#TBT Alexandria, 1956

I’ve blogged before about Suez, because it’s when my mother wrote her first book. This week, Nadia, a character from my next novel, gives her own take on 1956.

It began on July 26, when I was ten and a half years old, or, as I preferred to say, nearly eleven. The whole affair was about a canal and a dam.

Here’s the crucial thing: President Gamal Abdel Nasser was most interested in canals and dams.

Nasser was a very big man, with a strong jaw and huge teeth that he displayed whenever he smiled. That night in 1956 was the anniversary of the revolution, so the president celebrated by giving a long speech, right here in Alexandria, in Mansheya Square, where there’s a massive statue of Mohammed Ali Pasha, wearing a turban and brandishing his sword, sitting atop his horse.

As usual when anything interesting happened, I had been sent to bed instead of being allowed to stay up. My parents told me about the speech the next day, which is hardly the same thing. I relished the idea of Nasser brandishing his words like a sword, and I was especially sorry to miss the firemen dispersing the crowds. FreeImages.com/AntonioJimenezAlonsoAlthough I had no real opinions on politics, I liked listening to the president on the radio. Unlike a lot of important men who like to make themselves sound clever by speaking in a formal version of Arabic, Nasser spoke a colloquial language that every Egyptian could understand, even a child of nearly eleven. That, I thought, was much cleverer.

The day after that big speech, my sister Simone and I sat in the upstairs living room right by the air conditioning, which was on at full blast as it was sweltering. Father and Mother explained to us that the Suez Canal was now going to belong to Egypt instead of France or Britain. As a result, it would raise lots of money for Egypt, and would pay to build a High Dam at Aswan.

Mother actually put down her embroidery during this conversation, so it must have been significant. Quite how significant, I did not wholly grasp. The main thing was that the Suez Canal had been nationalized. That was a good thing, wasn’t it? Unless you happened to be British or French, like some of my friends from school.

In October, a few countries turned out not to be so happy about Egypt having the Suez Canal. Our parents did not explain that very clearly. Meanwhile, our nanny Rashida lit more candles than ever to the Virgin Mary and to St Anthony.

Even when she wasn’t praying, Rashida went about muttering to herself. I thought I heard her say that things had been much better under King Farouk, but, when I asked her to repeat herself, she flatly refused.

It got a lot clearer when France, Britain, and Israel all ganged together to declare war on Egypt. Every night there were air-raid sirens and anti-aircraft guns. Victor, my pain of a cousin, kept going on about it. With our schools shut, he was unfortunately at our house more often than ever. According to him, the guns were as close as Smouha, barely a few kilometres from us. I pretended to be unconcerned.

Every bedtime, Mother told Simone and me that things would turn out all right. We had blackout paper on all the windows now. It was all going to be fine, Mother said. 

It did however change things for many of my friends, and for my teddy bears, at least one of whom was British.

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RIP, Christina

It’s tough to blog this week without writing about my late colleague Christina Earle. So I won’t even try.

When emotions are less raw, it will be possible to look back through a happier lens. Right now, grief colours everything.  Needless to stress, it is so much worse for her family, including her husband Oli, than it is for colleagues and friends.

Aged 31, Christina died suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend.

There’s no point trying to make sense of that.

She was one of the best journalists I’ve worked with in over 20 years of writing for mainstream media. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the Press Gazette has to say

Working for a 7-day newspaper, Christina often needed copy in a hurry. Sometimes this was a challenge to provide, as on the day that, unbeknown to her, I was being wheeled away for surgery myself. But she was always considerate. Thank you, Christina, for persuading me to turn my mobile off on my wedding day.

She made a fine campaigning journalist for The Sun, and she achieved so much. Every problem had a solution. Well, it did when she was on the case. Colleague Lynsey Hope put this tribute together. 

It seems self-indulgent to mope when Christina was such a sunny and capable person with an infectious smile. 

But how is it possible to do anything else? Columnist Virginia Ironside pointed out that you don’t ‘work through’ grief. It works its way through you.

Grief is the occasion for acknowledging the great value of what you’ve experienced. In his book The Middle Passage, psychotherapist James Hollis explains that, because it has been experienced, it cannot be wholly lost. The experience is still there, says Hollis. It is retained in the bones and the memory, to serve and guide the life to come.

I’m hoping so, anyway.

Four Hours in the Eye Surgery Day Unit

On looking back, the signs had been there for years. First, Nadia had trouble at night from the glare. Then reading got harder, especially the day she picked up an Egyptian newspaper in Paddington. Arabic, with its tiny script and its proliferation of vital dots above and below the letters, is the least appropriate language for someone with poor vision.

She wonders why she’d got cataracts by the age of 55. Probably to do with a stupid game they used to play at the beach in Alexandria.  She, Zeinab, Chou-Chou, and of course her sister Simone all dared one another to look straight into the sun for as long as they could. Nadia still has the memory of the after-burn. How was she to know, until Simone told her, that her school friends all cheated by shutting their eyes when she wasn’t looking at them?

