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Cairo Rations

 

 

Cairo Rations

 

The Memoir that Inspired a Novel

by

Stuart Campbell

 

 

©Stuart Campbell 2016

 

Discover other titles at Stuart Campbell’s Shakespir page.

 

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Contents

By scrapheap from Piraeus to Alexandria

The orientalist stripped bare

The mother of hypodermic syringes

Opened with the knowledge of the censor

I think a war just started

A tank at the campus gates

Tea and sugar for foreigners

Those were the days, Habiibi

A war half remembered, a story half formed

About the author

Free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

Introduction

In 1973 I travelled to Egypt to study Arabic at Cairo University for six months as part of the BA in Modern Languages at the Polytechnic of Central London. War broke out shortly after I arrived, and I spent a far more eventful study abroad than the Poly had planned.

This little book began as a memory jogger. I was planning a novel set in Cairo during the October 1973 war, but I struggled to recall the details. So during 2014 I wrote these nine essays, about one a month, publishing them on my website as they were completed. Friends and relatives seemed to like them. I prepared this book by putting the original essays in chronological order and tidying up loose ends.

As I wrote the essays, the fog of four decades cleared. My research for the novel filled some of my memory gaps, especially the lead-up to the war. By the time I began writing the novel I was able to easily transport myself back to 1973 – or at least a version of 1973 cobbled together from memory traces, retellings of the stories, and published accounts of the period and its events. I’m delighted to say that the novel Cairo Mon Amour is now complete.

I have produced various editions of these essays in the last year or two under the title Cairo Rations! (with an exclamation mark). This edition has been produced for Shakespir, and has a new cover and no exclamation mark!

A note on how I’ve transcribed Arabic words: Because I’m an ex-Professor of Linguistics, I worry about getting the transcriptions right. For this book I suppressed my professional instincts and mostly just wrote the words so that a lay reader might imagine a sound not unlike the original. But I still feel a bit like a surgeon opening an abdomen with a can opener.

I hope you enjoy Cairo Rations.

Stuart Campbell

June 2016

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By scrapheap from Piraeus to Alexandria

We tried to catch a taxi at Piraeus station but couldn’t master the local technique of running alongside the moving vehicles, grabbing the door handles, and claiming possession. Instead I hefted our two heavy suitcases under a blinding September sun from the station to the dock. By the time we found the MV Cynthia my arms were as taut as fanbelts and my anaesthetized fingers looked like salami.

We had tickets to Alexandria for a double cabin, bought through the National Union of Students in London. The NUS wanted to sight our marriage certificate before they would sell us the tickets, and had thoughtfully franked the reverse of our Gibraltar Registry Office document with a big inky stamp.

When we arrived on the deck of the reeking Cynthia the purser shook his head in amazement that travellers with such cheap tickets could possibly believe they were entitled to a double cabin. My wife and I were separated and ordered to different parts of the stinking tub well below the waterline. I lugged the two huge suitcases to her cabin, dropped off the one we thought might contain her clothes, and then continued to drag the other one like a cockroach through the superheated rusting passageways. But I was spared: My assigned eight-berth cabin was festooned with frilly frocks – no place for a man. I used my last ounces of energy to drag the hated suitcase to the top deck. The grudging purser directed me to a double cabin above the waterline, and I threw myself onto the lower bunk and hung my throbbing hands over the side.

With the circulation to my fingers partly restored I went aloft, or perhaps abaft, and searched for my wife on the deck. The greenish tinge of her face augured badly; we were still tied up alongside the caisson wall, but the rocking of the ship, the stench of diesel, and the hot greasy miasma from the vents above the kitchens had started to do their work.

The MV Cynthia juddered out of the harbour at a funny angle like a water rat with a crushed leg. It was her last voyage before the scrapheap.

In the afternoon the ship’s swimming pool was filled up. It was barely big enough to fit six people standing but the weight of the water taken on board strained the heaving engines almost to a standstill. We hung around the canvas awning near the pool to escape the heat. An Egyptian man in swimming trunks did an elaborate callisthenic routine and introduced himself. He was captivated that I could pronounce his name properly, and asked me to repeat it over and over: “Please, what is my name?” We escaped to another part of the ship but wherever we went he seemed to be waiting in his trunks behind a lifeboat or a stanchion, and would pop out and inanely ask, “Please, what is my name?” I would repeat robotically, “Mar’i Kamil S-”. I leave his last name incomplete in case he is still alive and wants to be my friend on Facebook.

