In her own words, this is how my mother came to write her first book.
“Il a nationalisé le canal!” my father said again with disbelief. “Nasser read the decree right here in Alexandria, this evening. He told the USA to choke to death on its fury!”
We were staying with my parents in Alexandria, and, as it turned out, I was only allowed out of the house at certain hours of the day. It was a sort of house arrest (résidence forcée).
There was nothing much to do in autumn 1956. It was October, a lovely month in Egypt, when summer’s heat and humidity are over, and it is pleasant to be out of doors.
One morning, I sat down under the mimosa tree, with the sound of white doves cooing in the dovecote, and began to write my first book, Cocktails and Camels. I never thought of any other title.
Apart from school essays and letters, I had never written anything before. I wrote in pencil, painstakingly, while my young daughter Carol picked daisies on the lawn. As I searched for the right words, they popped up like magic. I was elated.
Writing my first book had nothing to do with my wanting to be ‘a writer’. It just happened because the circumstances and my state of mind were attuned. Although the country was at war, Gamal Abdel Nasser was on a nationalization spree, and the future looked uncertain, I felt peaceful and content. Maybe that is what writing does for you.
The writing did not always come easily. Every line was written and rewritten a dozen times or more. I did not mind. Every time I corrected a sentence, I could see it getting better. Writing was a challenge, and I enjoyed it. I’d walk around the garden, mulling things over. Sometimes I’d laugh aloud at what I’d written.
“I’m going to write a book too!” Carol piped up.
Friends came to visit and have tea. I told them I was writing a book, and that it would be called Cocktails and Camels.
“You are writing a book?” Then, in French, “Mais pourquoi? Why don’t you learn to play bridge?”
“Je déteste le bridge!” We always spoke like that in Alexandria, switching from one language to another all the time. Anyone who did not was not a true Alexandrian.
Annoyed that I always refused to play bridge, they were soon asking if I was planning to mention them in my book.
“Of course.” How could I not include them? They were such characters. But I would do it with humour, and make up names to disguise their identities.
“Will you say that I am the best dressed woman in Alexandria?” asked Yvette who wore a different outfit every day. We laughed.
“You’ll have to be patient and wait until the book is published.”
My father, who for more than thirty years had been the respected President of La Bourse de Contrats en Egypte, had published an excellent and much acclaimed book on the Bourse. I thought he would be pleased to hear that I too wanted to write a book.
One evening, with Carol asleep in her cot, I told my parents that I was working on a light-hearted autobiography called Cocktails and Camels. Their reaction was not what I had expected.
“Quoi?” Father cried. “Un livre? Des cocktails?”
“Quelle idée! Nous finirons en prison!” Mother said. “Why can’t you be like everyone else, comme tout le monde?”
“I’ll take a pen name,” I cried, annoyed. “And all the names of the people will be changed. It won’t be published in Egypt, anyway.”
There had been censorship in Egypt for years, and one was careful what one wrote in letters and newspapers, let alone books. Sometimes, foreign magazines were sold with articles missing, cut out by the censors. To be on the safe side, I changed not only the names of friends and relatives, but, to be sure no one recognized the family, I wrote that I had two sisters instead of a sister and a brother. My brother Théo was never mentioned in Cocktails and Camels. As for a pen name, I would be Jacqueline Carol, using my own first name and my daughter’s first name as a surname.
“You can’t afford to publish a book,” Father then said.
“I am not planning to pay for its publication! The publisher will pay me.”
Mother’s blue eyes looked infinitely sad. “Please be careful, chérie. Nice girls don’t write books.”
“Who cares about nice girls?” I howled as I stormed out of the room.
Cocktails and Camels was published in New York in 1960. Now sadly out of print, it portrays Egypt in an earlier time – الزمن الجميل – and is still one of the funniest books I have ever read. Not that I’m at all biased.
18 thoughts on “How My Mother Wrote Her First Book”
you have so organized presentation…great post!!
What a fabulous story. Tank you SO much for sharing it ♡
My absolute pleasure.
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Such a shame that Cocktails and Camels is out of print. Sounds like a book my wife would enjoy. Just out of curiosity, when did the censorship end in Egypt?
From memory, I think postal censorship ended after Anwar Sadat came to power in 1970.
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You can get Cocktails and Camels from Amazon for $25 today! I like the part your mother mentions about the missing articles and magazines. I used to surreptitiously get in Alex and Zamalek bootleg Playboy and Lui copies but even then the good Page 6 pics were usually removed except one I found of Elke Sommer à poil, which I of course treasured. It might be interesting to write a story about a young half English half Egyptian girl or boy who constructs a foreign imaginary world/culture composed of all the missing cutouts whose contents she or he makes up during the Nasser period.
Ah, brilliant idea! Yareit I had thought of it before writing my own novel about Alex (currently in progress). Hope you enjoy Cocktails & Camels, if you read it. The family are shawam, in Egypt since the 1860s.
I might give it a shot. 😉
I went to Alexandria n your moms book are there in the book shop of Alexandria Museum. I bought one and i found it very entertaining.
I want to have the other book but I dont know where to find. Can you help?
Please send my regards to your mom
Ahlan ya Amira. I’m delighted you enjoyed ‘Cocktails & Camels’. Which one of my mother’s other books do you have in mind? She is now no longer around and some of her books, both for adults and for children, are out of print, but I have inherited some copies.
So sorry to hear that she left already. May she rest in peace.
Where can I find her other books both for children and adults. I have a library at home and I want her books in there too 😀
Thank you for your quick reply and help
I just came across this post and don’t know if you will see it. I am just wondering if you had an aunt, Muriel Klat? if so, she was my teacher at the EGC in the Fall of 1956. She was a lovely person and I remember her distinctly.
Ya khabar! Muriel is indeed my aunt, and is still a very lovely person. Although Covid has stopped us from meeting for some time, we are in contact and I even heard from her today. I will mention you to her.
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