THE “REAL” EASTER

Tomorrow, May 2nd, is Eastern Orthodox Easter. My mother’s family weren’t Greek, but, like many people in Alexandria, they were Greek Orthodox, a form of Christianity that goes back to the middle of the first century in Egypt.

Photo by Sorina Bindea via FreeImages

I know next to nothing about the Coptic religion, even though there are many more Copts in Egypt, but I can tell you a bit about Orthodox Easter.  It’s a huge festival, one which Nadia in The Girls from Alexandria knew well. As usual, impeccable behaviour was expected of 8-year old girls.

Easter Sunday, 1954

The Greek Orthodox clergy were always invited. The whole tribe had invaded our sitting room, with their long black robes, white beards, and massive crosses. To top it off, they wore ridiculous headdresses that I wasn’t supposed to stare at, even when my big sister Simone whispered that one of them looked like Rasputin, whoever that was.

Lunch was in the formal dining room. It had a mirror-topped table that reflected the vaulted ceiling so it looked like a tomb. Worse, on the wall in front of me hung a painting of a pile of fruit with a dead rabbit lying beside it. A photographer took pictures for the newspaper. My sister Simone and I had to put on a camera face for ages, even though I was ravenous and Simone’s tummy rumbled. Little girls should be seen and not heard. Ever, really. They were meant to stay in their place. A preparation for life as a woman, I could see that.

Thus we stood still where we were told in our smocked dresses and frilly socks. I looked away from the rabbit.

Everyone had to kiss the Patriarch’s ring, including Mother, whose hand was normally kissed by other people. Simone got introduced to the Patriarch before me. The holy man’s beard had twitched as he rested his hand on her head. But, when presented with his ring, Simone refused point blank to put her lips anywhere near his fingers and ran out of the room. I would have followed her, had I been as brave.

Easter depends on the calendar, and, while most countries use the Gregorian calendar, Eastern Christianity still uses the Julian calendar which makes Easter fall later. Since 1752, therefore, Eastern Orthodox Easter has rarely coincided with what most of you think of as the regular Easter.

My  family tend to call Orthodox Easter ‘the real Easter’ but, in the interests of fairness and chocolate, they now usually celebrate on both dates. CHRISTOS ANESTI. Twice!

***

The Girls from Alexandria (published by Agora Books) is out as an ebook, audio book, and paperback.

10 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT ALEXANDRIA

In its heyday, Alexandria was one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, as many people know. But there may be other things you don’t yet realise about Egypt’s second city.

1 Yes, there are Alexandrias other than the one in Egypt, but – and this may come as shock to American readers – Alexandria, Egypt, was not named after Alexandria, Virginia, however old and quaint you may consider that city by the Potomac to be.

2 The Macedonian king Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in about 331 BC. He also founded some 20 other cities named after him, but the one in Egypt became the leading Mediterranean city. That was the beginning of Greek influence in Alexandria, which to some extent still endures today.

3 Pigeons aren’t treated as rats with wings, as they are in Britain. Grilled or stuffed with rice, they are dinner. Not quite my taste, to be honest, which is probably why I haven’t been in a pigeon restaurant since 1971.

4 You don’t have to go to Cairo to see sphinxes. There are loads of them in Alex (some of them discovered underwater in the harbour) and they’re not all missing their noses like that battered old sphinx by the pyramids of Giza. Here’s one by Pompey’s pillar.

By the way, the pillar was actually built to honour Roman emperor Diocletian, but apparently someone misread the inscription at the base.

5 The cosmopolitan nature of Alex lives on after death, if the catacombs at Kom el Shofaqa are anything to go by. These are tombs in Roman, Greek, and Egyptian styles. Some statues are Egyptian but have Roman clothes and hairdos. I like to think this embodies the city’s inclusive spirit.

6 When it comes to Alexander the Great’s tomb, though, nobody knows where it is. Alexander died at the age of 32 and his body was moved from his first burial site. It’s not clear what happened after that. Many believe the tomb is somewhere in the centre of Alexandria, and archaeologists have devoted decades to digging for it, so far in vain.

