Today H suggested that we take my parents to Jbeil for lunch by the sea and a tour of the Bronze Age-to-Roman era ruins. I am a terrible tourist: I never make it out of Beirut myself, and am thus utterly incompetent when it comes to planning others’ out-of-town excursions. So my parents will have H to thank for whatever non-Beirut experience of Lebanon they have.
And what a wonderful experience today was: a respectable yet not overly long ramble through Jbeil’s ancient sites (“We believe in executive summaries when it comes to ruins”, my mother said after a brief pass through the castle), followed by a wander through the old shops and a lovely, embarrassment-of-riches lunch at Dar al-Azraq.
As we made our way through the shops, a book caught H’s eye.
That looks like something you’d like, he said. And it was: a 1964 copy of Bruce Conde’s Byways of Byblos.
Why are they stopping? my mother asked my father.
They found an old guidebook, my father said. You know – its their thing.
It sure is – and this book was a bargain. For 5,000 Lebanese lira ($3.33) I have a new treasure to add to my collection – while the poor shopkeeper, who kept trying to interest us in aghabanis, has a new “What do foreigners really want to buy?” question to puzzle over.
When I got home last night, I googled Byways of Byblos for more information about the book and its author. And what a wealth of information there is about him.
No, M – Bruce Conde was not a spy. In fact, he had a long career as a Yemen-based correspondent for various philately publications.
Yes, that’s right: the Byblos aficionado was also a stamp expert. And some of his article appear quite intriguing to the non-specialist as well, like March 27, 1972′s “Sharjah’s coup will have philatelic repercussions; recalls first issue” from Linn’s Stamp News.
Odd as this may sound, it seems that Conde’s investigative philately reporting got him in trouble with the Yemeni government. After publishing several articles investing an alleged stamp racketeer named Mr. X, Conde was deported: in December 1959, Linn’s reported on “Bruce Conde, Linn’s Middle East Correspondent, Expelled From Yemen; Mr. ‘X’ Prime Suspect”.
I can only imagine the drama Conde’s deportation brought to the stamp world. If you would like to get a sense of the number of articles/editorials published about the story, you can read their titles here.
And if you thought that a guidebook-writing stamp journalist was a hoot, just wait until you read what else I learned about Mr. Conde. No, M – he wasn’t a spy.
Bruce Conde was the pen name of A. Bruce-Alfonso de Bourbon-Conde. He was a French aristocrat from California who taught at AUB and wrote for the Daily Star before moving to Yemen and converting to Islam under the name Abdurrahman el Kindi, where he wrote for various philatelic publications.
That’s right. Doesn’t it make ordinary lives seem so … ordinary? Apparently it made his own life seem ordinary, too – because Prince Bruce-Alfonso de Bourbon-Conde was born with a less illustrious name: Bruce Chalmers.
Here’s what one ‘historical fakes’ site has to say about him:
It appears that “prince Bruce”, born a U.S. citizen as Bruce Chalmers on December 5th, 1913, claims that he is descended from the princes of Condé and that his ancestor went to California before 1830. Mr Chalmers was the son of Thomas Hugh Buckingham Chalmers (born 1883 at Stockton, California, died 1917) and Margaret Bruce (born 1887 at Santa Cruz, California and died in 1913 five days after Bruce’s death). Margaret claimed descent from Louis I of France and Thomas claimed to be a descendant of the Stuarts. On June 29th, 1939, Bruce Chalmers obtained a judgment of the Superior Court for Alameda County, California, changing his last name to Bourbon-Condé. He served in the US Army Air Corps in W.W.II under the name Bourbon-Condé and in the Korean War on General Ridgeway’s staff and received the French Croix de Guerre. He attended the American University at Beirut and, after becoming involved with the Imam of the Yemen, surrendered his American citizenship.
And here is what another had to say:
an unnamed contributor to the July 1985 issue of the French monthly journal “l’Intermédiaire des Chercheurs et Curieux” … writes that while he was stationed in Japan from 1946 to 1949 as a member of the French liaison mission to the Supreme Allied Headquarters, he recalled an American friend mentioning a fellow American officer Major Bruce-Alfonso de Bourbon-Condé. His curiosity was aroused and he looked for an opportunity to meet the personage. Invited to a wedding in Osaka where he knew that the major would also be a guest, the French liaison officer made the trip from Tokyo to present his respects to “His Highness”. The confrontation took place among a small group of American friends he had thoroughly briefed on the Bourbon genealogy. The “prince” was in uniform but it seems that every accessory that he carried was strewn with fleurs-de-lys, his handkerchief, his cigarette case, his wallet and probably his socks and underwear. The liaison officer explained that as a Frenchman he was indeed honored but somewhat mystified to be introduced to His Highness, especially since the latter’s existence totally upset his notions of history: the last Condé having, to his knowledge, ended his days by hanging himself from the hasp of a window of the chateau at St.Leu in 1830.
The “prince” made no effort to deny it and said “actually my name is Smith (or Brown or Evans, it makes little difference) but, to make a long story short, my mother was the niece of someone who was the daughter-in-law of someone who was the friend of someone who was the mistress of the last Bourbon-Condé. Since the name is more romantic than Smith, I thought I would take it on.
Naturally. At least he had a sense of humor about it :).
The site also notes that
Another French witness, Mr.G. Dardaud, who was impressed by Condé, states that he met him when the latter was a young Arabic-speaking professor at the American University in Beirut in the 1950s. The professor, engrossed by the history of the Middle East, was also a journalist and wrote serious articles on the countries of the region for the English-language paper “Daily Star”.
I’ve had my doubts about both AUB’s and the Daily Star‘s hiring criteria, but I didn’t realize that they were an issue in the pre-war era as well.
At any rate, Conde returned to Beirut when he was deported from Yemen, and seems to have lived back and forth between the two countries until the civil war began here. He spent his final days in Tangiers, and died in 1992.
As for Jbeil itself, Conde claimed in his preface that his interest was piqued by revelation of a family connection:
“As a descendant of the family [who] built the castle and other Crusader structures of Jbeil, and [who] ruled this part of Lebanon for nearly 200 years, the writer, who now regarded Byblos as the old home place, again went all out for Crusader lore.”
In the 1100s, the daughter of a Crusader ruler of Byblos married the prince of Antioch and became the mother of the Prince of Cyprus, whose descendants became the ancestors of the House of Conde. Bruce Conde may have joked about his spurious nobility in private, but in print he claimed it unabashedly. Definitely not an ordinary man.
You can find additional information about Conde on philately listservers like the one here. And you can probably find additional copies of Byways of Byblos (or his other book, See Lebanon) on Ebay.