Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Wass'ah Riots

I've spent a considerable amount of time recently researching the so called 'Battle of the Wazza'. It's a fairly marginal and neglected segment of 'Anzac history', which involved a series of riots in Cairo during the war. The perpetrators of the riots were mostly Australian and New Zealand soldiers who were undergoing training in camps very close to the city of Cairo. The people on the receiving end of the violence were the prostitutes and pimps in the Wass'ah district of Cairo. The phrase 'Battle of the Wazza' is misleading in three ways:

  • 'Wazza' and 'Wozza' are Anzac manglings of the proper Wass'ah
  • It was a riot, not a 'battle'
  • There was more than one riot

The first riot occurred on April the 2nd 1915 (Good Friday) and was the largest and most significant riot. It involved somewhere between 2000 and 2500 men, mostly Australian and New Zealanders. It lasted for several hours, and involved a large amount of damage to buildings and property. Although it is very clear that many Egyptian citizens who worked in the brothels targeted were assaulted, it is not clear from the sources I have read if there were any actual deaths. There are many different accounts of exactly what happened and why, almost all of these accounts come from the letters or diaries of Anzac soldiers who either participated in or observed the riots.

Percy Williams' diary account is a good example:

We saw a riot in the evening, in which the soldiers took part. We saw a crowd hurrying towards the disreputable part of the town and followed, to find that Australian and some New Zealanders had invaded a house of ill-fame, and having cast the furniture into the street, set fire to it. A fire brigade arrived, but the hoses were cut and the brigade pelted off the scene. I saw a cart wheel heaved at the engine. The red caps (permanent infantry police) proved insufficient to stop the riot at first, but they arrived with reinforcements and began firing. Many were shot – two fatally. At this the riot ran wild, and large pieces of furniture were cast into the road, to the injury of one or two rioters. The building was set afire. Just now the Hertshire Yeomanry arrived and cleared the streets. The fire was got under, and we returned to camp. The cause of the riot, disgraceful to New Zealanders and Australians alike, is in doubt. But it seems as if an Australian was stabbed here whilst haggling over the question of change. Another report is that the house was disease-stricken, and had been responsible for spreading syphilis. And the day was Good Friday.

From the Australian War Memorial collection. Caption: "Cairo, burnt buildings and carts possibly the aftermath of the riot later known as the Battle of the "Wozzer", which took place in the street known as the Haret El Wasser near Shepheard's Hotel, Cairo 2 April Good Friday 1915."

Many of the men involved had been stationed in Egypt since early December 1914. They spent a lot of time training in the desert, and were encouraged by the military authorities to avoid the temptations Cairo had to offer. They were allowed and even encouraged to stay in camp and drink beer, and there were numerous alternatives to Cairo provided such as nightly lectures and YMCA activities. One of the biggest fears was the spread of venereal disease. By the time of the riot in April, 445 New Zealanders had been treated for some form of venereal disease. Clearly, for many of the men the wholesome alternatives were no match for the allure of the prostitutes of Cairo.

Shortly after the Good Friday riot the troops left Cairo and travelled to the small mediteranean island Lemnos. This would set them up for the Gallipoli landings beginning on April 25th. Reinforcements from Australia and New Zealand kept arriving in Cairo however, and despite what must have been obvious venereal dangers, they continued to frequent the brothels of Cairo. Another riot, smaller in scale but similar in character took place on July 31st 1915. I'm going to quote a passage from Robin Hyde's Passport to Hell which describes this episode. Hyde interviewed the veteran Douglas Stark ('Starkie'), and this is his experience told in the words of a skilled novelist:

Aimlessly, yet with the seeming purpose of a mad dog or a Malay running amok, the charge swept on down the streets. Starkie ran with them, yelling as they yelled, without the faintest idea why he ran and yelled. The Wazza began to glare with the pattern of flames against the windows of seven-storeyed houses. There were shrieks and crashes as women and souteneurs [pimps] were thrown down from the upper windows of those tall balconied ratholes. Furniture was tossed out and battered into splinters. A soldier reeled into a doorway with a Gippo knife sunk to the haft in his belly, and sat there retching and coughing, a bright red foam on his lips. One hand was pressed against his stomach. Nobody stopped to ease the death that had its fangs in his middle, but there was another roar, 'Murder! Come on!'

[….] The flames shot up in a dense and maddening forest, and within that circle the scorpion of the Wazza brandished its sting against its own death. Naked women ran from their balcony rooms to the damp ooze of their cellars. A soldier among the looters died, crushed under the weight of the grand piano that the prostitutes pushed out of their high window on the heads of the men below. Wherever a house offered resistance, soldiers posted themselves at the doorway and smashed down women and souteneurs as the flames drove them outi.