7 Mohammed Ali looms large in Alexandria. There’s a huge statue of him wearing an impressive turban and brandishing an even more impressive sword. Born in 1769, Mohammed Ali was actually Albanian and didn’t even speak Arabic. All the same, history dubs him the founder of modern Egypt. He reformed laws, improved the economy, and, most progressive of all, he allowed the establishment of a School of Medicine to train women.

Mansheya Square, Alexandria, via Wikimedia Commons

8 You may see loofahs grow on trees. They’re not sponges at all, but a type of squash that grows very well in Alexandria, with its abundant sunshine and moderate temperature. You can grow Luffa aegyptiaca in northern climes too, especially if you treat it like a greenhouse cucumber vine.

9 Considered as gods in Ancient Egypt, cats are everywhere in Alexandria, though they favour the fish market at Anfoushy. “Affection for cats is part of Islam”, decreed the Prophet Mohammed. When the Prophet came across a black-and-white cat breastfeeding her kitten during one of his campaigns, he changed the course of his soldiers. He later adopted the cat.  Named Muezza, she was undoubtedly the favourite of his many cats.

10 Alexandria’s sunsets are spectacular, with every shade of pink, purple, and red. As the last slice of the sun sinks into the sea, there’s a momentary green flash, but you must be quick to see it. The flash is when you can make a wish, in the brief instant before the sun drops like a rock into the horizon and the sky suddenly turns dark.

***

You can read more about Alexandria in my brand-new novel The Girls from Alexandria. There’s a giveaway to celebrate the paperback publication next Thursday – head to @AgoraBooksLDN on Twitter to enter.

THE COWS OF CAMBRIDGE

It’s been quiet in this town lately. There are far fewer tourists since Covid hit, and most students are having to study remotely. But Cambridge still has a few new arrivals. This young herd arrived on April 1. Here they are, slaking their thirst in the brook 20 minutes after the transporter off-loaded them.

Like all newly arrived freshers, these guys stick together at first, but they soon learn to stretch their legs.

Grazing on common land in Cambridge is a tradition that goes back centuries. Bullocks and heifers normally arrive sometime in April, and may stay as long as six months, the state of the vegetation permitting. Common land is surprisingly near the city centre.

I won’t dwell on what happens when the cattle leave, but they seem to enjoy their time in Cambridge. Favourite pastimes include paddling, munching on willow, and getting to know the students.

There’s normally one bullock or heifer who is especially sociable. Here’s Panda Eyes making a friend in 2019.

And another one. They smell remarkably sweet up close, as long as you’re at the right end.

In 2020, we knew this one as Poop Face. Well, how would you describe these distinguishing features?

His, not mine!

Poop Face was so gregarious that several locals thought of adopting him. He also got himself into the Cambridge News AND The Sun newspaper for being so inquisitive about people’s rucksacks, picnics, etc. Unfortunately he nearly choked on discarded packaging, and survived only because someone had the presence of mind to fish a crisp packet out of his throat. Every year one cow or bullock dies here from choking on garbage, yet people still leave their litter.

Every year’s intake is different. I look forward to getting to know our new arrivals and watching them grow and learn, and just enjoy life while they can.

They’ll get used to the other young people, and their bikes.

Some may appreciate being serenaded while bathing.

If I don’t answer the phone, I’m probably spending time with these magnificent beasts.

PS In the interests of fairness, I have been asked to point out that Oxford has cattle too.

SPEAK TO ME OF SUEZ

In this short extract from my novel The Girls from Alexandria, ten-year-old Nadia gives her take on the events of Suez.

ALEXANDRIA, 1956

It began on the twenty-sixth of July when I was ten and a half years old, or, as I preferred to put it, nearly eleven.

The whole thing was about a canal and a dam. President Gamal Abdel Nasser was a big man with a muscular jaw and impressive teeth that he showed all the time.

via Wikimedia Commons

That night in 1956 was the fourth anniversary of the revolution. Nasser celebrated by giving a long speech right here in Alexandria, in Mansheya Square by that statue of Mohammed Ali Pasha wearing a turban and brandishing a sword as he sits on his horse.

