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Our Horses in Egypt by Rosalind Belben

Our Horses in Egypt

by Rosalind Belben

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    Hound Music by Rosalind Belben (pollyfrontier)
    pollyfrontier: Belben's unique writing style puts you right in her mind.

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Our Horses in Egypt is a wonderfully strange work. Certainly it's a novel and while it's set is a very specific (as well as fairly obscure) historical situation, it's not a historical novel at all. Rather it's a somewhat suppressed or disguised meditation on the relationship of humans and their animals, and what we make them do and then what happens to them, and to us.

Rosalind Belben here works in the area of horses drafted into WWI, a subject I had never thought about, although I was aware there were mounted officers and dray horses and more in that war. All is thus strange in the account of the call for horses to go to war, the drafting of them after inspection teams have made their determinations, the sadness of the owners who feel connected to them, and then – Belben's great story of what happened after the war to one of them, Philomena.

Belben is able to imagine what Philomena and a few other horses around her might have registered along the way, and to put it down in a way that curiously resembles free indirect discourse, with the narrative representing Philomena's impressions without suggesting she is thinking in a human sense. This fluid narrative must have been hard to write as it could easily have failed and instead is a lovely example of literary empathy.

Nothing can be said about the plot without risking the reader's experience, so I'll just mention that among its pleasures are scenes of English country life at home and English expatriates abroad, worthy of E.M. Forster's perceptive, delicate, sympathetic, and very amusing, scenes.

The reader also finds a stirring historical situation, and a deeply affecting personal one. And of course the well-worn expression "war horse" will never be the same after experiencing Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt.

  V.V.Harding | Apr 21, 2015 |
A lot going on here, and it takes a while to get in to. There are two stands of narrative; the experiences of the English horse Philomena plucked from the gentle English countryside and thrown into the full horror of the North African campaign and her former owner Griselda Romney, Egypt bound to try to rescue her from a life of post war servitude. Overall, Philomena's narrative is more engaging, although for a non horse person like myself the language and rituals of horse maintenance took some deciphering (what on earth is tibbin?). Its worth it though; we are used to reading about the privations of soldiers during the First World War, even if the North African front has not been covered in anywhere near as much detail as the Western Front. We are used to reading of the incompetence and callousness of officers to their men. The sufferings of the animals are less well known, and the war from Philomena's POV is revelatory and heart breaking as are her sufferings post war
Griselda's narrative is less successful. The narrative voice is clipped and sparse, and it requires some effort from the reader to get into the rhythm of the language. No problem with that, but I was constantly left with the impression that there where things going on "off stage" which the reserved (and no doubt authentic) linguistic style was hiding from me. What is it she'd done in the past that made Maltese society so ill disposed to receiving her? What exactly is she is supposed to have done on board ship the crew that get her removed from the ship to Egypt. Simple conversation? In which case why are her legs described as being "in the air". What exactly is going on in Cairo with Imran? Can she really be as silly and self absorbed as she seems? And why on earth does the faithful Nanny encourage her in her foolishness? Is Griselda really searching for Philomena or searching for something else, in which case what?

Despite coming out of the Griselda narrative stream with a faint feeling of dissatisfaction, none the less it is entertaining, funny in parts, and holds your attention. And to be honest Philomena's narrative is enough reason to buy the book on its own ( )
  Opinionated | Feb 11, 2012 |
World War I widow Griselda Romney begins a quest for her horse Philomena, one of thousands of English horses requisitioned into service by the War Office and then sold into service to spare the expense of transport home. One strand of narrative follows Griselda as she travels from England to Cairo with young daughter and nanny in tow; the other presents Philomena's war experience. Despite the dense technical horse-related lingo and wartime abbreviations, I was gripped by Philomena's experiences of hardship and companionship. I found Griselda's narcissistic character lacking in compassion (except for horses) and any desire to understand the world around her. ( )
  jeanned | May 25, 2011 |
In my reading of Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt, the tale of WWI widow Griselda Romney's search through Egypt and Palestine for her once-requisitioned horse, there were three phases. During Phase One, which lasted a good eighty or so pages, I had a hard time making headway with Belben's extremely clipped, sparse prose, which reads at times like an upper-class British short-hand complete with in-jokes only marginally comprehensible to a middle-class American like myself. The combination of class-bound obliqueness, horse-specific terminology, and military diction, with some boating lingo and Arabic and Egyptian terms thrown in, makes for an oddly fragmented storytelling medium. Of my partner David, who rode horses as a boy, I kept demanding assistance: "what the hell's a surcingle?" I asked. "And what's a syce, and a snaffle?" "That's ridiculous," he answered, and I pulled a face.