In the evening the toilets overflowed and we had to hop through sewage to get to the hotbox where dinner was served to the third class passengers. A waiter probably named Malvolio guarded the kitchen entrance with a filthy tea towel over his arm. The food – it hardly needed guarding – was Kit-E-Kat mashed into macaroni tubes. We gagged and picked over our bowls, but our table companions – cadaverous British hippies who had been in India for months – golloped theirs down, and then finished our leftovers. Our hearts leapt as fat peaches were handed out, and then shrivelled when they were cut apart to reveal the plump maggots within.

We parted late that night on the upper deck, but not before I had my first real conversation in Arabic outside a classroom. While my wife leaned over the rail to find some air that didn’t smell of Kit-E-Kat, I watched a Lebanese family chatting in the moonlight. There was another ship in the distance and a man in the group commented that it was from the same shipping line as the Cynthia. He actually said nafsi shirka, ‘the same company’. I grabbed my chance and attempted to join the conversation by loudly intoning nafsi shirka with a questioning intonation. On reflection I suppose I was saying, “Oh, family of complete strangers, is it indeed a fact that the ship we see is from the same company as the ship we are on?”

The family turned to stare at the apparition at the rail whence the odd utterance had come: A moustachioed wraith with shoulder length black hair supporting a young woman who was sobbing and retching under the moon.

I spent the night awake in terror listening to the stranger in the upper bunk making long rhythmic noises like a razor being sharpened on a leather strop.

At Beirut – not yet torn apart by the civil war – we ordered massive plates of rice and minted lamb in a restaurant but could barely eat a few spoonsful, so shrunken were our stomachs. We made it back to the Cynthia by smell alone, and fought the crush of Egyptians who were boarding with boxes of Lebanese apples as big as babies’ heads.

As we sailed for Cyprus a black and yellow flag was raised – cholera! – and instead of entering Limassol harbour we stood offshore in quarantine. A Mercedes Benz was hoisted from the Cynthia’s deck on davits and swung wobbling onto a wooden barge, which puttered off to Limassol with a few passengers.

Like a malodorous pariah, the Cynthia limped towards Egypt, its decks still stacked with boxes of apples. Officials came out to meet us in Alexandria harbour and we were lined up and each given a large white cholera pill, the composition and efficacy of which we knew nothing. The officials had a loud discussion about the apples and a decision was made: Destroy them! They may be infected! The boxes were broken apart and the passengers ate the apples.

Some hours later the Cynthia eased her dented flanks alongside the berth and the engines stopped grinding. We lined up in an immigration hall where men in uniform took all our passports and made a toppling pile of them on a desk. I watched in anxiety: How would they return the passports to the correct owners? What if I got the wrong passport and I had to spend the rest of my life as Mar’i Kamil S-?

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The orientalist stripped bare

The address we had been given was written in English: ‘Bustan Said’, and that was it. This piece of information had been passed along a chain of relatives from Egypt to Australia to Britain by letter and telephone, and via several languages and alphabets.

On our first night in Egypt we booked into the Hotel Cecil in Alexandria, where Somerset Maugham had stayed and the British Secret Service used to rent a permanent suite. Our mission was to travel to Cairo the next morning to find my wife’s relative’s boarding house. I spent the evening combing the telephone directory for anyone with Madame P’s surname and calling them up. “No, not here. Who’s that?”, “Who, who? Not here!” It didn’t help that the phone book was in Arabic and that Madame P’s Armenian name could have been spelt in at least six ways. But this was 1973: People didn’t expect to locate some exact spot on the surface of the earth in microseconds; people were used to being stood up, missing each other at planned meetings; people were used to unanswered phones. We went to bed without misgivings.

The train took us through the Delta to Cairo the next day, and I fought for and won a taxi at Ramses Station, asking the driver to take us to Bustan Said Street. I tried pronouncing ‘Said’ in several ways – the four bald English letters gave about half the information needed to guess the Arabic word – and the driver lurched fatalistically into the traffic, no doubt praying that the mysterious location would magically appear before his rheumy eyes. It didn’t of course, although we did crawl up and down Bustan Street many times, craning to see past the bogged traffic and the sticky fingers of the child beggars on the car window, in case we saw a huge illuminated sign for Pension P. Nothing. “Take us to a hotel,” I said, and he drove for miles, eventually stopping outside an unmarked establishment in an empty street blighted with dusty urban poverty. We refused a squalid room upstairs with six frowzy beds, and resumed our journey. This time I said to the driver, “Take us to funduq urubbii”, ‘a European hotel’. I still cringe at the memory of the clumsy request. We were delivered to the posh Borg Hotel, where our room had just one bed.

