Reading the War's Colonialism: E. M. Forster and Mohammed El Adl
E. M. Forster does not belong within the canon of British First World War writers, nor did he have any desire to be there.1 Yet Forster spent most of the war in Egypt, working as a Red Cross researcher whose job it was to tour the hospitals of Alexandria interviewing soldiers about their missing comrades.2 For most critics the central event of Forster’s life in Alexandria was his intimate relationship with Mohammed El Adl, an Arab Egyptian (Martin and Piggford 13).3 Ever since Sara Suleri proposed that homosexual desire was key to British colonial power in India, Forster’s work has played a significant role in postcolonial and queer literary studies (Singh 39). His cross cultural, same-sex relationship with El Adl has been folded into debates about colonialism and homosexuality, but neither postcolonial nor queer studies scholars have attended to the war context of the relationship or of Forster’s Egyptian writings. Only Forster’s recent biographer Wendy Moffat has pointed to the importance of his war experience for Forster’s philosophy of intimacy between men (106). Yet, by virtue of his struggle to represent the interconnections among war, colonialism, and same sex desire, Forster invites us to read his Alexandria writings across the lines that separate war writing from colonialism. Reading across these lines, however, requires us to integrate the methods and insights of transnational First World War studies into analysis of mainstream twentieth-century literature.
A welcome feature of the war’s centenary has been a wider acknowledgment that Britain’s “Great War” was a global war fought by an imperial nation in the context of a changing world order. The impetus for this reconsideration of Britain’s imperial war story has come from scholars such as Santanu Das, Rozina Visram, Richard Smith, Christian Koller, amongst many others. Their work, over several decades, has given new visibility to the major role played in the war by peoples and societies outside Europe. Das, for example, urges scholars to “embed the experience and memory of the First World War in a more multiracial and international framework” (Empire 1). That framework includes the far-reaching consequences of the war for the home populations in nations, regions, and cultures outside Europe and North America, as theatres of war or sources of labor, money, and goods. Colonized subject peoples of the European and Ottoman empires, the indigenous peoples of the Dominions and the United States, and contract laborers from countries outside the imperial orbit, such as China, played a major role. During the war, Britain mobilized around 1.4 million men from the Indian subcontinent alone, additional to the standing army in India (Thompson 158). Indians served as both combatants and laborers in the Middle East and North Africa. And, for the first time, Britain used Indian soldiers, in France and Belgium, in combat against Europeans. They were not alone. Troops and labor came from across the empire, from Ireland, South and West Africa, the British West Indies, Newfoundland, Fiji, and beyond. The war produced what historian Koller terms “transnational military migration” “from the colonial world to Europe on an unprecedented scale,” with significant cultural effects on the “mutual perception of Europeans and colonial soldiers” (Koller 114, 113).
Contemporary British war studies needs to decouple our late-twentieth and twenty-first century interpretations of the First World War from a historical formation of the imperial nation, which too often governs our assumptions about whose experience matters. The task of recovering the experiences of non-European war migrants is complex, demanding the construction of new archives. As Jo Lunn points out the majority of non-white, non-European participants came from largely non-literate and semi-literate societies, and have left “precious few records of their wartime ordeal” (“France’s Legacy” 108). Their experiences and perspectives are often missing from the traditional Eurocentric and text-based First World War archives. Das, for example, in his work on India and the war turns to family memorabilia, Punjabi folksongs, and sound recordings made by the Prussian Phonographic Commission of Indian prisoners of war in Germany (“Indians at Home” 70-71). This recovery work also requires new ways of defining and interpreting conventional archives. Das shows how an Australian soldier’s diary bears the trace of an Indian soldier’s experience—evidence of cross cultural contact—through a signature, written by a sepoy in English, Urdu, and Gurmukhi (70). Lunn, whose oral histories of Senegalese veterans and their descendants have been a major archival contribution, has compared canonical European war memoirs by Robert Graves and Ernst Jünger with the oral memoir of Kande Kamara, a Tirailleur Sénéglais .4
Historical awareness of the experiences of these soldiers and war workers, and the impact of their service on their communities, regions, and countries both during and after the war has gained considerable ground over the past decade. However, the entanglement of the First World War with colonialism has long been marginal to the study of English literature during and after the war, largely because a persistent focus on a narrow canon of Western Front war writers has proved a major barrier to change. Britain’s imperial mindset—the globe centered on Britain—has silently persisted in the imaginary geography of First World War studies.
Another trope of empire, the symbolic division of the world into the non-white spaces of the colonies and the white European domestic space of the nation is also replicated in our treatment of war writing and colonial writing as distinct genres (Buck 4-5). Forster, a central modernist, critic of British colonialism, and war worker, offers a compelling starting point for addressing these challenges and developing new reading practices. His war experience took place on the uncertain border between Europe and Asia. And Forster’s urgent efforts to write about the war lives of the soldiers he met in Alexandria, about his Egyptian lover, and about Egypt under British imperial rule blur the lines between war memoir, elegy, ethnography, travelogue, and fiction, as well as between private letters or notebooks and published or publishable works. The unsettling of traditional genre distinctions while writing about Egypt is central to the way Forster’s writing brings into view, but also loses sight of, what he once termed war’s “colonial aspect” (“Cocoanut & Co.” 3).