Over time, though, as I relaxed into the prickly language, it began making inroads into my mind. Entering Phase Two, I found myself thinking in the cadences of Belben's prose, narrating my everyday life. The fragmentary style began to seem fitting for a narration of the Great War and its aftermath, evocative of TS Eliot's famous "heap of broken images." I started to connect, a bit bemusedly, with both human and equine protagonists, and to appreciate the bits of humor and social commentary that occasionally leaped out at me from the text. Griselda and her party, for example, are at one point ejected from shipboard for fraternizing with the crew:

He said, "And on deck! No better than the ship's whore."

The Purser squinted at Mrs Romney. She appeared to be staggered.

"Oh," she said, with a dangerous glint, "do you have a ship's whore?"

The Commander uttered a blustery noice that might have been "yes" and might have been "no."

He considered that he hadn't responded.

"Only one?" asked the lady.

Indeed, it was this social commentary, and the questions raised by the contrasting human and animal protagonists, that finally enabled me to enter Phase Three of my Horses in Egypt reading: around the two-thirds mark, I suddenly found myself no longer bemused but passionately engaged with the text. It's a book profoundly concerned with questions of hierarchy, of the thresholds of respect and compassion that allow creatures to see one another as subjective selves, rather than simply useful tools or possessions. It also asks, given the subjectivity of all creatures, when we have the moral right or obligation to prioritize one conscious being over another.

Throughout Griselda's tenure on board ship, for example, her fellow passengers unfailingly question her priorities in uprooting her daughter and Nanny to go look for her former horse, who in all likelihood is not even alive. Before she even leaves, her mother-in-law calls Griselda's behavior "affectation" and an affront to the memory of her husband and brother-in-law, who were killed in the war, to speak of horses in the same breath. Griselda, on the other hand, feels she has a responsibility to a fellow-creature, and that in any case, her husband and brother-in-law definitively "aren't alive, are not living"—what can she do for them now? Griselda's loyalties are to "her own"; so rather than devoting herself to succoring wounded or shell-shocked human war veterans, or those humans left in poverty by the ravages of war, she turns to the horses to whom she committed in a former life:

"Responsibility," said Griselda. "We can't exercise it for every animal on earth. I don't say that. Do you? For our own, we can!"

This insular, take-care-of-our-own philosophy also means that Griselda seems to accord more "humanity" to her former horses than to people of other classes, ages, or races. At one painful moment she believes she is complimenting a pair of Arab youths by comparing them to horses:

"I realize," Mrs Romney said, on impulse, "what it is, why you feel such an affinity to your own horses, why you...I'll bet you do!...sit so well and look so natural on horseback: you are like horses yourselves!"

The triumph of this was dashed, for horror crossed their faces. "But, Mrs Romney," said the one called Mohammed, "that is an insult."

One can see the progression here: for Griselda, her conversation with the brown-skinned boys is increasing her ability to relate to them, just as she can relate to her horses. She tries very awkwardly to communicate this emotion which she feels is understanding or respect. For the boys themselves, obviously, being likened to beasts of burden is insulting. Later in the novel, Griselda's Egyptian guide expresses his horror that she pays buys bread to feed a dying horse: "'People very poor,' said Imran." Even Griselda's attitude toward her own Nanny and daughter seem less compassionate and respectful than her feelings for her lost horse.

Griselda often comes off as naive, overly class-bound, or unfeeling, and yet the very structure of the novel supports her loyalty to the horse Philomena: we get just as much narrative from Philomena's point of view as we do from Griselda's, and the horse suffers the same kinds of war traumas as the soldiers around her: terror, boredom, nightmares, thirst, hunger, physical wounds with a lack of medical attention. She absorbs the prevalent mood, be it exhilaration at a successful rout of the enemy, or exhaustion and depression after a long, futile march. Over the course of the war her ability to form attachments to her riders erodes: by the time she is assigned to young Sage, and despite his assiduous attentions to her, she fails to reward his care with affection, or miss him when he dies in action. These are all the same kinds of symptoms that characterize shell-shock (now PTSD) in human veterans. Philomena has consciousness, intelligence and a sense of self. Not only that, but she shares several specific character traits with her former owner, including sometimes-ridiculous levels of pride, a preference for males over females, and a persistent curiosity. (Of Philomena: "To an animal that was interested (incurably) in all about her, there was much to bewilder her." Of Griselda: "She was so frightfully interested. She'd catch her breath and think, Philomena was here!") Given all this, does it really show poor priorities for Griselda to recognize Philomena's experience, Philomena's claim on her? Are the sufferings of people Griselda has never met more deserving by default, than the suffering of an animal she has known?

