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.
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.
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