Why did the riots take place? Reading over the various accounts given by the soldiers who either observed or participated in the riots, we can easily find numerous triggers: the men were ripped off by the pimps, the drinks were overpriced or spiked with drugs, somebody's sister was found in one of the brothels (forced into prostitution), a Maori soldier was turned away from a brothel because his skin was too dark. There's a distinct undercurrent of fear, anger and hostility in these accounts. It seems clear that whatever the truth status of these various rumours, there were deeper and more fundamental causes.

A destroyed hotel - after the first Wass'ah riot

Terry Kinlochii argues that the troops were frustrated and impatient to get into battle. Apart from a very minor battle for the Suez canal in January, the first batch of Anzacs had to wait over four months before they finally got to the trenches of Gallipoli. Desert training was boring and arduous, and the soldiers were simply sick and tired of being stuck next to Cairo. In the words of New Zealander William Heineman, "we had attained to that top-notch pitch of condition in which we felt we must fight some one – or burstiii".

The biggest problem with this narrative of frustrated energy is the fact that the riot was repeated after the Gallipoli landings, and that there was also a third riot much later in 1919 after armistice. This third riot was similarly aimed at the brothels, but involved British soldiers rather than Australians and New Zealanders. These soldiers had had four years of battle to quench their thirst for violence, so there must have been another motive for them. Given the similarities between the three incidents – that they all targeted brothels – it's reasonable to assume they had something basic in common. Impatience to get into battle seems to be a poor excuse for a more sinister motive.

Searching the dark corners of the blogosphere, I found a couple of Australian sites which display a vehement pride in the Wass'ah riots. From what I have read so far, most Anzac commentators are keen to avoid placing too much importance on this incident. They emphasise that many Anzacs did not participate in the riots, and they tend to offer us apologetic narratives similar to Kinloch's. So these sites represent the extreme fringe of Anzacery: this is the boys will be boys proud to be a beer drinking Aussie who occasionally beats up prostitutes it's the Anzac spirit interpretation of Wozza. More disturbing is this site, which openly celebrates the riots as an example of righteous Christian "cleansing" of the sinful hellhole of the Wass'ah brothels. There are other, less nutty commentators who emphasise the fact that April 2nd 1915 was Good Friday, so the men were motivated by some kind of Christian zeal. This article for example argues that 'an excess of puritanism due to its being easter' was the reason, and also connects up the first riot with an obscure song and the famous poet T S Elliot.

Again, the fact that there were three similar riots, only one of which took place during Easter, convincingly disproves this religious zeal motive as the main reason for the riots. There is an element of truth here though: many of the Anzacs were certainly devout Christians, and the exposure to the licensed brothels of places such as the Wass'ah district provoked a moral panic. Women would openly display themselves and solicit from balconies above the streets, and targeted the well paid Australian and New Zealand men. One of the chaplains of the NZEF, Guy Thornton, wrote a whole book devoted to the worrying evils of Cairo. The following quote from his book shows how big a shock Cairo must have been for many of the men:

It was a nightmare – inconceivably vile and horribly grotesque. The narrow, evil-smelling, tortuous lanes literally lined by these poor degraded women of almost very nationality, the foul cries of solicitation sounded in a veritable Babel of tongues, the barbaric dress and ornaments which many of them wore, the flaring lights, the flaunting evils, all combined to produce on the mind of a European an impression of unreality. "Things never could be as bad as this," one argued, "and therefore it must be a dream." But it was no dream. It was an infinitely awful reality. Each nationality seemed to rival the other in bestiality. Arabs, Egyptians (all Mohammedans; no Coptic girl is to be found earning her livelihood by prostitution), Circassians, Greeks, Syrians, Nubians, French and Italians were all represented. Thank God, however, there was not one British woman in that motley throngiv.

What comes through quite strongly in this passage from Thornton's book is the attention to the race of the sex workers. There are numerous examples of this sort of 'Orientalist' racism to be found in the writings of the Anzacs. It wasn't just the fact that they were openly soliciting that was so disturbing, it was the colour of their skin and their 'barbaric dress' which combined to make such a strong and fearsome impression.

There's a lot more that could be said about this widespread and deeply entrenched racism. Although I think it's important to acknowledge and recognise the fact that many of the Anzac soldiers had these sorts of attitudes, I don't think it is a particularly surprising fact. These attitudes were widespread cultural norms, actively promoted by many people in powerful positions. More tolerant and cosmopolitan views were possible, but unlikely to develop in provincial New Zealand where many of the Anzacs came from.

