I’ve mentioned my forthcoming novel The Girls from Alexandria a fair bit recently, but it’s a while since I shared something from Cocktails and Camels. Sixty years on from when my mother wrote it, I still think it’s one of the most entertaining books ever. And no, I’m not at all biased.
Grandmother, a beautiful green-eyed woman with jet-black hair, had come from Damascus at the age of thirteen to marry Grandfather, whom she had never set eyes on before.
Grandfather had originated in Lebanon, studied in Paris, then emigrated to Egypt and prospered as a merchant. Although the marriage was one of convenience, as marriages often were, it seems to have worked out. My grandparents had eight boys.
Mother and Father were less fortunate. They had us —three daughters. A daughter was not only nothing to write home about, it was something one should definitely not write home about. As for having three daughters, it was a calamity. Obviously someone had given Mother and Father the Evil Eye.
The Evil Eye was, like the British, very active in the Middle East and responsible for everything that went wrong. If someone admired your new dress and then you spilled coffee all over it, it wasn’t that you were clumsy. It was the Evil Eye.
But, if Father was disappointed at having three daughters, he never showed it. Father never showed anything, which was very smart of him but most un-Arab. He faced his fate very well, far better than Maha, the Lebanese nanny who had been with Mother before she was married.
Maha was a big moon-faced woman with brown velvet eyes and pierced ear-lobes from which hung tiny blue beads which were meant to ward off the Evil Eye. She seemed to have been put together out of a series of cushions and looked like a Michelin advertisement.
Because she was flat-footed, but mainly because she was Lebanese, she padded around in bedroom slippers which she had turned down at the back. Her elephantine tread was always accompanied by the soft clinking of thin gold bracelets on her plump wrists. They were her entire fortune and she added one whenever she had saved some money.
Once a week on her afternoon off, she painted her eyes crudely with kohl and stuffed herself into a corset and high-heeled shoes several sizes too small. Then, pirouetting clumsily in front of us, she’d say, smiling like a child, ”I’m not all that fat, am I, my darlings?”
When I was born, Maha sobbed for a week. She did not throw her arms up in the air and cry, ”Mabrouk, mabrouk, congratulations, may the little one live to be one hundred,” and then bake some very special Lebanese dish which would sit on our stomachs for the rest of the night.
She did not utter one single little mabrouk. Such congratulations were used for happy things like baby boys, and really important things like having a new dress or getting over a corn on the foot. But having a girl was not a corn on the foot. It was a pain in the neck. As for being a girl—well, maybe one could live it up in England or the United States, but in the East it was something to live down.