Mansheya Square, Alexandria, via Wikimedia Commons

I enjoyed listening to Nasser on the radio because I could understand his speeches. Unlike other important men who make themselves sound clever by using formal Arabic, Nasser spoke a colloquial language that every Egyptian could follow, even a child of not quite eleven. That, I thought, was much cleverer.

Whenever anything interesting happened, I was sent to bed instead of being allowed to stay up, so I missed the big speech. Mother told me about it the next morning, which was hardly the same thing. I was especially sorry to have missed the firemen dispersing the crowds in Mansheya Square.

We were all upstairs by the air conditioning which was on at full blast against the sweltering heat. Father and Mother told Simone and me that the Suez Canal now belonged to Egypt instead of France or Britain. That meant it would raise lots of money for Egypt and would pay to build a High Dam at Aswan.

It was a good thing that the Suez Canal had been nationalised. Unless you happened to be Britain or France, I supposed.

For a while after that, I forgot about canals and went back to puzzling over Uncle Selim. Selimkept a thin book in his pocket. Whenever I took an interest in it, however, his reptile eyes swivelled towards me and I’d have to look away. I only glimpsed it once before he whisked the little book back into his breast pocket.

‘Poetry and papyrus,’ Tante Zahra scoffed between burps.

When term started, I consulted the encyclopaedia in the school library. Papyrus came from a plant in the Delta, though that did not enlighten me about Selim. For good measure, I looked up palimpsest as well, its entry being nearby. That was all about scraping something off a parchment to use it again.

Pontus Edenberg/FreeImages

As it turned out, I didn’t get a chance to visit the school library for ages after that. In October, some countries got angry with Egypt for taking a canal that should have been Egyptian in the first place. Father and Mother did not fully explain it but, in no time at all, France, Britain, and Israel all ganged up to declare war on Egypt.

Abdou stuck blackout paper on all the windows, and every night we heard air-raid sirens and anti-aircraft guns. That’s what my horrid cousin Victor called them. With schools shut, he was in our garden more than ever. He told me that the guns were at Smouha, barely a few kilometres away, but I insisted that didn’t scare me at all, so there.

Simone knew better. She hugged me and reassured me that everything would be all right. ‘You can sleep in my room,’ she said.

I padded into her room when the lights were out, leaving my teddy bear behind. I didn’t want my sister to think I was still a baby. What with the guns and Simone’s feet, I barely slept at all while sharing her bed, but at least there was the chance that some of her courage would rub off on to me in the night.

***

The Girls from Alexandria is out on April 1, and features this stunning cover designed by Emma Rogers.

COCKTAILS & CAMELS

I’ve mentioned my forthcoming novel The Girls from Alexandria a fair bit recently, but it’s a while since I shared something from Cocktails and Camels. Sixty years on from when my mother wrote it, I still think it’s one of the most entertaining books ever. And no, I’m not at all biased.

Published NY, 1960

Grandmother, a beautiful green-eyed woman with jet-black hair, had come from Damascus at the age of thirteen to marry Grandfather, whom she had never set eyes on before.

Grandfather had originated in Lebanon, studied in Paris, then emigrated to Egypt and prospered as a merchant. Although the marriage was one of convenience, as marriages often were, it seems to have worked out. My grandparents had eight boys.

Mother and Father were less fortunate. They had us —three daughters. A daughter was not only nothing to write home about, it was something one should definitely not write home about. As for having three daughters, it was a calamity. Obviously someone had given Mother and Father the Evil Eye.

The Evil Eye was, like the British, very active in the Middle East and responsible for everything that went wrong. If someone admired your new dress and then you spilled coffee all over it, it wasn’t that you were clumsy. It was the Evil Eye.

But, if Father was disappointed at having three daughters, he never showed it. Father never showed anything, which was very smart of him but most un-Arab. He faced his fate very well, far better than Maha, the Lebanese nanny who had been with Mother before she was married.

Maha was a big moon-faced woman with brown velvet eyes and pierced ear-lobes from which hung tiny blue beads which were meant to ward off the Evil Eye. She seemed to have been put together out of a series of cushions and looked like a Michelin advertisement.

