives might well have been lost in transmission. If this likelihood occurred to Blunt, it remained an inner doubt. When he did write his Secret History years later, he made no allusion to Sabunji’s self-misrepresentation. Indeed, Blunt’s overwrought testimony to Sabunji’s trustworthiness (on a page titled “Sabunji’s Good Qualities”) must have come to dispel any doubt as to Blunt’s own influence upon Urabi and the significance of Blunt’s mediation. Sabunji’s letter now casts a shadow upon both.
Judith Lady Wentworth, in her embittered portrait of her father, averred that Blunt squandered a great part of her mother’s fortune “in subsidies to the charlatans who besieged his door.”14 In addition to providing services of questionable value, Sabunji also sought outright subsidies from Blunt for his Arabic newspapers. Philippe de Tarrazi, author of the first history of the Arabic press, lists Sabunji’s numerous patrons, who reputedly financed his no less numerous journals, but Blunt does not figure among them.15 A begging letter from Sabunji to Blunt is therefore of great interest, not only for the light which it sheds upon their relationship, but for its detailed revelation of what it cost to publish an Arabic newspaper in exile. The letter was written in May 1882, at the height of Blunt’s confidence in Sabunji, after their trip to Egypt but before Sabunji had been sent as Blunt’s “emissary” to Urabi:
Last year, you were kind enough to promise me, that you will, for this year, subsidize my paper by £100–. You see now, that I did all I could to make the paper attractive & interesting to the Arabs. This number has cost me £24–6–0, for 1000 copies. Here are the details:
Front page 6–7–0 Five cuts 4–7–0 To the compositors of the Arabic types 4–15–0 To the printer & paper 5–2–0 Postage 3–15–0 £24– 6–0
The next number, of course, will not come to that much; It still will not cost less than £15–. So the expenses exceed my scanty means. Hence, I shall be very much obliged to you if would grant me the favour of £150– as a subsidy to my paper, which is, in some sense, yours too. I have been spending a great deal of money lately, & I feel in want of some help to be able to carry on this hard work.16
While the letter does not specify which of Sabunji’s newspapers was in such dire need of a subsidy, information in the letter allows an accurate inference. Sabunji’s Al-Nahla ceased to appear in late 1880. As we have seen, it was succeeded by Al-Khilafa in early 1881, but Tarrazi states that this was soon succeeded, also in 1881, by a newspaper entitled Al-Ittihad al-arabi (The Arab Union) of which only three issues appeared. As Blunt pledged his subsidy sometime in 1881, and was asked to make good his promise in 1882, it seems certain that Sabunji’s begging letter refers to Ittihad al-arabi. This conclusion is supported by Sabunji’s claim that he had done all that he could to make the paper “interesting to the Arabs.”
Of this obscure newspaper, all that Tarrazi has to say is that it appealed to speakers of Arabic “to form one league against the Turks in all the Arab lands.” When Sabunji saw that there was really no hope for such unity, he closed the newspaper after only three issues.17 In content, then, Al-Ittihad al-arabi must have echoed Blunt’s own ideas about the corruption of the Turks and the virtues of Arab independence from Turkish misrule. Sabunji’s letter makes it clear that Blunt had indeed intended to support an Arabic newspaper meant to subvert Ottoman authority in Arab lands.
But less than a month after Sabunji’s appeal, Blunt sent him to Egypt on a more important mission The growing preoccupation of both Blunt and Sabunji with the affairs of Egypt must have been the real reason for the newspaper’s closure: both set aside their anti-Ottoman agitation, in order to expound upon freedom for Egypt and the failings of British policy. Blunt’s revised position after the occupation of Egypt was that “the restoration of a more legitimate [i.e., Arab] Caliphate is deferred for the day when its fate shall have overtaken the Ottoman Empire. This is as it should be. Schism would only weaken the cause of religion, already threatened by a thousand enemies.”18 After the fall of Egypt, Blunt would not have supported a newspaper meant to aggravate precisely that schism.
Yet this did not end Sabunji’s association with Blunt. “Sabunji remained in my employment till the end of 1883,”19 in a capacity defined by Blunt as “my Oriental secretary.”20 Sabunji undoubtedly handled much of the Arabic correspondence and translations involved in Blunt’s support for Urabi’s defense. But Blunt may have backed one of Sabunji’s other pursuits: there is indirect evidence for the irregular appearance of Al-Nahla in 1883, and for the inclusion in it of a laudatory biography of Blunt.21 lt seems not unlikely that Blunt would have subsidized the newspaper of his secretary, along the very lines suggested in Sabunji’s earlier begging letter. Al-Nahla of 1883 would have differed from Al-Ittihad al-arabi of 1881-82 in criticizing British imperial policy rather than Turkish oppression of the Arabs. (Likewise Al-Nahla when it began to reappear regularly in April 1884.) Thus ended the anti-Ottoman and Arab separatist phase of Sabunji’s journalistic career, a phase which coincided almost precisely with Blunt’s own preoccupation with the same ideas. lt seems likely that this embarrassing coincidence disqualified Sabunji and his newspapers from mention by George Antonius in The Arab Awakening, where early Arab nationalism is not allowed to spring from any but the purest of sources.