The war years led to no big novel or substantial war memoir for Forster, although some critics see his experience of the British in Egypt as critical to the completion of Passage to India after the war. While in Alexandria, he published travelogues, reviews, and essays, some of which were collected in Pharos and Pharillon, published by the Hogarth Press in 1923. After the war, he also published Alexandria: a History and Guide (1922), a monumental guidebook mainly completed while in Alexandria. Nevertheless, Forster wrote extensively during his war years in Egypt. His letters, journals, and notebooks, the semi-public material that is so central to the Forster oeuvre, register ideas and feelings that could not be published, both because they concern his homosexuality, most especially his intimacy with El Adl, and because they are critical of British rule in Egypt and its justification for the war. As Forster wrote to his friend Florence Barger about a “Press Censorship Memorandum” in 1917: “Why does all one wants to write promise to be unpublishable – blasphemous, unpatriotic, or immoral – one of these? And then England asks one to lay down one’s life for her!” (Letter to Barger 1917.).
Two such “unpublishable” works are Forster’s elegy for his lover, “Mohammed El Adl’s Book,” begun following El Adl’s death in May 1922, and a ten-page war memoir, “Incidents of War Memoir,” drafted between November 1915 and July 1917 in Alexandria. These works were only finally published in 2008 and 2004, over 30 years after Forster’s death. Even now they are tucked away in monumental editions of his writings—the elegy for El Adl is an appendix to the over 400-page edition of Forster’s Alexandrian writings and is abridged. “Incidents of War Memoir” is part of the three-volume collection of Forster’s notebooks and journals. The marginality of these two works, particularly surprising in the case of a work about cross-cultural same-sex intimacy such as “Mohammed El Adl’s Book,” indicates the absence of a context within which to discern their significance. The new scholarship on the experiences, perspectives, and significance of Europe’s subject peoples during and after the First World War offers such a context, in which we can reframe Forster’s writings as an archive for El Adl as a subject of the overlapping forces of war and colonialism. Reading these two works by Forster alongside one another lets us see them as documents that contribute to the larger archive of the colonial subject as war subject. Connecting these works that seem to belong in distinct categories—the First World War and the history of colonial sexualities—reveals the place of the colonial subject in British war writing, but only if we expand our understanding of the category of war writing.
The composition history of “Mohammed El Adl’s Book” runs parallel to that of some of the canonical (and publishable) postwar memoirs. Edmund Blunden, for example, began to record his war experience in 1918, broke off, and returned to the task in 1924 finally publishing Undertones of War in 1928. Like Blunden, Forster spent years wrestling with his war experiences. Between the news of El Adl’s death in 1922 and the moment where he puts it to rest in 1929, Forster wrote a memoir of his lover. Like Siegfried Sassoon, who in the autobiographical Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man commemorates his passionate feelings for a fellow officer, Forster mourns a same-sex relationship formed in wartime. Unlike Blunden or Sassoon, or even non-combatant memoirists such as Vera Brittain and Mary Borden who record the traumatic scene of frontline nursing, Forster doesn’t fit the profile of an eyewitness war writer. He never saw combat, and his Red Cross service was outside of Europe and clerical rather than medical. Critical of the war, he went to Alexandria in November 1915 as an alternative to military service (Moffat 123-24). The following year, when conscription was introduced, he made use of his Cambridge networks to avoid military service, there being no mechanism in Egypt to apply for an exemption from conscription on grounds of conscience (Moffat 134-35).
The nature of Forster’s war experience, therefore, situates his work outside the canon of First World War writing. “Incidents of War Memoir” might have qualified as war writing, centered as it is on wounded soldiers. However, the memoir’s setting, distant from both the Western Front and frontline action, and the fact that Forster abandoned the memoir in draft form, make it peripheral. The connection is more tenuous for “Mohammed El Adl’s Book”—an elegy by a non-combatant for a non-combatant. But an even bigger obstacle to reading “Mohammed El Adl’s Book” as war writing is the identity of that non-combatant. El Adl scarcely fits traditional ideas of a war subject. A civilian ticket collector on the Alexandria trams, he was neither a member of the Egyptian Army fighting in the region, nor one of the 200,000 plus Egyptians recruited to the labor corps supporting the British Expeditionary Force (National Archives). Forster’s lover doesn’t count as a loyal servant of the British Empire, nor is he Forster’s combat comrade. To see El Adl as one of the many invisible millions whose lives were shaped by the First World War requires a shift in our concept of war subjects and our approach to war writing.
Santanu Das’s characterization of the texts and archives of transnational war studies as palimpsests can enable such as shift (“Indians at Home” 81-84). Speaking of the necessary entanglement of colonial and postcolonial memory in imperial histories, Jay Winter calls for the treatment of memory sites as palimpsests, texts “overwritten…reused or altered but still bear[ing] traces of [their] earlier form” (“Palimpsests” 167). Forster’s project of memorializing his Egyptian lover unsettles the boundaries of the nation and points to the layered nature of such sites of memory. The traces of El Adl’s life as both colonial and war subject are inscribed in Forster’s writings, even while “overwritten” by Forster’s purposes and desire.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Egypt was a “semi-colonial” region of British economic, political, and military interest (Koller 113). The construction of the Suez Canal turned Egypt into an essential route to India, while its importance to the European economy as a cotton-producer further ensured British commercial interests. In 1882, Britain invaded the country in order to block the anti-European “Urabi” uprising and protect British business interests. Between 1882 and 1914, while still formally part of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt operated as a “Veiled Protectorate” with British advisers exercising effective control over the Egyptian government, backed by the presence of around 5,000 British soldiers. In 1914, Britain imposed martial law followed by the declaration of Egypt as an official Protectorate (Mabro 250). Britain was thus able to control the Suez Canal and use Egypt as a strategic base for the war in the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East. Over the course of the war, around 400,000 British troops were garrisoned in Egypt, with about 25,000 in Alexandria (Moffat 126-27). As a result of its pre-war and wartime occupation, Britain remained in effective control of Egypt through the post-war years until Nasser sized power in 1952. This is the context for El Adl’s life.
