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

 

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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.

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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