Because she was flat-footed, but mainly because she was Lebanese, she padded around in bedroom slippers which she had turned down at the back. Her elephantine tread was always accompanied by the soft clinking of thin gold bracelets on her plump wrists. They were her entire fortune and she added one whenever she had saved some money.

Once a week on her afternoon off, she painted her eyes crudely with kohl and stuffed herself into a corset and high-heeled shoes several sizes too small. Then, pirouetting clumsily in front of us, she’d say, smiling like a child, ”I’m not all that fat, am I, my darlings?”

When I was born, Maha sobbed for a week. She did not throw her arms up in the air and cry, ”Mabrouk, mabrouk, congratulations, may the little one live to be one hundred,” and then bake some very special Lebanese dish which would sit on our stomachs for the rest of the night.

She did not utter one single little mabrouk. Such congratulations were used for happy things like baby boys, and really important things like having a new dress or getting over a corn on the foot. But having a girl was not a corn on the foot. It was a pain in the neck. As for being a girl—well, maybe one could live it up in England or the United States, but in the East it was something to live down.

Things have changed so much for women. Or have they?

THOUGHTS ON WORLD BOOK DAY

World Book Day is about every child and young person getting a book of their own, but it has also made me think around the topic of children and books.

I was about four or five years old when my mother began writing her first book, Cocktails and Camels. She did it in my room, it being the sunniest one in my grandparents’ house in Alexandria where we all lived.

As if that weren’t bad enough, silence was required while my mummy filled reams of paper with her pencilled scrawl. Sometimes she stopped to smile at what she’d written, and occasionally she even laughed, but she rarely read any of it out loud to me. Here’s a tip if you ever want to annoy a child: make sure they have no idea what’s going on, then demand they keep absolutely quiet during it.

After some time, I piped up. “I’m going to write a book too!”

Because it’s also #throwbackThursday aka #TBT, you’re getting this of my mother and me in the garden.

I did end up writing books and, like my mother, I use pencil and paper for my first drafts. The novels are entirely made up, but where do the characters come from? I don’t know. They come from here and there, I suppose, from snatches of conversation or a chance sighting of someone so offbeat that they beg to be put in a book.

They also come from ill-defined experiences that go way back and suddenly decide to leap into my head. This they usually do in the middle of the night, and I have to jot it all down on paper lest I forget, which I’m told can be annoying when it happens at 2am, and again at 4am.

As I recall, my mother was apt to do this too. And no, it’s not ‘annoying’. I prefer to think of it as the circle of writing life.

I’m very proud of my mother and all her books, including those for children, but especially this one as it’s a warm and witty tribute to the cosmopolitan Alexandria that I loved and was home.

And now my childhood has led to a novel set in the same world that no longer exists. You may know this already from my frequent mentions of The Girls from Alexandria which is out next month. I’m sorry that my mother isn’t around to enjoy it, or to hear me say how much I owe her.

***

Enough of this wallowing in sentiment. It’s not just World Book Day and Throwback Thursday. It’s also Mishmish’s tenth birthday. Her name is Arabic for apricot and she is a goddess.

كل سنة و إنتي طيبة يا مشمش

Kul sena wa inti tayyeba ya Mishmish which means Many happy returns, Mishmish.

HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

No point telling me it’s not spring yet. Not when those crocuses of hope are pushing up all over the place.

It feels like spring outside and it looks like it too. I went out to the wheelie bin and got rain and sunshine at the same time, which pretty much clinched the diagnosis.

The snowdrops have been. So too have aconites and iris reticulata.

Someone’s camellia is busy doing its thing, though its neighbour is less lush.

Looks like my cotoneaster is playing dead again, and one of hydrangeas has copped it. A couple of salvias were meant to disguise a missing chunk of the pot, but that didn’t quite work out.

On the plus side, I now know what slugs do all winter.

As a young child, I thought gardens were a place of wonder, and almost infinite in size. Snails fascinated me. So did the loofah plants that grew alongside the house in Alexandria. Snapdragons were called gueule de loup, made for opening and shutting like a wolf’s mouth. The gardener swept the path with a palm leaf, and watered when the weather was especially dry, though, as every Alexandrian will tell you, the weather is absolutely perfect in Alex.