Forster’s correspondence and notebooks, including his elegy, together with some surviving letters from El Adl to Forster, tell us the little we know about El Adl, giving a fragmented portrait almost exclusively from Forster’s perspective. Born in the late nineteenth century, Mohammed El Adl grew up doubly subjected to the Ottoman Empire and British occupation. He lived his final years, between 1914 and 1922, in the intersections of the First World War and British colonialism. Arriving in Alexandria around the same time as Forster, he had grown up in Mansourah, a small town in the lower Nile delta. Although provincial, early-twentieth-century Mansourah was one of a number of Egyptian towns that had acquired importance as a regional center for the cotton export industry, and was as a consequence linked by railway to Alexandria (Chaichian 29). The character of pre-war Mansourah was a function of European interests in Egypt as a producer of raw cotton for export. El Adl’s identity and the nature of his war experience are shaped by these urban origins and their connection to colonialism.
As a town dweller El Adl was less likely to serve in the Egyptian army and protected from recruitment to the Egyptian Labour Corps, which drew largely from Egypt’s rural population. El Adl’s urban upbringing probably accounts too for his being partially secularized. He writes to Forster that, “Yes, I had kept Ramadan this year owing that my wife is very simple and is very pious” (“Mohammed El Adl’s Book” 340). At the same time his letters suggest a strong religious affiliation, in for example, his insistence that Forster “Be sure that your religious opinions do not put me off you as you respect mine as I do yours . . . God has created everything on and beneath the globe” (336). In the first quotation El Adl is evidently responding to an inquiry from Forster, and we cannot know if El Adl disassociates himself from his peasant wife’s religious practices because he is less devout, or in order to present the English Forster with a more cosmopolitan self as defined through European eyes. But we do know that Egypt’s emerging urban middle class of the early twentieth century, whose existence depended on processes of modernization, was “ambivalently connected to religion” (Di-Capua 925).
El Adl’s class position is unclear. On arriving in Alexandria he worked as a wage laborer on the trams, but inherited property from his father in 1918. Unlike Forster, who never learned his lover’s native language, El Adl was sufficiently educated to write to Forster in English, and to hold a clerical position with the British military.5 His letters to Forster demonstrate considerable fluency and a self-consciousness about his level of literacy. From the canal zone he writes that “I can read all your letters easily [sic] I think that my English is greatly improved for I spend all my time going with the Englishmen. I want you to correct my mistakes but not to blame me” (Letter to EMF). Early-twentieth-century Egypt saw the emergence of urban middle and working classes (Lockman 445). However, as Joel Benin points out, at this period “lines of class demarcation were not yet clearly drawn” (18). The Nationalist Party (al-Hizbal-Watani) supported the unionization of increasingly militant native workers, with a particular focus on transport workers. The tram industry, in which El Adl worked, was especially active with several strikes between 1900 and 1911, after which the British suppressed both nationalist and union activity (Lockman 454). As Benin points out, semi-professional office workers and legal clerks unionized during the same period, despite their different social position (18). In the period at which El Adl enters English modernist writing, between his first meeting with Forster in spring 1917 and his death in May 1922, El Adl struggled, like many aspirant Egyptians, to achieve economic and class stability. The war worsened the economic position of working class and peasant Egyptians, causing high unemployment and shortages of food and fuel. However, it ultimately improved the position of the Egyptian middle classes, as wartime restrictions on imports led to a growth in local manufacturing (Benin 18-19). As El Adl envisioned his opportunities, as ticket collector, clerk, and cotton broker, the war is not merely a backdrop to his life; it set the conditions. Where El Adl lived, his work, his opportunities, and his relationships are shaped by the war.
Most obviously, El Adl’s relationship with Forster, as friend, lover, and patron, was a direct result of the war. Their relationship belongs within the contacts across cultural, racial, and class boundaries that were enabled by the war’s massive migrations, and which are only now being documented and explored. The interpretation of their relationship is complicated, a fact that Forster was quick to recognize. Forster, an Englishman in Egypt on war service, offered El Adl patronage as a result of his sexual interest in “oriental” men. As Joseph Boone has demonstrated, a tradition of sexual exploitation of young Arab men by European homosexuals existed well before the war. Forster’s interest in El Adl, and perhaps El Adl’s openness to sexual relations with British men, belongs in this context, and reminds us of the structural inequities of their relationship. However, desire and love cannot be separated from the contexts of their formation, making questions of agency and emotional reciprocity complex. We can neither uncover nor rule out the sincerity of El Adl’s feelings for Forster as we look at the material difference their relationship made to his life.
El Adl was able to use Forster’s social networks, which included Cambridge connections, the Red Cross, and the Army, to move from the trams to clerical work in the British army. As a clerical worker, El Adl earned significantly more and seemed to be on his way to middle-class status and economic security. However, the job came near to killing him: working in the restricted military zone of the Canal, El Adl was hospitalized for a minor illness, and nearly died because of the terrible conditions of native hospitals. His escape was largely due once again to Forster’s networks. Back home in Mansourah, he wrote Forster that “I am allright now, better than before I want to tell you how happy I will be if I found a job outside the Canal Zone and it will be better if it was not a military job” (“Mohammed El Adl’s Book” 337). Less understated in his reaction, Forster wrote to his friend Florence Barger that the army “shovels [Egyptians] around like dirt” (Selected Letters 1: 288).