My only experience of the Arab World had been our honeymoon in Tangier, a memory naturally tinted with romance, or more specifically The Romance of the Orient. Our taxi trip had left me with the impression that most of Cairo looked like a rubbish dump, but waking up in a decent hotel with a view of the Nile restored my hope that the Orient was out there to be found. Even better, the front desk staff knew exactly which street Pension P was in – Bustan El-Saeedi Street, right opposite the Filfila Restaurant. With the missing syllables restored to Madame P’s address, we checked out of the Borg and took another cab. And here we were, outside an Italianate apartment building in chaotic Bab El-Luq with all the prescribed features of The Orient around us: Men in nightshirts and turbans, donkeys, street stalls, thronging crowds, beggars, hullabaloo. We took the shuddering birdcage lift to the fourth floor and were admitted to a large vestibule with a dining table and a dozen or so chairs, and seven or eight doors leading to bedrooms around the sides. A couple of professional gents sat us down and politely explained that Madame P was out shopping. They sent out for fuul medammes and boiled eggs while we waited. The gents were two of Madame P’s boarders. Some weeks later, one of them – an army journalist – gave me a signed copy of a book he had written in praise of President Sadat. He inscribed it in Arabic, ‘To my friend the orientalist Stuart Campbell’.

Now might be a good point to take stock of how things stood with the Orient in 1973, at least among the people that I mixed with. Despite its glee at the dismantling of the colonial order, nouveau intellectual youth culture in the UK had inherited the cultural blueprint of the East drawn up by former generations: The Orient of the Beatles and the bandwagon Indian mystics was sensual, passive, spiritual, dismissive of material concerns. This hippy formulation wasn’t much different from that of T.E. Lawrence’s views of the Arabs he led at the fall of Damascus in 1918. As for me, I spent the first two years of my degree luxuriating in the works of old-time Orientalists like William Lane, Richard Burton and Gertrude Bell. The task, I believed, was for the West and the East to reach mutual understanding, mutual respect, world peace and all that. The bit that I missed was that we, the colonialists, had written the rules and the East didn’t have a say. Five years later the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said launched his seminal book Orientalism, changing for ever the rules of intellectual engagement in the study of cultures. After Edward Said nobody wanted to be called an orientalist.

Let’s return to the dining room at Madame P’s. We had finished the fuul and eggs, and there was still no sign of the lady. The professional gents sent for a young man, a university student, who must have lived in the building, and he was told to take us around the neighbourhood to look for Madame P. We went from shop to shop while the student practised his English on us. I was expecting him to be interested and flattered (I cringe deeply again) that a British student had gone to the trouble of studying his language and his culture. Instead he questioned me brusquely about why I was in Egypt, eventually becoming quite sarcastic and tossing in terms like ‘imperialist’ and ‘invader’. We didn’t find Madame P, but by the time we returned to the Pension she was there, and the sour student slipped away. There were hugs and kisses, and my wife, her relative and an ex-orientalist settled down to catch up on family history.

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The mother of hypodermic syringes

We found a flat in Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which led from Tahrir Square to the old market at Bab El-Luq. The charmless street was lined with metal shuttered shops, repair workshops and cafés. The little residential compound at No. 29 was reached through an arch leading into a small courtyard that gave access to three or four flats. Ours overlooked a tiny garden of palms and cactuses coated with a hundred years of grey dust.

A toothless concierge – our bawwaab – lived in a cupboard under an external staircase, where he cooked on a primus stove in the midst of his blankets. There was a fraternity of these bawwaabeen in the neighbourhood, and our man Farag had half a dozen of them over on Fridays to be shaved in the courtyard by a visiting barber. Our interactions with Farag were brief and functional, not the least because I had difficulty understanding rural speech spoken through gums. We settled into a daily routine of checking the mail once I had figured out that the concierge word for ‘letter’ wasn’t the standard term risaalah but gawaab, meaning ‘reply’. Most days he’d greet me with ma feesh gawaab – ‘no reply’. I often wondered what this usage implied; did it characterise the recipient as the party repeatedly begging some favour? Were people like Farag so insignificant that nobody would write to them except to refuse a request? Was Farag perhaps awaiting a legacy, heir to some Egyptian version of Jarndyce and Jarndyce?

