#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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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

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

 

No Mother is Perfect

This week, a friend of mine happened across a book while tidying her daughter’s bedroom.

“Did your mother write this, by any chance?” she asked me.

 

Now Le Crazy Cat Saloon, with a cast of cats and a sprinkling of French words, may be amusing, but it’s hardly literature.

Nor is it politically correct. For one thing, it features a cat who’s a stripper. As my sons pointed out, stories about strippers aren’t exactly suitable for readers of all ages, no matter what the cover blurb says.

All the same, whenever people talk about my mother’s many books, or her cat paintings, Le Crazy Cat Saloon always features in the conversation.

On Mother’s Day, I have a vested interest in thinking that mothers should be remembered in the best possible light.

If I were to choose one book to remember my mother, it would be Cocktails and Camels. Although she wrote it just after Suez, and her divorce, it’s upbeat and funny.  Here’s how it starts.

I used to live in Alexandria—Egypt, that is, and not, as some Americans think, the one in Virginia. I liked Alexandria. There was no place like it on Earth, I used to think, and now, on looking back, I am quite sure there wasn’t. It was a nice, friendly little town basking in the sunshine and cool Mediterranean breeze, and in summer its streets smelled of jasmine which little Arab boys sold threaded into necklaces. Alexandria had plenty of character—characters, rather—Italian, French, Maltese, Turkish, even White Russians, to say nothing of Copts, Pashas, Effendis, and bird-brained but devoted Sudanese servants. The grocers were Greek, the jewellers were Jews, the shoemakers were Armenians, and the Lebanese were everywhere. The British Army used to play polo and complain about the heat. How they came to be there at all when they had a most roomy Empire in which to exercise is a long, sad story. For the British, though they like to look like good-natured and paternal fools, are, as every Arab knows to his sorrow, very cunning indeed, especially when it comes to taking advantage of trusting Arabs.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Note: Mother’s Day may be on the second Sunday in May in most of the world, but in the UK ‘Mothering Sunday’ aka Mother’s Day is today.

***

You may also like to read an earlier post: Dating, 1940s Style.

#TBT: Dating 1940s Style

The past is indeed a different country, especially when it’s in a different country. On this Throwback Thursday, I’m reminded how tough, and expensive, it could be to date in the 1940s.

by Jacqueline Cooper

This was Alexandria after World War Two. My parents, who had just met, struggled to find time alone together to indulge in illicit pleasures like a cup of coffee or a chocolate éclair. Here are my mother’s reminiscences.

Sightless, armless, legless, moving around on small wooden boards with wheels, or accompanied by a child or a barefoot woman in a black robe with bangles round her ankles, beggars were part of my earliest memories. They were everywhere we went. We knew them, and they knew us.

Portly one-legged Ahmed had taken up domicile outside my grandparents’ house on rue Fouad in downtown Alexandria. He was outside other people’s homes too, but he liked my grandparents’ house best. He and Mohammed the porter would sit side by side on a bench on the pavement chatting about this and that.

Not only did Ahmed know by name everyone who went in and out of my grandparents’ home, he could get about more quickly on his one good leg than most people could by car. Having just seen me leave my grandparents’, he would be waiting outside Pastroudis, a favourite café of the English, before I had even had time to get out of my Fiat.

Pastroudis in Alexandria

That evening, at a cocktail party at the other end of town, Ahmed was there. He stood, a broad smile on his unshaven face, and a white carnation in the buttonhole of a coat that had been a hand-me-down from one of my uncles and was now grubby and frayed.

Holding a necklace of fresh jasmine, he hobbled over to greet me like a perfect host, as if he lived in the beautiful home where the lights shone and where Glenn Miller’s tunes filled the air.

“For you, oh Princess!” He offered the jasmine necklace in the manner of a grand seigneur.

“May Allah keep you,” I said to him, opening my purse to give him baksheesh.

In a stage whisper Ahmed said, “Where’s the handsome English captain I saw you with at Pastroudis this afternoon?” His eyes studied me as I blushed. “Ah, I swear on the Prophet that the English are very good people. Very generous!”

I doubled the baksheesh. I’d kept the rendez-vous a secret from my parents. It was going to be hardier and costlier to keep it from Ahmed.

by Jacqueline Cooper

Learning to be Sick in Washington, DC

When my mother went to live in Washington, DC, in the 1960s, she discovered that being ill there was not like being ill in her home town of Alexandria, Egypt, where everyone fussed over her and soon made her feel better.  Here’s one of her stories.