The rest of El Adl’s life was spent in Mansourah, where he inherited his father’s house, married, and set up as a middle man in Egypt’s commodity business, first as a cotton broker and then buying and selling beans. The everyday story of his declining health and finances turn out to be also connected to the war. In August or September of 1918 El Adl was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which over the next few years was to make him increasingly financially dependent on Forster as his health declined. Even his contraction of the illness may have been an indirect cost of the war. TB rates increased during the First World War, as the disease spread by the mass movements of personnel and refugees (Harrison and Worboys 111). Certainly his health was further impacted by the continued military occupation of Egypt after 1918. Political conflict, arising from Britain’s efforts to achieve a post-war settlement that would keep Egyptian nationalists out of power, trapped El Adl in the interstices of war and colonialism. In 1919 he was imprisoned for five months on a false charge of selling firearms. His letters to Forster detail his trial under Martial Law, heard by “a Major, two Lieuts.; and a soldier.,” with the Australian soldiers who framed El Adl acting as witnesses (“Mohammed El Adl’s Book” 344). Following his release, in part enabled by money from Forster, he writes about the conditions in the Egyptian prison, including the guards’ extortion of sex and money in exchange for basic necessities.6 Already a supporter of Egyptian nationalism, which he comments on in his letters to Forster, El Adl was further politicized and embittered by his experiences, turning the words English and cruel into synonyms in his letters (“Mohammed El Adl’s Book” 344). He wishes that Forster was American, because the “English are revengable [his spelling].” (“Mohammed El Adl’s Book” 343). El Adl’s health and his finances never recovered, and two years later he and his young son were both dead, remembered by friends and family, and in British modernism via Forster’s writings.
Forster’s writings enable us to reconstruct the experiences and perspectives of a colonized subject in wartime. By the same token, they challenge us to accept El Adl as an authentic subject of English First World War memoir and elegy. El Adl crosses the genre boundaries between colonial and war writings, his presence insisting that we recognize his imprint on Forster. He is pivotal to the potential Forster discovers in both the phenomenon of trench comradeship among First World War soldiers and the expression of same-sex intimacy between an Englishman and Egyptian across the divide of colonizer and colonized. And, he connects Forster’s preoccupation with English colonialism to the First World War, inciting Forster to experiment with generic conventions in ways that integrate colonialism, same sex desire, and war writing. However, Forster’s representation of El Adl is marked by erasure as well as preservation. In 1922, for example, Forster determined to dedicate his Alexandria essays Pharos and Pharillon to El Adl, but was painfully ambivalent about whether or not to use his lover’s name. “All his life” wrote Forster to Florence Barger, “I hushed him up and I feel I ought to put his name in full. Yet I don’t want questions from outsiders” (cited in Moffat 192). In the end, he dedicated the book, in Greek, “To Hermes, Leader of Souls.” This palimpsestic gesture both invokes and writes over El Adl, locating Forster’s Arab lover within a Hellenic cosmopolitan discourse of same sex desire. As he wrote in another letter to Barger, El Adl “lies buried in my heart, in a place where there is neither remembrance nor forgetfulness” (Letter to Barger 1924). El Ad’s precarious relationship to “remembrance and forgetfulness” opens Forster’s writing to the colonized subject as war subject, while also materializing the problem of his status there. We can see this most clearly in the connections Forster makes in his writings between the wounded soldiers he was interviewing as a Red Cross worker and his relationship with El Adl.
In 1917 Forster wrote a letter to his Cambridge friend and famous political scientist Goldsworth Lowes Dickinson. This letter connects wounded First World War soldiers to the colonial subjects of Egypt, represented in the text by El Adl (Selected Letters 1: 250-51). The letter begins in early May as an effort to hammer out an intellectual and political stance on the war that could measure up to the challenge presented by the suffering Forster witnessed in the military hospitals of Alexandria. In a section of the letter titled “Human nature under war conditions,” which he was to incorporate into “Incidents of War Memoir,” Forster presents as bankrupt a public arena of patriotic rhetoric and political statement (250). Appeals to “God” or “Nation,” he suggests, are merely the evasion of unmanageable feelings such as “fear or sorrow.” Only in the realm of personal relationships he suggests do “most men attain to love and unselfishness and insight” (251). It is the convalescent soldiers in the military hospitals who educate Forster in a materialist anti-war philosophy of “love.” Theory, he tells “Goldie,” will have to be tested against “actual experience” and will likely “shatter into dust” (251). This metaphor is picked up at once: “The Hospitals here are full of such dust – boys calling out “Oh Lord have mercy on me, Oh take this thing away,” or even more terribly “I’m in a fix, I’m in a fix” (253). Faced with bodily mutilation, he describes his intense, but impotent, “wave of helpless indignation that still shakes me,” and proclaims to his friend “Let us look after bodies that there may be a next generation which may have the right to look after the soul” (253). Here, however, Forster breaks off.
When Forster picks up his pen again seven weeks later on June 25, it is to tell Goldie, somewhat apologetically but also jubilantly, that “much has happened to me” (253). Forster writes that he has met Mohammed El Adl. His attention shifts to problems of cross-cultural intimacy between upper-middle-class Englishman and lower-class Arab. The colonized male subject seemingly displaces the wounded soldier if we read across the temporal gap in Forster’s narrative to Goldie. While Forster does not thematically integrate the scene of war and the scene of colonialism, his letter juxtaposes them in the same writing space. He also glimpses a connection between the world of “love and unselfishness and insight” among soldiers and a critique of Englishness that can bring El Adl into the same frame as the war. At the end of Forster’s announcement to Goldie of his new relationship with El Adl he returns to the question of patriotism, announcing a new politics of inverted snobbery. Forster’s “snob” is one who “shrink[s] consciously” from middle-class people “just as they shrink unconsciously from the lower-class who we love” (254). Prejudice he asserts joyfully is bodily, “[m]iddle class people smell” (254). Implicit in the letter is a connection between Forster’s new sexual relationship with an Arab Egyptian tram conductor and his discovery of an alternate set of values in the male world of the rank and file soldiers. This connection is fundamental to Forster’s post-war elegy for El Adl, “Mohammed El Adl’s Book.” It is through the writing of “Incidents of War Memoir” that Forster discovers in the soldiers’ stories of trench intimacy a language in which to express his relationship with El Adl.
