#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.

You may also like 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.



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.