“Like a raven . . . ”
Sabunji’s last mission in Blunt’s service was to accompany Blunt on a visit to Egypt and Ceylon, beginning in September 1883. Blunt had discovered that Sabunji’s activities had created “so much suspicion” in the Foreign Office, and so resolved not to take him. After all, Sabunji had conducted himself a year earlier as a leading participant in Urabi’s movement. But Blunt’s arrangements for other assistance in Egypt fell through, “and I have consequently determined to take Sabunji. The fact is I should be very helpless without him, and if it should so happen that I could be of any good it would be as well to have him at hand.” But Blunt made this assurance to Gladstone’s private secretary: “I shall caution Sabunji to get into no mischief, and he has always acted as far as I am am aware squarely in his service with me.”22 This utter dependence upon Sabunji had led Blunt to overlook Sabunji’s deceit of the previous year. But Blunt’s vouching for Sabunji in this letter of assurance carried an important rider. Sabunji had served him squarely only “as far as I am aware,” for Blunt could not dismiss the possibility that the Foreign Office had solid evidence to the contrary. During the fruitless Egyptian stopover, Blunt confined Sabunji to Port Said (although he “sent Sabunji like a raven from the Ark to get intelligence” in the town), and was happy to quit Egypt for Ceylon without Sabunji’s getting arrested.23
Blunt had failed in his attempt to have the Nationalist leaders repatriated, and he brought no good news to the Egyptian exiles in Ceylon. Still, once in Colombo, “Sabunji went forth like the raven from the Ark, and did not any more return!”24 Sabunji’s stint in Blunt’s service had come to an end. He would now tie his fate to Urabi’s, in anticipation of an inevitable and triumphal return to Egypt.
As it happened, Sabunji quarreled with Urabi over the bill for Blunt’s stay in Colombo, Urabi not agreeing to pay his share, or Sabunji having falsified the account of expenses, or both. Blunt had largely seen Urabi through Sabunji’s eyes, yet now Sabunji charged that Urabi had “cunningly managed to deceive his best friends.” Sabunji, in another agitated letter to Blunt, called Urabi “a pseudopatriot,” a “degraded & ambitious ignoramus,” “a bigamist and adulterer,” and the “biggest liar I ever saw in my life.”25 lt was an indictment of Urabi which Blunt, as Urabi’s greatest defender, could never accept. “In spite of [Urabi’s] faults and failings,” wrote Blunt, “there is something great about him which compels one’s respect. His faults are all the faults of his race, his virtues are his own.”26 Sabunji returned to London, where he was of much more value to Urabi’s enemies than to Blunt.27 His revived Al-Nahla of 1884 began a violent campaign against Urabi, of which Blunt would not have approved.
Sabunji’s subsequent career warrants separate study, but it may be characterized as a quest for the perfect patron. He had hoped that Blunt could get him “some appointment in the British Service,” but this had become quite impossible. Eventually he fixed his gaze upon Sultan Abdülhamid II, the arch-foe of Arab separatist dreams. When Blunt found Sabunji in Istanbul in 1893, his old friend was “in fine feather, having a permanent post as translator to the Sultan.” The terms were enviable: “He gets £40 a month and a house at Prinkipo, and so is in clover.”28 Sabunji could not have found steadier employment, and he served his former nemesis from 1891 until a revolution cleared Yildiz Palace in 1909. By that time, Sabunji had lost even the appearance of a revolutionary, just as he had once shed his priest’s cassock. Blunt dined with him in London in 1909, discovering that Sabunji had become “a Yildiz Palace spy, a little furtive old man dressed in black with a black skull cap on his head, a jewel in his shirt front and another jewel on his finger.”29
© Martin Kramer
Martin Kramer adds: After publication of this article in 1989, I sent an offprint to one of the very few historians with an interest in these matters: Albert Hourani. He sent me the following letter in reply, in which he offered an alternative interpretation. The letter suggests the ways in which his inclinations as a historian differed from mine. Hourani died in 1993. I never met him.
30 Belitha Villas
London N1 1PD
Tel. (01) 607-0802
27 July 1989
Dear Dr Kramer,
Many thanks for your kindness in sending me your article on Sabunji and Blunt. I have been puzzled by Sabunji for many years, ever since I read some copies of one of his newspapers which I found in the British Library. Now you have found interesting new material about him and his relations with Blunt.
