A VINTAGE SUMMER HOLIDAY

It’s a challenge to travel abroad from the UK at the moment, as I discovered when my last little holiday turned out to be a day trip to Luton airport. That’s why I thought you might enjoy reading about the leisurely holidays my family used to take long ago, when they lived in Alexandria. Way too long ago for me to remember, so it’s an extract adapted from my mother’s first book, Cocktails & Camels.

Every summer, like a swarm of locusts, Cairenes deserted the dusty, choking heat of the capital and swooped down onto Alexandria, avid for the cool city that they mocked the rest of the year. They came spilling out of trains, buses, and cars, frantic to get to the sea.

They came with their picnic baskets and their bedding—the government clerks and their portly wives, the shrill mothers-in-law covered with fat and cheap jewellery, the well-fed pashas twiddling their amber beads, the cooks, nannies, and suffragis—and they settled on the beaches until there wasn’t an inch of sand to be seen. At night, the locusts donned white sharkskin jackets and invaded the restaurants, cinemas, and casinos. The only thing for an Alexandrian to do was to pack his bags and take the first ship to Europe, usually with his car.

Back then there were no exit visas or travel restrictions of any kind. Most of these came with the Palestine War of 1948.

High up in the Dolomites, it was quiet and peaceful. There were only a few cows—and about half of Alexandria. “Chérie!” they’d cry to one another in surprise, even though they had come over on the ship together. “What brings you here?”

The answer was always, “I’m escaping from those dreadful Cairenes.”

It was an advantage to be able to speak Arabic without anyone understanding. Unfortunately, there were exceptions, like the time on a bus at Cortina d’Ampezzo when my sister Helen asked to change places because the old hag on her right smelled. The old hag turned round and told her in perfect Arabic that she was a very rude little girl.

My mother as child on a donkey in France

Some people were so excited when they found out we came from Egypt that they ran around screaming “The Egyptians are coming,” and “The Egyptians are leaving,” as though we were Pharaoh’s armies. They’d glue their noses to the license plate on the car as if studying hieroglyphics, and everyone suddenly had a passion for Egyptian stamps.

Two ladies approached us most forcefully one day. Mother was too taken aback to say a word.

“Take it easy, Ethel,” said one. “The poor thing obviously only speaks Bedouin language. Let me try to speak to her.” She bent down so that her nose almost touched Mother’s. “We’re Americans.” As though anyone within ten miles had any doubts. “America, Bay City, Michigan.”

“What’s your name, little Bedouin lady? I’m Mildred and this is Ethel. We’re travelling round the world playing the piano. At least, I’m the pianist and Ethel sings.”

When Father returned to the hotel and heard this, he refused to pretend to be a Bedouin or to live in an oasis in the middle of the Sahara, even though Mother implored him for the sake of Michigan.

He did, however, suggest that Ethel and Mildred join us for a drink and perhaps perform for us afterwards. They did. It was a riot, with half the people in the hotel running down to see who had been murdered. We learned many interesting things about the natives of Bay City, Michigan.

Europe was all right for a holiday but there was no place like Alexandria in the whole world. As we returned, we leant over the rail of the SS Ausonia and watched the pale yellow outline of Alexandria come into focus. The pilot’s launch flitted lightly across the water, the green flag with its crescent and three stars flying in the wind, and soon the pilot was climbing up the rope ladder followed by the port authorities and a few shaweesh (policemen) in white uniforms and red fezzes.

The quayside itself was a mass of galabeyyas—the long robes worn by most of the less affluent Arabs—and red fezzes. Everyone shouted and waved handkerchiefs. Sleek new cars and battered taxis inched their way through the crowd, honking their horns at length, and a group of ragged-looking men, ropes tied round their middles, chanted in refrain as they hauled an enormous crate away from the ship.

At the bottom of the gangway, one policeman, the corners of a checked handkerchief showing under his fez to keep the sweat from falling into his eyes, noisily came to blows with a man selling rugs. The man, with the unshaven look of a badly-plucked chicken, screamed at the top of his voice that the whole of the police force were sons of dogs, and that this particular policeman was something quite unprintable.

It was good to be home.

***

You may also enjoy these posts:

How my mother wrote her first book

Ten things you didn’t know about Alexandria

WHERE ARE YOU, KING TUT?

It’s nearly 100 years since the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in the Valley of the Kings, and the boy Pharaoh continues to fascinate.

Tutankhamun made his mark on me at an early age. When we were living in Egypt, my own Egyptian mummy took me to see the exhibit at the Cairo Museum in Tahrir Square. At the age of four, I wasn’t as tall as the wooden cabinets, so, while my mum marvelled at the treasures, I had a superb view of the brass screws holding the cabinets together.

My mother’s history with King Tut goes back to her own childhood, as she wrote in her book Cocktails & Camels.

One of the most interesting people we met on our pre-war holidays was Howard Carter who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. I was only twelve at the time, but, as it so often is with childhood memories, it seems like yesterday. Every evening on their way to the hotel dining room, guests were drawn as though by a magnet to the slot machine where, with one franc and a good deal more luck, a crane would reach down amongst a multitude of bonbons and come up not with bubble gum but with silver cigarette boxes and Swiss watches.

Howard Carter would be there with a bagful of one-franc pieces, much determination, and a rare stock of fabulous magic phrases which no doubt had lain dormant for four thousand years. “Abracadabra,” he’d chant soothingly at first. “Abracadabra, hashamatasha, wooloo, wooloo, wooloooo.”

Then, as the crane came up with only a handful of sweets, he’d use some rather un-Pharaonic words and put in another franc. With the crane half an inch away from a silver cigarette case, Carter, who was a strong man, would shake the slot machine unhinging it from the wall. The crane swerved, landed on its object, and with some more magic words, the cigarette case would drop into the waiting receptacle. “Here you are,” he’d say to anyone who happened to be standing by. “You take it. Now let’s have a crack at that lighter there.”