Outside of his correspondence, the brief ten pages of “Incidents of War Memoir” is Forster’s only sustained writing about his work interviewing wounded soldiers.7 The memoir was composed between November 1915 and July 1917. It is clearly an unfinished fragment and probably never intended for publication, an ordinary part of the approximately 20,000 pages of journal writing kept over his lifetime. “Incidents of War Memoir” begins like the many narrative fragments, diaries, and memoirs of British military and auxiliary personnel, as a travelogue, an account of his journey to the foreign spaces of war and the East. It quickly changes, however, from travelogue to a record of Forster’s interviews with convalescent soldiers. With little commentary or reflection, he reproduces (sometimes exactly and sometimes in summary form) the words of convalescent soldiers in the hospitals, the majority of whom are working-class infantrymen. In this brief memoir, Forster becomes an ethnographer, his subject the culture of the British Tommy.
For Forster, the working class identification of the Tommy is central to the soldier’s appeal. His friendship with Edward Carpenter and his working-class lover George Merrill had introduced him to a utopian politics of cross-class sexual relationship between men, visible in his pre-war novel Maurice. As well as a traditional object of late nineteenth-century homosexual desire, the Tommy becomes part of a counter-discourse to English middle-class masculinity. Forster’s letters show him fascinated with the soldiers’ lives, passing on stories such as that of a Sergeant who left home after he “took a knife to his stepmother” and “since leaving has apparently found life a bed of roses” (Letter to Alice Clara Forster). Soldiers, he writes, “can be amazing and such loves” (Forster, Letter to Alice Clara Forster). Lecturing in 1956, Forster named the soldiers as his intended audience for his Alexandria guidebook. He recalled his image of “soldiers walking about singly or in groups with the convenient little volume in their hands, or getting it up beforehand as they rested on their beds in the convalescent camps” (Forster, Alexandria 357). Writing for the soldiers, at least in Forster’s imagination, seems to bring with it the suggestion of intimacy between and with them. This desire for intimacy replays his own story of casual sex with a soldier, but also speaks to his sense that he had discovered a secret world at odds with the political, military, and sexual values of upper-middle-class Englishness. It is this male sub-culture with values, habits, and a complex emotional life subsisting within the military culture of the army that Forster records in his war memoir.
In “Incidents of War Memoir” the soldiers become, according to Forster’s ethnographic terminology, “informants” about their culture. That masculine culture is simultaneously that of the front line soldier and male, working-class life. The soldiers’ words build an anti-heroic version of war lined with horror. Forster’s informants talk about having to “cut through corpses” as they dig trenches (10), and about bodies that are impossible to bury decently, because they have been “bust all to bits by a shell” (10) or are floating onto the beach from the hospital ships (11). Fighting itself is brutal: one man “club[s]” a Turk “with the butt-end” out of fear (11), while another describes the terror of going over the top, “and the men are all the time shoving up those who won’t go. Once over they start – except on the occasion when too much rum was served and they rolled drunk” (12). Patriotism receives short shrift from one Irishman, Sgt. Corrigan, lying in the hospital bed “quarrel[ling] with myself . . . the foolish things I’ve done. Enlisting! King & Country! Godstrewth! . . . I don’t care what country I belong to, provided I’ve my home” (15).
Forster also collects cynical, irreverent, and sometimes brutal portraits of the men’s relationships to their officers. Men comment on the unearned privilege of rank: “Don’t I wish I was a “blooming ossifer” too,” remarks one man about the leisure activities of doctors and nurses “out late in the evening trying their best to comfort each other” (14). Another jokes, “of course officers were buried separate – in a different hole” (16) . Coercive moralism is another target. An officer in the trenches, “a religious man . . . always trying to improve the men and incidentally treating them like dogs” “funk[s]” an attack (12). Forster’s informant tells him that the men “cried” “we don’t go if you don’t . . . and bumped him over” (12). Another man describes the British officer’s inability to express empathy leading to a little skit from Forster: “Officers are all right in peace time, but when its sympathy they fail.” “‘Excuse me, sir; is it correct my pal’s been killed?’ – ‘I’m sorry my poor man. I’m afraid I don’t know: and off to the canteen for a drink’ twirling his cane” (18). The overall effect of Forster’s compilation is a portrait of the British lower-classes in wartime; the Tommy emerges as an independent thinker, expert in the use of humor to speak about power from below, expert too in endurance.