Because one must, at some point, choose. As Griselda discovers when she arrives in Cairo and begins to look for Philomena, even an exclusive focus on horse-kind quickly becomes completely overwhelming. There are so many horses living in squalid, abusive conditions, and as her heart begins to expand toward them she finds herself "stricken" by her inability to help them all, or even a significant number of them. At the same time, her failure to compassionate the plight of the Egyptian people, who are in the midst of the 1919 uprisings against the British and many of whom are certainly living in equally poor conditions to their horses, continues to raise questions for the reader. Add to all of this, that the men around Griselda tend to treat her with the same kind of objectifying assumptions she makes toward those of other races and classes, and the overall picture becomes an interlocking box of privilege, compassion and judgment. It is cruel to refuse humane-ness and respect to other conscious, feeling beings; but at the same time, Belben suggests, it is near-impossible to avoid screening someone out—in any set of priorities, someone is at the bottom. To reject priorities completely, to fully assimilate every detail of suffering around one, suggests madness, or at least social transgression (is there always a difference?):

Nevertheless, it wasn't natural to "see." This whipping round at every sound of hoofs, casting one's eyes hungrily, for it was impossible to take everything in at a glance, and she felt more like Amabel, who took ages to drink in every snake or monkey...and being attentive always...It wasn't normal behavior.

So, although Our Horses in Egypt was not always the most welcoming text, I'm glad I stuck with it. There's a lot to unpack here, especially being, myself, a person who often relates more readily to animals than to other humans. Belben has me asking myself whether this means I am soft-hearted, hard-hearted, or just...differently-hearted.
1 vote emily_morine | Mar 4, 2011 |
If I were better informed about the war fronts of North Africa and the Near East of the First World War, I probably would have had an easier time reading this novel of those campaigns waged by British cavalry units against the Germans and Turks. I found myself equally ignorant of the naval battles like "the Mole at Zeebrugge," which kept coming up, since that was where the book's heroine (or perhaps 'anti-heroine') Griselda Romney, lost her naval officer husband. Alas, I found myself to be greviously lacking in knowledge about such things. There was also much British (and military) slang of the period which often left me scratching my head.

In spite of these, my own shortcomings, however, Our Horses in Egypt kept me turning the pages, mostly to find out what became of the real heroine here, an English hunter mare named Philomena. Because the war widow, Griselda Romney, was portrayed in such a way that made her a less sympathetic character than the horse. Not that Griz didn't have her endearing traits, not the least of which was her love of horses and compassion for poor, dumb, suffering animals that sent her on this fantastically impossible post-war trek to Egypt to look for her hunter and bring her home again. She took along her six year-old daughter Amabel and her steadfast and long-suffering Nanny (who was perhaps the most likeable of the human characters here). There is also a varied cast of other colorful human characters here, including a few of Griselda's hopeful suitors along the way and also the various cavalry troopers who rode and cared for Philomena during the war years.

The story-line is distinctly divided here - between the war years endured by Philomena and her succession of human handlers as they all did their 'bit' across Egypt and then into Palestine, and the post-war period as the widow Romney and her retinue depart England for North Africa to look for her horse. Belben has obviously done her historical homework here, as the various battles and campaigns waged by the Queen's Own Dorset Yeomen, are touched upon and described throughout the war years portion of the book. Perhaps because I am not a very good or patient reader of history, I found some of the "historically correct" details a bit tedious, feeling they often slowed the momentum of the narrative. But these same details often serve to frame some of the most heartbreaking scenes of the book, the ones which best illustrate the plight and suffering of the horses employed in this desert war. Here's an example, from the aftermath of the gallant cavalry charge at Agagiya (Egypt) -

"The lap of Philomena's skin with a gout of flesh was her only wound. But there was shock in the horses' eyes; a blank look. Their ears flickered. Their companions lay with broken bones, or stone dead, with bullets in the heart; or hobbled painfully with shattered tendons; or, like Corky, had machine-gun bullets lodged somewhere; or had cocked themselves on fore-legs, hamstrung; or were treading on their own guts and were still eviscerating themselves; or were bleeding to death. Philomena's nostrils filled with the scents of heated metal and of blood."