I must admit that I am not wholly convinced by your conclusion, that Blunt’s mistrust of Sabunji goes back as far as 1882. I remember that passage in Edith Finch’s book about Sabunji turning out to be “something of an oriental scallywag”, but I have always assumed that this referred to Blunt’s later meetings with Sabunji in Istanbul and London. Now you are saying that the distrust goes back to 1882. I am sure that Blunt never completely trusted Sabunji, whom he thought to have been in the pay of the Khedive Isma’il; but your conclusion is that Blunt became even more distrustful when he received Sabunji’s letter, discovered by you in the Blunt papers and published on page 774 of your article. Your argument is, I think, summed up in the sentence on line 26 of page 775: “if Sabunji’s Egyptian friends had not even known that he was in Blunt’s service, then Blunt’s own initiatives might well have been lost in transmission”. In other words, while Sabunji would have wished to keep their relationship confidential, Blunt had an interest in making it public.
But one might put the opposite argument: that Blunt’s influence would be the greater if his ideas were put forward not by a hired emissary but by someone whom his Egyptian interlocutors thought to be a person of some weight, who was saying things to them not because he was paid to say them, but because in discussion with Blunt they had come to certain shared conclusions. One might say that, when Sabunji put this point to Blunt, he saw the force of it and omitted the reference to Sabunji in the article. It is difficult, moreover, to explain Blunt’s testimony to Sabunji in the Secret History if he had lost his respect for what he had done in 1882 (whatever he might have thought about his character in general).
I don’t think my argument is stronger than yours, but it at least puts forward a possible interpretation of this puzzling episode. It is many years since I thought about Blunt, and I am glad to know that someone is still studying these distant matters.
With thanks and kind regards,
P.S. are you quite fair to George Antonius on page 777? He did not try to give a complete history of the earlier stirrings of nationalism; he does not mention Blunt. If he had ever heard of Sabunji, he may have thought him too unimportant to mention.
1 See L. Zolondek, “Sabunji in England 1876-91: His Role in Arabic Journalism,” Middle Eastern Studies 15 (1978): 102-15.
2 West Sussex County and Diocesan Record Office, Chichester, Acc. 5306, file 53 (hereafter: Blunt Letters). These are a portion of Blunt’s papers, the bulk of which are in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I am grateful to the Right Honorable Viscount Knebworth for permission to examine the Chichester collection.
3 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt (London: Unwin, 1907), 122. Elsewhere Blunt wrote: “My articles in the Fortnightly Review were translated while I was in Cairo [in 1881] and read and approved by my friends in the Nationalist press.” Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, “The Egyptian Revolution: A Personal Narrative,” The Nineteenth Century 12 (1882): 332.
4 Elizabeth Longford, A Pilgrimage of Passion: The Life of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979), 163.
5 Sabunji to Lady Anne Blunt, 25 May 1881, Blunt Letters.
6 Blunt, “The Egyptian Revolution,” 328.
7 Sabunji to Blunt, 22 October 1881, Blunt Letters.
8 Blunt, Secret History, 163.
9 Ibid., 296, 298.
10 Ibid., 299.
11 Edith Finch, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, 1840-1922 (London: Cape, 1938), 122, 156.
12 Sabunji to Blunt, 9 August 1882, Blunt Letters.
13 Sabunji to Blunt, 18 June 1882, in Blunt, Secret History, 342.
14 Lady Wentworth, The Authentic Arabian Horse and His Descendants, 3d ed.(Canaan, N.Y.: Sporting Book Center, 1979), 74.
15 Philippe de Tarrazi, Ta’rikh al-sihafa al-arabiyya, 4 vols. (Beirut: Al-Matba‘a al-adabiyya,1913-33), 2:250-53.
16 Sabunji to Blunt, 12 May 1882, Blunt Letters.
17 Tarrazi, Ta’rikh al-sihafa, 2:252-53.
18 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, The Future of Islam (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, 1882), viii.
19 Blunt, Secret History, 299.
20 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Gordon at Khartoum (London: Swift, 1911), 45. 21 Zolondek, “Sabunji in England,” 108.
22 Blunt to Edward Hamilton, 14 September 1883, in Blunt, Gordon at Khartoum, 572.
23 Blunt, Gordon at Khartoum, 51.
24 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, India under Ripon (London: Unwin, 1909), 19. 25 Sabunji (Umballa) to Blunt (Allahabad), 6 January 1884, Blunt Letters.
26 Blunt, India under Ripon, 25.
27 Al-Nahla, 16 May 1884. Angry reference to this number of the paper is made by Urabi in a letter to Blunt, 23 June 1884, in file 2 of the Chichester collection.
28 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, My Diaries, Being a Personal Narrative of Events, 1888-1914, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1921), 1:102, 105. Tarrazi speaks of £50 a month, and a well-furnished house in one of the capital’s best suburbs; Tarrazi, Ta’rikh al-sihafa, 2:74.
29 Blunt, My Diaries, 2:250.