The past is indeed a different country, especially when it’s in a different country. On this Throwback Thursday, I’m reminded how tough, and expensive, it could be to date in the 1940s.
This was Alexandria after World War Two. My parents, who had just met, struggled to find time alone together to indulge in illicit pleasures like a cup of coffee or a chocolate éclair. Here are my mother’s reminiscences.
Sightless, armless, legless, moving around on small wooden boards with wheels, or accompanied by a child or a barefoot woman in a black robe with bangles round her ankles, beggars were part of my earliest memories. They were everywhere we went. We knew them, and they knew us.
Portly one-legged Ahmed had taken up domicile outside my grandparents’ house on rue Fouad in downtown Alexandria. He was outside other people’s homes too, but he liked my grandparents’ house best. He and Mohammed the porter would sit side by side on a bench on the pavement chatting about this and that.
Not only did Ahmed know by name everyone who went in and out of my grandparents’ home, he could get about more quickly on his one good leg than most people could by car. Having just seen me leave my grandparents’, he would be waiting outside Pastroudis, a favourite café of the English, before I had even had time to get out of my Fiat.
That evening, at a cocktail party at the other end of town, Ahmed was there. He stood, a broad smile on his unshaven face, and a white carnation in the buttonhole of a coat that had been a hand-me-down from one of my uncles and was now grubby and frayed.
Holding a necklace of fresh jasmine, he hobbled over to greet me like a perfect host, as if he lived in the beautiful home where the lights shone and where Glenn Miller’s tunes filled the air.
“For you, oh Princess!” He offered the jasmine necklace in the manner of a grand seigneur.
“May Allah keep you,” I said to him, opening my purse to give him baksheesh.
In a stage whisper Ahmed said, “Where’s the handsome English captain I saw you with at Pastroudis this afternoon?” His eyes studied me as I blushed. “Ah, I swear on the Prophet that the English are very good people. Very generous!”
I doubled the baksheesh. I’d kept the rendez-vous a secret from my parents. It was going to be hardier and costlier to keep it from Ahmed.