“The Nile has cataracts too,” says Chou-Chou. She is still stupid despite being middle-aged now.

“They’re not the same thing,” Nadia replies loftily, even though she is unsure of the difference.

Nobody gets a bed on this day surgery unit. They get an armchair, but only if there’s one free at the appointed time. There isn’t. Along with three other patients, Nadia sits in the corridor. Waiting in corridors is normal in the NHS. It was never like this in Egypt, if you could afford bakshish.

An Iranian nurse and two Irish nurses seem to run the place. Each of them asks Nadia if she is diabetic.

“I’m not diabetic.”

In a nearby office, a doctor sits with the door open. Nadia can hear her complain about the computer system. Doctors always do this.

Once Nadia is installed in her allocated chair, an Irish nurse comes in to put drops into her left eye. “Are you diabetic?”

“No.”

After two lots of eye drops, her vision is so blurred that she can no longer decipher the stream of bile about immigrants, shameless young people, and disgraced celebrities in the newspaper someone discarded.

A young doctor comes to explain the op, reeling off a long list of potential complications. “There’s a one in 1,000 chance of losing all the sight in that eye.”

Nadia recalls a handsome man at Montazah who wore tiny briefs and an eyepatch. He liked to say he’d lost an eye in a duel, though, as her sister told her later, it was really a cataract operation gone wrong. She signs the consent form, sure that things have moved on and that it won’t happen to her.

The surgery is under local while her surgeon hums snatches of an aria and asks about her family.

“There’s nobody left.” Still, Nadia cradles the hope that improved vision will help her find her lost sister.

Everything is bright with a watery blue light. A machine buzzes, and the lens fragments are washed out before a new lens is put into place. She feels nothing.

Soon he says, “All done,” and peels the plastic drape off.

“You can sit up now,” says someone else.

So many voices she doesn’t know, and her head swims when she sits up.

Once back on the ward, a nurse offers her tea and asks again if she is diabetic.

Nadia checks in the mirror that she always keeps in her handbag. There she is, a plastic shield over one eye, with two long strips of tape holding it down.

The nurse returns with tea and instructions: eye drops for the next four weeks, eye shield on at night for a week, sunglasses for a few days, and no hair-washing for five days.

Of course Nadia will wear sunglasses! If her hair is going to be filthy, she doesn’t want anyone recognizing her.

The next day, she removes the eye shield for the first time. Everything is so bright. She can see every leaf on the trees, every speck of dust on the windowsill, every wrinkle on her face. They don’t make mirrors like they used to, that’s for sure.

***

Nadia is a character from my next novel, which is set in Alexandria and London.

If you’d like to know more about cataracts, try this link from Moorfields Eye Hospital.

You may also enjoy Six Lessons from the Eye Clinic.

#TBT Being Eligible: the Marriage Market back in the Old Days

Many readers have enjoyed my mother’s writing, especially about the bygone world of cosmopolitan Alexandria. Today I bring you another extract. As ever, Jacqueline uses humour to write about serious topics. This time, it’s about  finding a husband. 

Pastroudis

In backward areas like Europe and the United States, where they don’t understand the first thing about women – or the Middle East or anything else – when a girl finishes school or college, she looks around for a job, starts agitating for equal pay with men, and then proceeds to make a thorough nuisance of herself.

But in the East, where men are men, and not mice, and they know how to treat women, men don’t stand for this sort of nonsense. As a matter of fact, they don’t often stand for a woman at all. It is she who stands up for the man, if she knows what’s good for her. The only man who would make a woman walk in front of him would be walking in a minefield.

Every Oriental, even an idiot, knows instinctively what a woman should and should not do, and she should not do anything but wait on him. He knows that Western women are too free, and that freedom for women is very bad indeed for men. The only career a woman should have is looking after her husband. Sometimes, if she’s lucky, he may call in up to three more women to help her do this, so that she won’t get tired.

Instead of going down on bended knee and being grateful that we lived in the East, where they are so considerate towards women, my friends and I had visions of launching ourselves into the world on our own feet and having careers.

It was the fault of the British. With our heads pumped full of the English Girls’ College’s nonsense about women getting jobs, we Alexandrian girls had overlooked the fact that we had a special mission in life. One that was the most hazardous, most exciting of all callings. It was known as Being Eligible, and what you had to do was sit back with some nice bit of embroidery and catch a husband.

Petit point

After a varying amount of needlework, the good obedient girls who did as their parents bade them were rewarded by finding husbands who provided large houses, children, and security.  Some of these girls were very happy, especially if during a man shortage they had caught someone else’s husband.

Others were whisked out of school before the end of term, when they had barely started on their embroidery, to marry someone they hadn’t so much as set eyes on. Perhaps it was just as well. Anyway, they had the whole of their lives to get a good look at him. Sometimes, the bridegroom was a little older than the bride – twenty-odd years or more. Sometimes, instead of twice her age, he was twice her size, and sometimes, unfortunately, he was both.