As an adult, I’m a fairly lazy gardener and anyway the patio isn’t infinitely large. At the moment it’s not so much a riot of colour as someplace to go to between Zoom meetings. But you’ve got to stop and smell the roses, as they say.

The roses aren’t out yet, the honeysuckle is barely visible, and I’ve no idea who ‘they’ are, but even so I did that smelling thing today. And yes, I’ve now figured out what the neighbour’s cat has been doing all winter.

How is your garden doing this month? Is it bursting into life, or haven’t you got around to checking?

THE CAMERA NEVER LIES

How I treasure old photos. They feature a bygone age, with bygone people that I loved so much and still miss.

Here are my great-grandparents with six of their seven children, including my grandmother, great aunts, and great uncles.  As usual, my great-grandfather wore a fez.

My great-grandparents Abdullah and Aspasie with their two eldest children

A fez was normal headgear in Egypt at the time. Until the revolution in 1952, it was essential in the civil service, the armed forces, and the police. Worn at an angle, it could cut quite a dash, until a gust of wind made off with it. My grandfather never took to it. He’d say, ‘As a hat it is completely useless. It neither keeps off the sun, nor the rain, nor does it keep the ears warm in winter. It is like a flowerpot, that is all. You can’t even use it to hide from someone you want to avoid.’

Still, it suited some, like my Uncle Aziz.

Looking at more recent photos, you may gather that I liked food, swans, and my aunt Muriel. None of that has changed one bit.

My mother took a lot of pictures with a bulky Kodak 35mm that accompanied her everywhere around Alexandria. We lived in Alexandria but occasionally went to Cairo to visit an aunt who had, in a moment of madness, decided to move there. Alexandrians and Cairenes generally held each other in the kind of esteem that Oxford reserves for Cambridge.

In Alexandria with my best friend, also called Carol, the camera case, and Boogie the dog

Sometimes we travelled further afield, especially in summer. This was when hordes of Cairenes arrived by train, bus, or car, bringing their children, their nannies, their cousins, their baskets, their suitcases, and their ruckus. The government, too, moved to Alex, and not an inch of beach was left. Ugh.

Mother always travelled with the camera. I remember the case as if it were yesterday. Made of brown leather with a fuzzy lining, it was an object of fascination, and now I realise that it appears in over half the pictures from my early childhood. I don’t recall what the camera itself looked like, and obviously there are no photos of it.

Lake Geneva, I think. Who cares where you are when you have a cuddly camera case?

No toy stood a chance when pitted against the appeal of the camera case. The doll was soon chucked on the ground by the deck chair.

I didn’t have a comfort blanket. With that camera case to hand, there was no need. However, as with many comfort objects, it didn’t last forever. My mother took a trip to Thailand. She returned to Alexandria sans Kodak, having dropped it in the Mae Klong river. I don’t remember what she bought to replace it. It just wasn’t the same.

Do you have old family photos? And, if so, do you enjoy them as much as I do?

***

If you’re interested, there’s lots more about twentieth-century Alexandria in my forthcoming book The Girls from Alexandria.

A FACE FOR RADIO

“An author should always make an effort to look good,” a novelist once told me. Her name was Sally and she was a tutor on a writing course. I’ve forgotten her surname as well as everything else she said, but I do remember her advice to put on your best face, even just for a radio interview.

With this in mind, I slipped into the habit of putting on lipstick even if I was only popping down to the cash machine. My three boys hooted with laughter because it was the kind of thing their grandmother did. Not their mother.

Of course, it’s impossible to look your best all the time. On the school run, mascara inevitably takes second place to lost gym kit, and, in my other life as a GP, I was often bedraggled from visiting patient after patient in the rain.

To be fair, I reckon few people expect their doctor to step out of the pages of a fashion mag. Tidy and clean are usually enough. The occasional patient, however, has a keen eye. “Bed 3 wants to see you,” said the nurse on the ward.