“When will Dr Smarts be able to come and see me?” I asked the receptionist who’d answered the phone.  His name had been given to me by a friend.

The receptionist laughed. “Come and see you?”

“I have a sore throat and a temperature, my nose is stuffed up, and I can’t taste food.”

“I have a cancellation for 3pm tomorrow. Take two aspirins, drink plenty of fluids, and we’ll see you then.”

“Doesn’t Dr Smarts make house calls?”

“Not unless you’re in your 80s.  Even then, he prefers to see patients in the hospital.”

Hospital? I shuddered.

I called the school where I taught to say I was ill and wouldn’t be in. The secretary was understanding.  “There’s a virus going round.  Drink plenty of fluids.”  What was a virus? No Alexandrian had ever mentioned the word ‘virus’.

It was a miserable day spent alone.  My friends were either at work or otherwise engaged.  The only visitor I had all day was the building engineer who came to check the air conditioning.

Polish TV

But there was American TV, to which I had quickly become addicted. Alas, the early afternoon movie was an old one, Suez, and it made me homesick for Egypt.  When I saw all that sand and all those familiar persistent flies, I burst into tears.

Where was Nagibeh, our old housekeeper, to sit in my room till I fell asleep, and my little sister’s nanny, the fat Dia with her rosary and fervent prayers? Where was my mother to read me stories? Where was the kind Greek doctor who puffed his way up the stairs and who made me feel better even as he blew smoke rings into my face?

The following morning my temperature was up.  Although it was a warm September day, I was shivery.  I wrapped up as for a polar expedition and walked the one block to Dr Smarts’ office.  How extraordinary that he did not make house calls, and me so nearby too.

Dr Smarts was unimpressed with my symptoms. So I coughed over him and exaggerated my aches and pains. I did such a good job that he decided to run some tests.  He also wanted to know the medical history of every member of my family.  He was beginning to get on my nerves.  All I probably had was a bad case of la grippe, which some nasty-tasting medicine would cure in no time.  And here he was asking me about my family.

Sick as I was, I gave him a colourful account of being ill in Egypt.  Egypt? He wasn’t quite sure where it was. I even told him about the time I was so sick with indigestion, Father called the doctor in the middle of the night. I’d eaten a whole kilo of sudanis, delicious peanuts bought off a street vendor, and had thrown up 10 times.  Nagibeh had cleaned the carpet with savon de Marseille.  Dr Smarts had never heard of savon de Marseille.  His general knowledge was pitiful.

“Couldn’t you have just put the carpet in the washing machine?”

To give him credit, Dr Smarts was a good listener and jotted down everything I said.  No doctor I knew ever wrote anything except prescriptions.

“What do you normally eat during the day?” he asked.

“I have an English breakfast: eggs, bacon, toast, coffee.”

“Lunch?”

“Well, first there’s elevenses.”

“What’s elevenses?”

Ignoramus, I thought.  “It’s a mid-morning snack” I explained patiently. “I have hot cocoa and biscuits.”

“How many biscuits?”

“In our culture it’s considered rude to count what one eats.  However, if they’re chocolate, most of the box.”

“Lunch?”

“Where I teach, lunch is usually cold cuts and salad.  I’m not fond of lettuce.  I’m not a rabbit. But at 3pm before I pick my daughter up from her school, I have a chili hot dog at People’s Drug Store.  My main meal is dinner: chicken or meat, potatoes, spinach, a banana. No dessert. But sometimes before bed I have a tuna sandwich with mayonnaise.”

The doctor put his pen down and looked at me. “It’s a wonder you’re not the size of a house.”

“I ate much more in Alexandria” I replied hotly.  “My father and grandmother ate like horses, and weren’t fat at all. My mother hardly ate a thing and was always ill.”  Dr Smarts looked shaken.

“You know, Dr Smarts, in Alexandria they say ‘Eat, eat, bil hana wal shifa.’  That means with pleasure and good health.  We also say ‘Bon appetit.’ And doctors all make house calls.”

“We used to make house calls too.” He sounded wistful.  “Anyway, you’ll be fine.”

“What about a prescription?”

“Just drink plenty of fluids and take aspirin.”

I bundled up again under the amused eye of the receptionist.

As I walked home, I thought of what I’d write for La Reforme Illustrée, our friendly Alexandria Sunday paper. No house calls, no prescription, counting biscuits! How uncivilised.

I resolved never to be sick in Washington, DC, and you know what?  I never was.

© Jacqueline Cooper