What is more notable in the Thornton quote is that he recognises women 'of almost every nationality'. There were in fact many European sex workers in Cairo, and their existence had a lot to do with British colonialism. The British army had occupied Egypt in 1882 and had maintained a presence ever since. Fear of venereal disease led the British authorities to legislate a 'general decree' which involved a system of regulations for state controlled prostitution. Women were given licenses and were forced to undergo regular medical check ups. The system didn't actually work very well – many women continued to practice unlicensed sex work, the medical checks were not performed to a high standard and venereal disease continued to run rampant. But the huge demand for the services of the prostitutes by the army, colonial bureaucracy and tourist sector continued.  By the time the Anzacs arrived in late 1914, the brothels were already doing a roaring trade.

There was a definite class system in operation, with French women at the top of the heirarchy servicing the needs of well heeled officers. Various other European nationalities came next, with the least valued services of the Egyptian, Sudanese and Nubian women at the bottom of the social and economic scale.

The Wass'ah district where the riots took place was a poor area dominated by brothels housing Egyptian, Sudanese and Nubian sex workers. This very useful blog describes the geography of the riots. Interestingly, the Wass'ah district is actually very close to the famous Shepheard's Hotel where the elite colonials mixed and mingled.

With this undeniably racist colonial background in mind, we can imagine the tensions, fears and hostilities which must have helped to create these riots. Another factor noted by Suzanne Brugger is that

internal order in the brothel quarter had been maintained fairly successfully before the War by the local association of “bullies” but their resources had been severely overtaxed by the influx of troops into Cairo at the start of hostilities … They were not always able to ensure that customers were protected from petty thieves within the brothels and they could not exclude elements with too little regard for the ethics of the oldest professionv.

The Anzacs tended to be rowdy and aggressive customers who didn't always pay for the services rendered. The brothels on the other hand would definitely have included a fairly robust and ruthless criminal element, especially the pimps who worked in the Wass'ah area. With these very real tensions and the added mix of alcohol, drugs and sexual desire, all garnished with an underlying fear-based form of racism, it isn't too hard to imagine how a riot might have started.

There's one more aspect to these riots which needs to be mentioned. These Anzac rioters were young men mostly from provincial backgrounds. Prostitution did exist in the New Zealand of 1914, but it was a mostly hidden and discreet sort of trade, completely unlike Cairo. Robin Hyde imagines the psychological impact of paid sex upon a typical Anzac:

Only one explanation was given concerning the Wazza battle, though there was a vague rumour that a soldier had been locked in one of the brothels and had called for a rescue. To this no great authority attaches. The explanation shrieked at a fulminating officer by a man in the ranks of the New Zealanders consisted of only one sentence, but from the psychological point of view it was one of the most remarkable sentences spoken in the history of the War.

'They was better off dead.'

Every civilized race of mankind, and many savages also, regard with horror the loss of personal identity. Nations with no written history, such as the Maoris, have an elaborate and priestly system of memorizing every twig on the ancestral tree of the individual. In white society, to lose identity is a personal disgrace. One of the penal code's forms of punishment – admitted a barbarous one by most criminals – is to deprive a man of his name and indicate him by a number. Often among the poorest is witnessed dread of the pauper's grave, the resting place of which no man knoweth the name anymore.

In the Wazza the men who went to appease curiosity or appetite found themselves confronted with the same loss of identity. Women with whom they could exchange no common word of language received them behind doors where, in many cases, they waited in procesions for that curious relief. There was no pretence that one soldier's face differed from the rest. The men were used, especially the colonial soldiers whose countries supported no licensed houses, to more regard for their vanity. Even those women who had played the prostitute's part for them in their own lands had, for the most part, woven the little fables of individual romance and liking.

In the Wazza, they were nobody; male embracing heterogeneous female. The first shock of this faded from their consciousness, but it waited in hiding – a resentment that they hardly realized, but that could not be placated except by vengeance. The convict becomes accustomed to the loss of his name and citizenship, but the surface resentment wears down into his deeper hatred of Society. So it was with the soldiers in the Wazza. The place stole their sexual identity from them. They had to revenge themselves. The women who had deprived them, the souteneursvi who had shared the spoils, the houses where they had waited, were – in the phrase of that inspired and hysterical soldier – better off deadvii.

* * * *

NOTE: Aside from the links I have already mentioned above, I would also highly recommend +this thesis “Let Down the Curtains Around Us” : Sex Work in Colonial Cairo, 1882-1952 by Francesca Biancani

iFrom Robin Hyde, 'Passport to Hell', AUP 1986, p.75 - 76

iiKinloch, Terry 'Echoes of Gallipoli: In the words of New Zealand's Mounted Riflemen', 2005, Exisle Publishing Limited, Auckland

iiiFrom 'On the Anzac Trail: being Extracts from the Diary of a New Zealand Sapper', William Heineman, London 1916, p.74

ivFrom 'With the Anzacs in Cairo: The tale of a great fight', Turnbull and Spears, Edinburgh 1916, p. 55-56

v Suzanne Brugger, Australians and the Egyptians (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press), p. 146.


viiHyde, ibid. p.77 - 78

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