Wednesday, 29 November 2006


I am no Scheherezade, but I think that the immortal weaver of magic carpets would have relished this tale as worthy of her famous collection. And, unlike her stories, this one is true [well, maybe a bit embellished].

My mother’s father was a Maronite Christian Arab from the Lebanon. His father was a merchant in Beirut. My grandfather came to England in his late ‘teens or early twenties and settled in Manchester, where he eventually traded as a merchant and shipper of Egyptian cotton.

My grandfather had a Lebanese friend called Chamoun. [That isn’t his real name, but I have changed it because he has descendants living in England.] Chamoun was a nomadic adventurer whose travels eventually took him to Ethiopia [Abyssinia], which in those days –the 1890s – was ruled by Emperor Menelik II [1889-1913], an energetic potentate who successfully repelled Italy’s early designs upon his country by a decisive victory at Adowa in 1896. Chamoun got on so well with the Emperor that he became a very important person at Court. He was even more of a crony to Menelik’s successor, his grandson Lij Yasu, who was nominated Emperor in 1909 some years before his grandfather’s death. Yasu was a dissipated young man, and Chamoun’s daughter, May, was even more intimate with him: so much so that he loaded her with jewels and, it is said, palaces. She was, apparently, only one of his numerous mistresses.

For centuries, Ethiopia had been a Christian enclave surrounded by Muslim lands. As Menelik II wrote to Queen Victoria: I have no intention at all of being an indifferent spectator, if the distant Powers hold the idea of dividing up Africa, Ethiopia having been for the past fourteen centuries, an island of Christianity in a sea of pagans...

Lij Yasu, however, flirted with Islam perhaps from personal inclination because he wished to marry four wives [as well as having a dozen or more concubines], and also because he believed that Germany’s ally Turkey was going to be on the winning side in the Great War. Mounting indignation led to his deposition in 1916, and the following year his cousin the Regent Ras Tafari, who wished to side with the allies and modernise the country, deposed Yasu, eventually becoming Emperor Haile Selassie I in his place.

Menelik had allowed the French, who were strengthening their hold on French Somaliland, to build a railway between the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and the French port of Djibouti which was Ethiopia’s only direct outlet to the coast. Yasu had made Chamoun the Collector of Customs at the border station, and when the revolt against him occurred he instructed Chamoun to decamp to Djibouti with as much money as he could carry from the treasury. Apparently the French didn’t think much of Chamoun, so they promptly abducted him, his wife and daughter to France, where they were interned – so family legend has it; is this bit too good or too bad to be true? - in a disused public lavatory until the end of the war! My grandfather was distressed by their plight, and pulled enough wires to eventually secure their release and settle them in Manchester, where he set up Chamoun in a tobacconist’s business.

May’s main preoccupation during the 1920s and ‘30s was badgering Haile Selassie in a vain attempt to get back some of “her” royal jewellery, and the odd palace! She didn’t have any luck. She was always a larger-than-life size drama queen. She married, had a son of about my age, and when he was four or five years old the marriage broke up. Her husband kidnapped the child, who was recovered by the police. May brought the child to my parents’ south Manchester suburban house, which was besieged by the press, and pictures were taken of the child in our garden sitting astride one of my toys, a lifesize St. Bernard rocking horse dog. When he learned of this, my father went ballistic and rushed hot-foot to the newspaper offices threatening them with legal proceedings if they published anything which would identify us [for fear of my being snatched by mistake]. So next morning the paper came out with a picture of the child sitting astride thin air, the dog and the garden having been completely blacked out!

All of this – or something like it – really happened. Would the tale have earned me a reprieve from the Sultan?


billstickers said...

A reprieve? Who knows? However, it most probably would have earned you the equivalent of $200 if you hadn't first published it here, and had here:

Do another one.

anticant said...

Dr Johnson said "only a blockhead writes except for money". I'm a blockhead.

billstickers said...

Never mind the money. Donate the money. Do it to help a poor little web site wot hasn't got no good stuff.