CHRISTMAS IN EGYPT

On this very different holiday season, I’ve been looking back on what I remember of celebrations past, when I was growing up in Alexandria.

Photo by Felix Schmitt

There were many Christian communities at the time, and Christmas trees were easy to find. Ours was always installed in the basement. You didn’t have to be a small child to think it was huge. The top reached the ceiling, leaving little room for a star. I was allowed to make paper chains, but wasn’t to fiddle with the ornaments as they were made of glass, or the lights as they were real candles.

At some point, someone fat turned up dressed as Father Christmas. I never discovered who it was, but the list of possibilities was quite long as practically every grownup man had a paunch.

My current crèche has lost most of its moss

A nativity scene always featured, complete with fake snow on the roof of the stable. I don’t know which bright spark thought there might have been snow in Bethlehem but, this being Egypt, there was ample cotton wool.

Unlike the nativity set I have today where everything is glued down, the figures could be moved around. I had fun rearranging every one while I pondered exactly why Jesus had been born in a stable. Arabs are among the most hospitable people in the world. Surely any self-respecting innkeeper would have made a bit more of an effort to find room for Mary and Joseph.

Ahlan wa sahlan’ means ‘welcome’

When my best friend (also called Carol) arrived, we’d move the figures around some more, so that each could get a good view of Baby Jesus. Carol would argue that the three wise men were entitled to the best places as they’d come such a long way. “AND they brought presents,” she added.

I couldn’t see the point of frankincense or myrrh, especially as I hadn’t a clue what they were, and I was pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t appreciate gold until he was a bit older. Anyway the sheep was missing a leg now so it had to lean against the manger to stop toppling over.

In the garden with my friend Carol, and Boogie the dog

Family was plentiful back then. As my grandmother was one of seven, there was no shortage of great-aunts and great-uncles to pinch my cheeks and tell me how much I had grown since the previous week. I can’t remember what we had for Christmas dinner as I’d be too excited to eat. One year, though, I was so high on anticipation that I threw up onto my plate.

As for many other children on Christmas Day, unwrapping presents was the main event. Sometimes the dog joined in. This was the same dog that had bitten me while I was sitting on my potty, but he’d been forgiven.

Trying to get the dog interested in playing with my new toys.

Going to the pictures was a Christmas tradition and we’d traipse out en masse to the Rialto or the Amir. Mother India was a wonderful film, though as a child I found 2 hours 52 mins on the long side. When I saw the film again years later, I stayed awake throughout and can say that Nargis played her role as Radha magnificently.

For a lucky few, Christmas meant a short break at a grand hotel in Luxor with days spent visiting the Valley of the Kings. These days, the luxury hotels are still there, but devoid of tourists.

It’s a very different world, especially this year. I hope each of you has a peaceful and restorative Christmas, even if it’s nothing like the one you’d planned. Here’s to a happier, healthier 2021.

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My memories of growing up in Egypt inspired my new novel The Girls from Alexandria. It’ll be published April 1 by Agora Books and you can find out more here, including how to pre-order a copy if you feel so inclined.

The Truth about Book Clubs

Without serious preparation, a book club meeting is nothing. Which explains why, for the previous half hour, I had been fashioning little flags out of sticky labels and toothpicks to poke into various cheeses. Of course, an elaborate cheeseboard was not the only fare that evening. There was plenty of wine as well. This particular club, like so many other suburban book gatherings, could be described as a drinking club with a reading problem.

The venue may be a local pub, a bookshop, someone’s front room, or, especially this year, a room on Zoom. While the surroundings may vary, I have discovered some universal truths about book clubs.

#1 Like books themselves, book clubs come in all shapes, sizes, and genres. Some are highbrow, others less so. Before setting off with a tome tucked under your arm, it’s as well to know which sort you’re heading for. Get it wrong, and it’s like turning up at a funeral dressed for a tarts ‘n vicars party.

#2 There’s always a troublemaker, and the reason for the trouble is ostensibly to do with the book. The end is too rushed or too vague, there are too many foreign words or too little sex, and since when did dove get to be the past tense of dive?

“Since about 1855, that’s when,” a smart-arse will pipe up, citing the OED or an obscure poem by Longfellow.

#3 Someone will try to restore the peace. It’s either an amateur referee, a retired librarian with world-class shushing skills, or the home-owner who fears waking the kids.

#4 That’s why it’s a relief to move on to the choice for next meeting, though a consensus may be elusive. The chosen book is most often a novel, but could it be a biography for a change? The next book has to be well-thought of, or else controversial. Must triggers be avoided? Discuss. And they do.

Recent or topical is good, as long as the book is affordable. If not, some will only study the free sample on Amazon.

The book can’t be too long, because some of us work, you know. Here someone may bring up past choices. “Remember the time we chose English Passengers? I couldn’t be doing with nearly 500 pages.”

“Why not? English Passengers was hilarious.” Which may have been true, in parts. But then this came from the same person who thought of Titanic as a rom-com.

#5 Sometimes the club invites an author as guest speaker. Authors are only too glad to talk about their book and quaff wine, until such time as they are allowed to leave with the gift of a potted plant and the remains of the Roquefort. Just don’t say, “I’ve written a novel. Could you have a look at my manuscript?”

#6 Virtual meetings, being easier to attend and free of location restraints, often increase the number of participants, but Zoom and the like can decrease interaction. That doesn’t necessarily make the club run more harmoniously, though. See #2 above.

#7 It’s easy to dip into a book club and there’s no need to commit to every meeting, especially online. Just Google and you’re bound to find clubs for every possible genre, whether you enjoy sci-fi, feminist literature, translated books, historical fiction, or zombie apocalypse novels. Since the advent of Covid-19, escapism is the order of the day.

Do you go to a book club? I’d love to hear about yours, so please let me know its highs and its lows.

Next week, you can join award-winning author Jane Davis for a lockdown book club meeting via Zoom. On 12 Dec at 6.00pm, she’ll be answering questions about her latest release, At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock, a gripping novel set in the 1950s. The event is free but you need to register. Zoom meeting ID: 848 7601 7328 https://buff.ly/3miipHf

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You may also enjoy What Not to Say to an Author.