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.

FIRST TERM AT UNIVERSITY

Only the crème de la crème go to Cambridge, my parents always said. Now I had to survive three years without anyone discovering my secret: the university must have let me in by mistake.

To help cover up my imposter syndrome, I also spent Freshers’ Week smiling at all the other undergraduates. Perhaps one of them would later become my best friend.

My room bore little resemblance to the glorious quarters I had imagined when filling in my application form. By the bare 40-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling, I found crumbs in the cupboard, silverfish in the drawers, and a mattress so lumpy that it would rule out most activities, especially sleep.

In the college library, where even new books smelled ancient, I waited to see my Director of Studies. Would she be as intimidating as the Tutor who’d served me a small, sweet sherry? I’d barely uttered a few innocuous words before she pierced me with her gaze and said, “What exactly do you mean?”

On the first day of lectures, I crept reverentially around the physics department. Here, James Clerk Maxwell had been professor, JJ Thomson had discovered the electron, and Rutherford had split the atom. It was a lot to live up to.

In addition to lectures and practicals in each science subject, there were weekly supervisions in small groups. These hour-long sessions had the ability to inspire, terrify, or amuse me – sometimes all three in turn.

By the way, supervisions are what Oxford types call ‘tutorials’. Pah! That word is way too obvious and hardly the way to train spies.

In my first week, I found out that lectures took place on six days a week, Fitzbillies was the place for Chelsea buns, and a bitter wind often blew in straight from the Urals. As a result, my nose was usually cold and wet. It’s a sign of health in dogs. Not so much in students.

Male students were more numerous, but many of them hid away in libraries. Even tough subjects are easier than finding the courage to speak to a woman.

Before mobile phones and internet, the main method of communication was face to face. Obviously, there’d be times when you weren’t in your room, in which case a visitor might scrawl a message on the notepad hung on the outside of the door. I’d get back from lectures to thrilling notes such as the one from the student next door asking if she could cadge some Persil to wash her undies.

By the end of October, I had few illusions left. What exactly do I mean? Only that they must have let in all the other students by mistake too.

***

That was a long time ago and many things have changed, though I reckon a lot of students (and some staff) still struggle with imposter syndrome. But Cambridge isn’t nearly as scary or as elitist as some people think.

The University and its Colleges are committed to widening participation to higher education. Hundreds of outreach initiatives and events are run each year both in Cambridge and in schools and colleges across the UK. See this about widening participation.

Target Oxbridge is a free programme that aims to help black African and Caribbean students and students of mixed race with black African and Caribbean heritage increase their chances of getting into the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge. The programme is open to UK-based students in Year 12 (also Year 13, in some circumstances).

There’s also the brand-new Cambridge Foundation Year, a free and fully-funded one year pre-degree course designed as a stepping stone to Cambridge for those who have experienced educational disadvantage.

What’s your take on our two most ancient universities – or any other university you’ve been to? Drop me a comment below.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.