Though we did not like to press him on his discovery of the Tutankhamun tomb, the subject naturally arose. I vividly remember his telling us of the awe he felt when, after having fruitlessly excavated for months, he looked through a hole into the antechamber of the tomb, by the light of a candle flickering in the warm air that was escaping, and saw, as though through a mist, statues, alabaster, and gold everywhere. Some four thousand years had passed since human feet had stood on that same spot where he and his friend the Earl of Carnarvon made their dramatic discovery. Then, as his eyes grew accustomed to darkness, he could pick out beautiful individual objects. It must have been an amazing and magnificent sight to look into that tomb which, unlike the others in the Valley of the Kings, was almost intact.

In fact, Tutankhamun’s tomb had been entered at least twice not long after his mummy was buried. The outermost doors leading into the shrines enclosing the king’s nested coffins were unsealed. However, the inner two shrines remained intact until Carter’s exploration.

I have yet to see any of Tutankhamun’s relics myself. As I was studying hard, Tut Mania passed me by in the early 70s when the British Museum had the golden treasures on show. But I do remember a teacher of the time who quickly acquired the nickname King Tut, purely because he was Egyptian.

Where is Tutankhamun now?

Well, his tomb in the Valley of the Kings is open to visitors. And, as far as I know, the famous gold death mask is still at the Egyptian Museum. It’s probably the best-known object from ancient Egypt and the Egyptian government won’t let it travel again.

However, after many delays, the Grand Egyptian Museum of Giza is due to open in summer 2022. About a mile from the Pyramids and the Sphinx, it will be the largest archaeological museum in the world, and will display the largest collection of Tutankhamun relics ever displayed.

Last April, the ancient royal mummies of 18 kings and 4 queens were transported through Cairo to their new home, in a multimillion-dollar spectacle called “Pharoah’s Golden Parade” which you can see here.

Some of King Tut’s artifacts, like his chariot, are already in the new museum, as this video shows. FYI before you open it, this video is funded wholly or partly by the Chinese government.

While seeing the treasures in real life remains difficult, you can enjoy the blog Egyptian Chronicles and its stunning photography.

And, should you find yourself in Dorset, there’s a recreation of the Tutankhamun exhibition to visit.

A BLOODLESS COUP IN ’52

Around this time of year, my thoughts turn to the Egyptian Revolution of July 1952 when King Farouk was ousted. It began with the Free Officers Movement, a group of Army officers that included future president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Many books have covered this period of history, as well as the era of revolution and decolonisation that it triggered. Here Nadia, a fictional character from The Girls from Alexandria, gives her take on the 1952 revolution.

King Farouk on a coin

ALEXANDRIA, JULY 1952

I sat on the swing and watched Rashida pick vine leaves, yanking each one off with more force than seemed necessary. People thought six-year-olds understood nothing, but I knew very well that things weren’t right.

‘What’s going on, Rashida?’

Rashida continued harvesting leaves in thick silence, so I went back upstairs to the little sitting room where my parents often sat. Father was in a white vest, listening to the news on the radio, one ear touching the speaker.

I asked Mother what was wrong. She replied with agitated hand movements that there was a frog in a pan of water, coming to the boil. I would have asked what she meant, but the phone in the hall rang. She rushed to answer it.

The telephone had to be answered solemnly and self-importantly, and the receiver had to be clasped with two hands, in case a limp hold would lose the connection. All conversations involved shouting, as if the other person was in Zagazig and telephones had yet to be invented. Despite all the shouting, though, I comprehended nothing.

After the call, Mother settled again in her favourite chair, picked up her canvas, and resumed her vicious jabbing. She was doing even more needlework than usual. I couldn’t see any need for it, not when every table already had an embroidered cloth and every chest of drawers a runner. There was even a huge folding screen that did nothing except skulk in the corner of the dining room, looking sinister despite the fat pink roses stitched into it.

I did know, though, that a lot of the calls were from Cairo these days. The phone made a different dring if the call wasn’t long-distance.

‘Trunk,’ one of my parents would exclaim, and there’d be a race down the parquet corridor to pick up the receiver with even more haste than usual. Nobody would say why our relatives from Cairo had taken to phoning so often.

I hung around doorways. I lurked outside rooms. I stayed awake after being put to bed. If the door of my bedroom was ajar, it let in a rectangle of light from the kitchenette where Rashida sat with magazines that she could not read. The jingling of bangles and the turning of pages usually soothed me to sleep, but Mother and Rashida had recently taken to whispering in the kitchenette.

As soon as I got out of bed and tiptoed to the door, they stopped. Mother put on an innocent face, and Rashida assured me she was just saying her rosary.

When the revolution came in late July, it took three days to unfold. It began in Cairo with soldiers in the streets and, Mother told me, the announcement that the army had taken control of the country. Things were changing. Rashida prayed even more fervently, kissing her cross and the medallion of St Anthony on the gold chain around her neck. St Anthony was the one to pray to if you ever lost anything. He’d even found Rashida’s pink handbag when she’d left it on a tram, as she often reminded us. This time, however, Rashida refused to say what was lost.

The Royal palace at Montazah, Alexandria

I was exactly six years, six months, and two days old when, on the twenty-seventh of July, Father told me that King Farouk had fled Egypt on his yacht the night before. It was then my solemn duty to inform the dolls in my pram that the King had gone and that soldiers were now in charge.

***

There’s more about Nadia, her sister, and the making of modern Egypt in The Girls from Alexandria – available as paperback, ebook, and audiobook.