Equally important is the insight Forster gains and gives into men’s intimate relationships with each other. As Moffat argues, Forster comes “to feel that the greatest story of the war was to be found” in the relationships between these men, “a hidden story” of war that he sub-titles “Friendship” in the “Incidents of War Memoir” (Moffat 133; “Incidents” 12). In documenting the soldiers’ words, he records what Das calls “an intimate history of human emotions” that resists simple categorization in the language of “sexuality” (Touch 136). “He was my bosom chum” (10), says one man, while another writes in a letter, “All the boys what I mated with is dead” (12). Many of the key features of the soldiers’ intimate lives in “Incidents of War Memoir” correspond with Das’s characterization of trench relationships, from the memento of a mate, a “farthing . . . keepsake” that “I would not part with . . . for anything” (13) to the maternal care given by men to each other, “after grousing he would treat him like a mother. Oh it’s grand!” (17). And, as Das argues, the awareness of death, the body’s mutilation and suffering, invests this intimate life with a particular quality, an awareness of both its “contingent nature” and its capacity to “outlive” the moment in memory (Touch 114-15). In “Incidents of War Memoir” the soldiers’ own words describe that context of suffering and awareness of death, which defines these brief expressions of love. Only at the end does Forster draw a lesson, commenting on the “sweetness and nobility there can be in intercourse between individuals” that “an observer from another planet who watched not only the earth’s wars but its institutions would never infer” (18).
Like “Incidents of War Memoir,” “Mohammed El Adl’s Book” is grounded in the ethnographic impulse of fidelity to words. The impulse that de-centered Forster as middle-class war memoirist and made him instead a chronicler of lower-class soldiers also drives his elegy, which he cast in the form of a personal letter to El Adl. In the early stages of his letter, Forster tries to document the relationship, including in its body some of El Adl’s words. But he recognizes the act of writing as one of overwriting: “all these words get in my way. I have used them for so many other things. They keep me away from the man I am trying to honour.” Eventually he writes that the “letter will never get finished in the form that it began.” Instead of ethnography, he foregrounds the role of his own desire in making El Adl the object of his own story, “reused or altered” as in Winter’s characterization of the palimpsest (167). By contrast with “Incidents of War Memoir,” Forster’s choice of genre, the private letter, locates him within the work as interlocutor rather than author or ethnographer. And the fact that El Adl cannot counter or confirm Forster’s words becomes the point of Forster’s letter.
In “Mohammed El Adl’s Book” Forster is haunted by the impossibility of knowing whether his lover shared his sexual desire. Sex, what Forster calls the “carnal,” is never easy between them, and he recalls El Adl’s comment that “my damned prick always stands up whoever it is, it means nothing” (16). The question of El Adl’s desire is irresolvable in the context of colonialism; did he want Forster or was Forster the exploiter of an exotic Arab boy in the tradition of homosexual Orientalism? (Boone 93-96). His dead lover’s absence comes to represent this unanswerability, the lack of a guarantee of reciprocity in the face of their differences of race, religion, class, and power.8 The very act of memorialization designed to “honour” El Adl will actually erase him. Forster writes that, “I have fallen in love through you, but falling in love has obscured you. You have faded into being part of my development [sic], and will shrink to nothing” (“Mohammed” 333). He cannot counter the process by which his words incorporate El Adl into an Orientalist narrative of homosexual self-development.
The world of trench comradeship becomes the source of an alternative way of writing about bodily intimacy between men. The “Incidents of War Memoir,” as we have seen, invokes the war trope of intense male bonds between soldiers in ways that capture a wide range of emotional and physical intimacy. Male intimacy registered through non-genital touch becomes, as Das argues, extraordinarily meaningful under threat of dismemberment and death (Touch 111). It also rearranges a wide range of emotions and bodily intimacies outside the binary of sexual versus non-sexual. The threat to the body of dismemberment and death invests non-genital touch with a powerful charge and turns the body into authentic site of memory of same-sex love (Touch 119). In “Mohammed El Adl’s Book” such physical gestures become more charged than their overtly sexual acts, which Forster remembers ambivalently as “muddles” in which El Adl is aroused but unwilling or indifferent (332). By contrast, non-genital touch signifies intimacy without ambivalence. One of Forster’s earliest memories, before they have even spoken for the first time, is of El Adl “laughing with a soldier” on the tram: “when he [the soldier] got off at the Terminus you touched one button of his tunic after another in a good bye caress” (329). The moment is one of sexual voyeurism, shared with his English friend Furness and marked by pleasure in El Adl’s racial difference, his “African-Negro blood.” But, Forster’s memory of this moment of public intimacy between his lover and the soldier invests with special intensity the particular ephemeral gesture of touch, casual and ambiguously situated as potentially, but not necessarily, sexual.
Later, Forster writes of his own parting from El Adl at the end of his stay in Egypt: “in the train at Cairo, you nudged me twice with your right elbow out of love” (330). The next moment, on the platform, El Adl seems indifferent, and Forster insists on this coldness as insurance against memory’s falsifications of the relationship. But El Adl’s brief gesture signifies the bodily and emotional intimacy that sex cannot guarantee. In yet another example, Forster centers a moment in which their pleasure in racial difference is embodied in gesture as well as spoken: “I stretch and touch your hair, you say ‘short hair but crisp,” you touch mine and say “beautiful hair” and as my head sinks besides yours on the pillow, your left arm is under my head” (332). These moments of non-genital bodily contact invoke mutuality that Forster does not otherwise presume. As with the intimacy of trench relationships, their intensity and expression are made possible by death. Forster reminds himself that, in the time of writing, after El Adl’s death, “you are decayed into terrible things,” and insists repeatedly on El Adl’s bodily “putrescence” (330). The sensory memories of ephemeral, non-genital touch require the existence of the “putrid scrap in the Mansurah burial ground” in 1922 (329).9
Thirty-one years after finishing his elegy for El Adl, Forster returned to “Mohammed El Adl’s Book,” noting in his diary that “the ‘Letter’ now reads as stagy and hysterical, I was too much twisted about by my own grief.” Dissatisfied, he considered tearing up the letter in order to “write of him with dignity” (Forster, Journals 148). The occasion for revisiting “Mohammed El Adl’s Book” was the rereading of El Adl’s letters. Instead of “destroying them unread,” as he had intended, Forster once more “overwhelmed” by El Adl, revised his elegy (148). Rather than add another layer to the palimpsest by replacing his original letter with a less emotional version Forster borrows his strategy in “Incidents of War Memoir.” He transcribes extracts from El Adl’s letters, along with words recorded from his lover’s conversations, into the original notebook (Moffat 344). By this act Forster revises the genre of his original, transforming elegy into an archive, even to the point where he preserved along with the “book” physical mementos—photographs and a tram ticket stub. And although Forster does not include El Adl’s original letters in his notebook, the juxtaposition of his own “letter” alongside El Adl’s “letters” draw attention to the work as memory site and palimpsest. El Adl’s words are entangled with Forster’s words with unpredictable consequences for how we read them. In 1922 Forster wrote that, “I wish I could more clearly distinguish between us, but it was always difficult, and now you are not here to correct me when I think of you not as you are but as I should like to think of you” (329). In the final, more explicitly dialogic, version of “Mohammed El Adl’s Book,” El Adl’s words are also available to “correct” practices that occlude the colonized subject from war memory.