Belben gives her readers cause to wonder whether horses dream when she comments later, "For many months Philomena had had dreams of Agagiya. The sight wouldn't easily leave her, More rarely, she dreamt of whiffs of the 'smell' ..."

In another scene one ponders what horses might really think about the horrors of war witnessed as Philomena sees greviously injured horses carted away on horse-ambulances - "To an animal that was interested (incurably) in all about her, there was much to bewilder her."

In yet another grim post-battle scene near Beersheba - "On Philomena stepped, past awkward piles of Turkish horses, teams of horses that had died together, legs and jaws and matted skin ... Not every Turkish horse was dead. They had fallen five and six days before. Nobody had come to put them out of their misery. Alive, they had lost their eyes to vultures or crows. These blind heads were lifted ... to sink down into the dirt. A tail would swish, a foot stir. The stink was powerful ... This avenue of carcasses and corpses and wounded was reflected in the depths of Philomena's liquid pupils."

Equally grim were descriptions of the lot of the horses who were sold off after the war. There were, it was estimated, over 20,000 horses abandoned and sold off by the British army at the war's end. Many of these horses who had served gallantly as chargers or troop horses finished up their lives as cart horses under the most primitive of conditions, suffering terribly under their civilian owners. There are scenes of these old war-horses that equal those remembered from the most moving parts of Black Beauty. (Black Beauty is mentioned briefly in the book, by the way; probably no accident.)

This is not a happy book, but it is a noble one. As I was reading it, I kept remembering another novel I read a couple years ago, also set in the WWI era, but in the American west: Molly Gloss's beautifully told story, The Hearts of Horses. Gloss's book also referenced Black Beauty and included a conversation about the tragic lot of American horses shipped overseas for the war effort. There are parallels here that are hard to ignore.

Our Horses in Egypt is a book worth reading, whether you are a history buff or horse lover. It gets to the core of the bond that unites men and animals. It will make you think. It might also cause you to weep at the awful cruelties imposed on our equine 'friends' in the name of war - and peace. ( )
1 vote TimBazzett | Nov 9, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 070117594X, Hardcover)

Philomena, fat and lazy when she is requisitioned from an English field at the start of the First World War, sails for Egypt with the territorial regiment, the Dorset Yeomanry. She serves faithfully, charging the dervishes in the Western Desert and enduring the privations of Allenby’s great campaign in Palestine. She recovers from wounds to swelter through a summer in the Jordan Valley. She takes part in the triumphant advance on Damascus – only to be sold off in Cairo among the 22,000 horses left behind by the War Office after the Armistice.

By 1921, the forceful Griselda Romney, a war widow – in the author's Hound Music she was a child – has discovered that her old hunter, Philomena, could be still alive. With her six-year-old daughter, and of course Nanny, Mrs Romney sets out to Egypt, to find Philomena and to rescue her…

Our Horses in Egypt depicts the work of a troop-horse in the Army – and of exotic Cairo, in political unrest – as meticulously and exuberantly as Hound Music recreated the milieu of Edwardian fox-hunting.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:42 -0400)

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Philomena, fat and lazy when she is requisitioned from an English field at the start of the First World War, sails for Egypt with the territorial regiment, the Dorset Yeomanry. She serves faithfully, charging the dervishes in the Western Desert and enduring the privations of Allenby's great campaign in Palestine. She recovers from wounds to swelter through a summer in the Jordan Valley. She takes part in the triumphant advance on Damascus - only to be sold off in Cairo among the 22,000 horses left behind by the War Office after the Armistice. By 1921, the forceful Griselda Romney, a war widow - in "Hound Music", by the same author, she was a child - has discovered that her old hunter, Philomena, could be still alive. With her six-year-old daughter, and of course Nanny, Mrs Romney sets out to Egypt, to find Philomena and to rescue her..."Our Horses in Egypt" depicts the work of a troop-horse in the Army - and of exotic Cairo, in political unrest - as meticulously and exuberantly as "Hound Music" (Chatto and Vintage) recreated the milieu of Edwardian fox-hunting.… (more)

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