‘Bed 3’ – who happened to be from Tunbridge Wells – didn’t just tell me about her cystitis symptoms. She also pointed out that the hem of my dress was uneven.

I prescribed some treatment, and, when I next checked in on her, she said she was better. Then she asked when I was going to fix that dress.

I didn’t exactly follow author Sally’s advice for my first ever radio interview. It was at the end of a busy week and it was down the line so, come 6pm, I was lying in bed on the phone to the presenter. I took the precaution of using an extra pillow, though. It’s best not to sound completely dead even if you look it.

The following interview was in the radio studio. Sally what’s-her-name would have been so proud to see me arrive with full makeup and shiny hair. The listeners might not be able to see me, but the team at the station would.

As it turned out, the presenter and I never met. I was taken to sit on my own in a separate little studio.

What about the producer? Well, his guide dog thought I looked OK.

***

You may also like My Fabulous Life on TV.

20TH CENTURY MEDICINE, EGYPTIAN STYLE

Covid-19 has already altered medical practice forever but, thinking back, there’ve been many changes in medicine over the years. Most have been more gradual than the ones made necessary by this pandemic, but no less dramatic. The NHS care that I practise, and receive, is far removed from the care I experienced as a child growing up in Egypt.

With my mother in the garden

Antibiotics were few back then, and usually given by injection with a freshly boiled syringe and a reusable needle. I can still feel the cold oily pain of penicillin as it inched its way from my bottom down my leg.

“I don’t want an injection!”

Penicillin was better absorbed in this way than by mouth. There was also a trend of sparing a patient’s delicate digestion, hence the usual recovery diet of rice with boiled chicken, as recommended by every doctor. If the patient ran a fever, suppositories were deemed preferable to a couple of Aspro.

The French occupation of Egypt may also explain how often the middle and upper classes suffered from liver complaints. “C’est de la bile, chérie.” At least bilious attacks can be genuine. A tired liver or le foie fatigué isn’t even a real diagnosis.

Injections of vitamin B12 were popular in the mid-20th century, and not just for cases of proven deficiency. The impressive bright red colour of B12 flowing into a vein could hardly fail to make the patient feel better, never mind what was actually wrong with her.

The divide between haves and have nots dominated every aspect of life in Egypt. With no national health provision, the poor died young, blindness from trachoma was common, and amputees were everywhere.

If you could afford one, your family doctor would visit whenever requested, often with a cigarette in hand as he puffed his way upstairs. Once he extinguished it, he would examine the patient. As he usually wheezed more than the patient, I’m not sure he heard much through his stethoscope.

Granny waiting for the doctor to arrive

What medicine lacked by way of treatments back then was made up for by personal attention, much as alternative medicine still functions today. A little baksheesh to the receptionist ensured that you got seen ahead of others in the waiting room. It seemed unfair to me then, as a young child, and it was even less fair that most of the grownups around me couldn’t see a problem.

It’s almost incomprehensible now, but polio was a scourge that went back thousands of years. With outbreaks of paralysis among young children every summer, no wonder we all feared it. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine didn’t come into use in the Middle East until the late 1950s. For some reason, both doses were injected into the back (not the buttock or thigh). The prospect made me run off into the garden where I promptly fell on the gravel. The two skinned knees and two grazed elbows actually hurt for longer than the polio jab. I’m pleased to say that the Salk vaccine, followed by Sabin oral vaccine, began the long road towards conquering polio worldwide.

According to hieroglyphics and papyruses, bilharzia was known to the Ancient Egyptians. The flatworms that cause the disease are water-borne, with a complicated life cycle that involves freshwater snails as an intermediate host. Bilharzia causes a heavy burden of ill-health, especially for rural children who paddle (and piddle) in the Nile or in one of the many canals. And yet, despite the toll on the population, many people living a comfortable life in Alexandria or Cairo 50 years ago had barely heard of it. The best remedy is prevention with clean water and good hygiene, so the story continues.

***

Although my forthcoming novel The Girls from Alexandria isn’t a book about medicine, you’ll find many aspects of a cosmopolitan world that has long since ceased to exist.