In the same moment that Forster was rereading El Adl’s letters and revising “Mohammed El Adl’s Book” he wrote about his lover to P. N. Furbank: “He had gone underground in the interval [between 1929 and 1958], and a little of him reemerged in Cocoa” (Selected Letters 2: 271). Cocoa is one of the two main protagonists in “The Other Boat,” one of Forster’s “unpublishable” stories about homosexuality and colonialism that only appeared after his death in 1972. The story’s colonial and sexual themes make the connection between El Adl and Cocoa unsurprising. In “The Other Boat” Lionel, a young British army officer on his way to India, has a passionate affair with Cocoanut, a man of uncertain racial identity. He is described, always from the point of view of English colonialists, as a “dago,” “wog,” and having “a touch of the tarbrush” (“Other Boat” 174, 175, 171). The origins of the relationship lie in the past, which we learn about in the first section of the story. Twelve years earlier, on a return voyage from India, Lionel and Cocoanut had, despite their racial difference, played together as children. The larger part of the story is concerned, however, with their sexual relationship as adults. Forster presents that relationship as passionate and joyful. However, Lionel is unable to navigate between his desire and his Englishness. The story ends with the violent murder of Cocoanut by Lionel, who then leaps into the sea and drowns. Forster’s comment about El Adl’s influence on the work invites us to treat “The Other Boat” as memory site and palimpsest—another “place” in which El Adl is buried, “where there is no remembering or forgetting” (Forster, Letter to Barger 1924). By attending to El Adl’s imprint on the story we also find traces of another story about colonialism and the First World War, obscured by Forster’s alterations and overwriting.
The composition history of “The Other Boat” is complicated. Forster seems to have written the first section about the childhood encounter between Lionel and Cocoanut in 1913, three years before he was to meet El Adl. In 1946 Forster unearthed the manuscript from his papers, publishing it as a fragment in The Listener in 1948 as “Entrance to an Unwritten Novel.” The following year he also published it in the New York Times as “Cocoanut and Co.: Entrance to an Abandoned Novel.” The titles emphasize Forster’s ambition for the fragment, and the substitution of “abandoned” for “unwritten” closes the door on that ambition. However, Forster’s rediscovery of the fragment prompted him to commence writing again, with the new material provisionally titled “Exit to an Unwritten Novel.” By 1957 “The Other Boat” was substantially finished, as a five-part short story rather than a novel (Dorland 195). A year later, in 1958, Forster made his discovery, through rereading El Adl’s letters and “Mohammed’s El Adl’s Book,” that “The Other Boat” is another site of memory for his dead lover.
War is as important to Forster’s depiction of Lionel’s sexuality as colonialism. The story opens with Lionel and Cocoanut as children playing soldiers, and by the time they meet again, Lionel has fought and been wounded in “one of the little desert wars that were becoming too rare” (137). Lionel is “flawless except for [the] scar down in his groin,” and at the moment when he kills Cocoa, “the scar in his groin reopened” and he believes himself “back in a desert fighting savages” (146, 164). War, like sexuality, is firmly situated in a colonial context. Yet, Forster goes to some lengths to prevent his readers from identifying any particular war, and critics writing about the story have been content to accept the story’s location of colonialism in a quasi-historical/quasi-mythological time. Tamara Dorland has pointed to Forster’s active construction of a mythic time in the story’s first section, “long long ago” and in “those far off days” (206). By contrast, part two opens with a letter from Lionel to his mother, seemingly located in historical time “October, 191-,” and Lionel refers in the letter to the earlier voyage as taking place “over ten years ago” (Forster, “The Other Boat” 136). These references, however, only dangle the promise of a historical chronology, with “191-” invoking the fateful years 1914-1918 without naming them.