You may also enjoy: How my Mother Wrote Her First Book

The Worst Books of All Time

It’s the time of year when many bloggers list their favourite books of the past 12 months. On the other hand, some of them name the titles they liked least. Here I must follow suit because, when I look back at my shelves, some books stand out as the very worst of any year. So, in the spirit of utter meanness, I offer you this diverse list of five awful reads. One or two are classics, or may be your favourites, for which I can only apologize. Horses for courses, and all that.

Lecture Notes on Pathology by AD Thomson and RE Cotton

What they say: Of value to undergraduate medical students studying for their final examination and to postgraduate students preparing for higher qualifications.

What I say: The print is tiny, there is no plot whatsoever, and the book reads like a telephone directory. Having committed almost all of the 1,100 pages to memory (I didn’t bother with the index), I can still recite chunks of it by heart decades later, although nobody wants to hear them. But I suppose I shouldn’t bear a grudge, especially as the cover survived many late-night revision sessions, along with the inevitable spilt coffee.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon 

What they say: Quirky novel set in the East Midlands during the heatwave of 1976. Ten-year olds Grace and Tilly set out to find out what happened to their neighbour Mrs Creasy, who has disappeared. ‘An utter delight, etc.’

What I say: An utter delight, etc – if you’re a reader, that is. Terrible book if you are an author. Every paragraph is a reminder that you can’t actually write novels for toffee, or at least nothing like as well as the peerless Joanna Cannon. This book commits the crime of being too damn good.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron  

What they say: Banished to Slough House from the ranks of achievers at Regent’s Park for various crimes of drugs and drunkenness, lechery and failure, politics and betrayal, this misfit crew of highly trained joes don’t run ops any more; they push paper.

But not one of them joined the Intelligence Service to be a ‘slow horse’.

A boy is kidnapped and held hostage. His beheading is scheduled for live broadcast on the net.

And whatever the instructions of the Service, the slow horses aren’t going to just sit quiet and watch …

‘Funny, stylish, satirical, gripping, etc’

What I say: Decapitations apart, this tale is not suitable for bedtime reading. It has more pace than a Merseyside Derby, and just as many characters. OK, so it’s set in London and has nothing to do with football (apart from that disembodied head), but a moment’s inattention and you’ve missed some vital action.  Full attention is needed to fully savour this unusual spy novel. 

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr

What they say: Now out of print, this is a witty collection of pieces by US playwright Jean Kerr about work and family life, as she tries to write at home while praying that her four irrepressible sons will behave for once.

What I say: I thoroughly enjoyed this book while growing up, and read it several times. However, I made the error of dipping into it again after recent gall bladder surgery. It is the worst book anyone could choose after an abdominal operation. If you don’t bust your stitches, you’ll feel as if you have.

Dictionnaire Larousse

What they say: 60,000 mots, définitions et exemples. Très utile.

What I say: I haven’t brought myself to use this dictionary again since the day one of my classmates, also aged 11, borrowed it then returned it to me after adding, in Magic Marker, no less, some choice four-letter words that the publishers of le Larousse had not thought to include in a children’s dictionary.  And he didn’t even put them into the correct places in the alphabet (I checked). I eventually bought a new copy, as you can see.

So, who’s in your bad books?

Whether you agree with my choices or not, happy reading in 2018. With over 130 million books in print and a slew of new titles on the way, there’s something to suit everyone. Except maybe POTUS.

 

 

 

Meeting in the Park

Here’s one of my mother’s pieces of flash fiction, first published by the American International Women’s Club in Geneva. I hope you enjoy it as much as others have.

Day after day, he came to the park and sat on the bench beside her, sometimes a little too close, but she pretended not to notice. After a while, she’d get up and move away. She wasn’t about to get involved, not after Ambrose. It was too painful.

She loved being out of doors, and she was lucky to live across the street from the park, where she could sit under a tree, in dappled shade, reading or writing another one of her short stories.

Her thoughts were adrift in the old Alexandria of her youth, so she wouldn’t hear him approach, but, when she turned her head, he’d be there. A little scruffy, a little thin, but proud nonetheless.

“FreeImages.com/Harry M

He sat very still, gazing straight ahead, though he often fixed her with his eyes, which is what got to her in the end.

“Look here,” she said to him one perfect spring day when the crocuses were out and she could stand it no longer. “You need a good meal.”

He sneezed.

“You’re not well.” She hesitated. “You can stay with me, if you wish.” She rose and stood looking at him for a moment, then gathered him in her arms. “You purr even louder than Ambrose.”

Does anyone else here write flash fiction? I’d love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, these posts may raise a smile:

How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

No Mother is Perfect

#TBT; Dating, 1940s Style

 

How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

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.

Carol