The Linguist and the Emperor

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Authors: Daniel Meyerson
realizing it, Nelson overtook Napoleon’s fleet in the middle of the Mediterranean, and arrived in Egypt three days ahead of him.
    The governor comes to meet Nelson, with him a large retinue of officials and guards. It is a brilliant spectacle, the governor advancing down the wharf under a red silk canopy surrounded by turbaned courtiers and Nubian soldiers, armor glittering in the sun. And at the edge of the crowd, there is a sharp-eyed observer who records the exchange: the historian Jabarti whose writings later doom him.

    The English told us that the French had set out from their country with a great fleet. They further said: “We are their enemies and do not know in which direction they intend to sail. Perhaps they will attack you suddenly and you will not be able to repel them.”
    However, al-Sayyid Kurayyim thought their words to be trickery.
    The English leader requested: “Sell us water and provisions and we shall stay in our ships lying in wait for them.”
    Kurayyim replied: “We do not accept what you say nor will we give you anything.”
    Then he expelled the foreigners that God’s will might be fulfilled.

    One can read between the lines: Nelson, no diplomat, plays his hand badly. Unused to eastern circumlocution and stratagems, he states his business brusquely, tersely, like a soldier, and he is not believed.
    The moment is decisive: If Nelson had stayed, Napoleon would never have been able to land. He and his army would have been destroyed on sight. “But God’s will was otherwise,” as Jabarti puts it. The setting sun shimmers over the Mediterranean, its deep blue waters streaked with green and turquoise swells. The muezzin’s long, wailing calls to prayer echo from hundreds of mosques as the one-armed admiral is rowed back to his ships.
    Nelson heads north, continuing his search off the coasts of Italy and Greece. Egypt is left to its fate.

    ALL OF FRANCE follows the Egyptian campaign with bated breath, wildly celebrating Napoleon’s victories with the enthusiasm of a people who have had their fill of revolution and terror and are eager now for glory.
    Terrible disasters, one after another, quickly follow these victories, but it does not matter for Napoleon turns them into “immortal triumphs” in the dispatches he sends home. Perhaps extravagances, lies, or boasts are better descriptions of the news Napoleon sends back of the Egyptian debacle.
    Then suddenly he is back. One day, stirring military bulletins are everywhere: “The epoch-making French army has this month,” etc., etc. The next day “The Sultan El-Kebir,”—the Great Sultan as the Egyptians call him—is seen at the Paris opera, barely acknowledging ecstatic applause before withdrawing to the back of his box with a mysterious, preoccupied air, indifferent to such displays or feigning indifference. As a careful reader of Machiavelli, Napoleon knows that the prince must make his presence rare. And it is a prince that he now wants to be, his new republican title “First Consul” notwithstanding.
    Napoleon returns alone, a fact unremarked upon at the time. He had slipped out of Egypt secretly, at night, leaving the pitiable remnant of his army to await the final defeat by themselves.
    Even General Kléber, the next in command, is informed of his departure after the fact. A letter from Napoleon is given to him beginning (in true princely style) “By the time you receive this, I will have left Egypt” and going on to instruct Kléber to “hold out for as long as possible.”
    And Kléber, scatologically cursing the day he ever set eyes on Napoleon, does hold out. For almost a year, he attempts to salvage what he can. Finally, he dies on a Cairo street, cut down by a religious fanatic who leaps out from amid a crowd of beggars and raises the cry which has echoed in Egypt from the moment the French arrive: “Death to the infidel dogs!” Josephine will name a pale, hundred-petaled rose in poor Kléber’s honor.
    Command is left

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