Forster’s letters reveal the structural role of war in determining the relationship between the two voyages in the story. Writing to Furbank during the late stages of editing, Forster was as preoccupied with the time at which the events occur as he was eager to conceal this from the reader. Responding to Furbanks’s queries, he writes that the sentence “War had not yet assumed even its colonial aspect” is “unwise.” It “[r]aises the question of [Lionel’s and Cocoa’s] ages and the date of Part II.” (Selected Letters 2: 265). Envisioning the ages and the age difference between his main characters is important to Forster: “Ten years off makes them 13 and 9—L. too old. Twelve years off will be better. 11 and 7 I then see them. But the dates? I must cut them and head ‘Part II’ “Twelve Years” or get the years quickly implied – well they are in L.’s letter” (264-65). Forster’s “unwise sentence,” already published in The Listener and the New York Times, locates the events as happening just before the Boer War. It follows a sentence about the children’s fabrication of military uniform out of “paper cocked hats and a sash” (131). In the 1948 version, the text continues: “It was long long ago. War had not yet assumed even its colonial aspect, and little boys still went to their death stiffly, and dressed in as many clothes as they could find.” “War had not yet assumed even its colonial aspect,” the clause Forster deleted from the final version, refers to the British army’s adoption of Khaki uniforms, and by implication to the Boer War (1989-1902) as the time when khaki became part of the British popular imagination (Pakenham 467). Part I of the story takes place, therefore, in an unspecified time immediately before the Boer War, and the main events take place twelve years later in 1910 or 1911, three or four years before the outbreak of the First World War.
Forster’s geographical setting for “The Other Boat,” the sea, and his careful elision of specific historical references, create a queer space and time that “locates sexual subjectivities within and between embodiment, place, and practice” (Halberstam 5). Foster dramatizes the possibility of sexual pleasure and violence between colonizer and colonized on the “other boat” of the story’s title and in a time suspended between history and myth. Intimacy takes place in the closeted space of Lionel’s and Cocoanut’s cabin, beneath deck and separated from the social spaces of the English military and colonial administrators above deck. This constricted space of sexual enjoyment associates the lovers with Cocoanut’s “m’m, m’m, m’m,” mysterious and nameless beings on the “other boat” of their childhood. The present time of their sexual relationship is also in the in-between, locatable neither in the mythical “long, long ago” nor in historical time.
While the elision of exact historical markers serves the story’s sexual agenda, it does so by also erasing what Forster names in his deleted clause, the inextricability of war and colonialism in the twentieth century. We can see this in the way that the First World War and the Boer War function as historical markers. Without its reference to the Boer War the story belongs, like Passage to India, within Britain’s mythologized periodization of the twentieth century. “October, 191-” the only date in the text situates the two voyages in a “pre-war” temporality, the referent for which is the First World War. Thus conceived, the story folds into the familiar narrative that constitutes the war as an irreparable break with the past. Whilst Forster carves out a space of queer temporality it is at the cost of relegating colonialism to the mythology of the “pre-war.”
Calling attention to Forster’s cancelled reference to the Boer War in the story reconnects the First World War to the history of British colonialism. The Boer War, the imperial war that made explicit the economic and political avariciousness behind Britain’s civilizing mission, becomes the key interruption in the story. It stands between scene of innocence, the voyage when Lionel and Cocoa first play together as children, and the later voyage in which they meet again as adults. The temporality of pre- and post-war is no longer predicated on the First World War. Instead, the First World War is pulled into the orbit of nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial wars, the “little desert war” that has earned Lionel his captaincy in the story, but also the Boer War. The First World War, as the next in a series of wars, re-assumes its colonial aspect.
El Adl’s “underground” presence in “The Other Boat” points to the other forgotten presence, that of the First World War as a colonial war. El Adl names the relationship between these two forces in Forster’s writing, and just as we fail to see El Adl’s influence we fail to see the war in its colonial context. Forster’s characterization of El Adl’s presence as neither forgotten nor remembered has the potential to teach us an important lesson about reading the colonial back into British First World War writing. The war’s global nature persists as traces in the texts of the war, just as El Adl persists as traces in Forster’s archive of “Mohammed El Adl’s Book” and “Incidents of War Memoir,” none of which can be forgotten even though we fail to remember them. Neither is the meaning of these traces pre-determined. Transnational approaches to the war don’t just restore the colonial or the global to create a more complete picture of the war. Defining Forster’s work as a site of memory for El Adl, subject of both colonialism and war, doesn’t mean that we can recover his story. As Winter writes, “the act of recalling the past is a dynamic, shifting process, dependent on notions of the future as much as on images of the past” (169). In the context of empire the past is also highly contested, which is one reason why, as Forster says, it can’t be remembered. Yet, according to Forster, El Adl is “buried… in a place” that has nothing to do with memory or erasure. For literary scholars that “place” is where colonialism, same sex desire, and war writing intersect. It is also the place where we can begin to see El Adl’s imprint on Forster.
1 See “Literature and the War” for an example of Forster’s views.
2 For a few critics, such as Hala Halim and Ambreen Hai, Forster’s Alexandria writings have become part of the story of English writers and the Middle East.
3 See also Matz.
4 See Lunn’s “Male Identitity and Martial Codes of Honor.”
5 It is possible that El Adl benefited from the night schools run by the Nationalist Party and the MTWU (Manual Trade Worker’s Union) in Mansourah and Alexandria. See Benin (17) and Lockman (450-51).
6 Included under Words Spoken in “Mohammed El Adl’s Book” from a section titled “Life in Military Zone” is an account of a soldier extorting sex from El Adl.
7 Forster published two conventional First World War stories, “Our Graves in Gallipoli” (1922) and “Dr. Woolacott.” Both draw on his war work.
8 EMF to Florence Barger [Alexandria] 29 May 1917 Selected Letters 1: “The practical difficulties—there is a big racial and social gulf—are great: but when you are offered affection, honesty, and intelligence . . . you surely have to take it or die spiritually” (257-58).
9 In a letter to William Plomer, Cambridge, 20 November 1963, E. M. Forster writes “I think you know that the scraps . . . surviving from him are gathered in a box, together with some ‘memories’ of him, shymaking and threnodic” (Selected Letters 2: 287). The word “scraps” recalls the phrase about El Adl’s decomposing body.
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