I recently learned that our old locale is now notorious for the battle of Muhammad Mahmoud in November 2011, when tear-gassed protesters had their eyes shot out by riot police snipers.

But in 1973 it was a homely but unprepossessing neighbourhood where most basic needs could be satisfied within a few minutes walk. I took my shirts to the makwagi, the open air ironing shop where the black hand irons were heated on a brazier, and the ironing man filled his mouth with water and sprayed the garments through his lips. At the open air cinema, you could buy melon seeds and peanuts wrapped in a screw of paper made from recycled exam papers, and the floor was always carpeted with shells by the end of the film.

Bab El-Luq market supplied the staples, but I was surprised at the narrow range of fruit and vegetables available; lots of bananas, tomatoes and aubergines. One day my wife came home with half a gigantic cabbage, shaken and upset after being berated by a market trader; when she had asked for the monster vegetable to be cut in two, he had cut it and tried to make her take her both halves; apparently you couldn’t buy a half, but you could ask for it to be cut in two. She would have needed a wheelbarrow to get the whole thing home.

I’d often take a bowl to the fuul shop in the morning to bring back a dollop of stewed horse beans for breakfast. We learned to give baqsheesh at the baker’s shop to make sure the bread was wrapped with the minimum of finger contact, but we toasted the crust over the gas when we got home anyway. It took me a while to find bottled milk, so I took my own saucepan to a back alley dairy. It was run by a man with a filthy temper, who constantly yelled at the boys sterilising the water buffalo milk in big open vats; he disappeared for a month to go on pilgrimage, and returned transformed into a genial, beaming uncle.

Indeed, the purchase and preparation of food was largely pre-industrial. Apart from cans of superannuated vegetables and fruit from behind the Iron Curtain, there was little packaged food: Rice and lentils were bought loose and had to be picked over for grit; loose coffee came in two varieties – the same coffee, but Arabic (fine ground) and French (coarse ground); water had to be boiled and stored in second hand whiskey bottles, which could be bought from the robivecchi man (why these junk dealers were called by an Italian name I have no idea).

We gradually widened our shopping circle to include a pork butcher tucked in a nearby alley, as well as the upmarket Maison Thomas delicatessen, where the loveliest butter was made into pats on a cool marble counter, and the most toothsome eggs were sold – long and pointy with orange yolks.

Out delicate stomachs slowly hardened until we suffered from diarrhoea only one day in three. After all, people of my generation were well nourished and hygienically raised under a post-war regime that gave us cod liver oil, school milk, the National Health Service, and council grants to install bathrooms; people sometimes had ‘bilious attacks’ in England, not the nagging gassy squits that dogged us in Cairo. Anticipating gastric troubles, one of the students in our group had tried to prepare himself in London by eating small amounts of dirt each day, scraped from window sills and train floors. But nothing could have prepared me for the folly of buying a second hand ice cream one evening.

“What flavour is it?” I asked the small boy, who was holding the thing in his fist in the crowded market.

“Mango,” he said, poking the orange mush into the cone with his finger. I snaffled it on the spot.

“Why did he only have one ice cream? Shouldn’t he have had a box of them?” my wife asked me.

The next day, tossing a Frisbee on a playing field in Zamalek, I thought I tore a stomach muscle. Hour by hour the pain grew worse until, believing I was dying, I lay on my bed as a doctor – a Syrian specialiste des maladies internes – used a large antique syringe on me that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in a medieval torture dungeon.

My faith in British order and bureaucracy intact, I weakly indicated the student travel insurance voucher beside the bed; the jolly old doctor providing the service was to simply complete the details, post the voucher to Head Office in Swindon or Rickmansworth or somewhere, and await reimbursement by postal order. But the screws on the vice squeezing my bowels turned another twist and by the time I returned from the toilet, my wife had paid the Syrian in cash and he had gone.

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Opened with the knowledge of the censor

One of the most linguistically challenging phone calls I ever made was to the gas company in Cairo when the Vesuvius water boiler erupted, leaving a layer of cockroach corpses in the bath. Let me explain:

The aim of my six-month spell at Cairo University in 1973-74 was to build on the Arabic I had studied in London. My fellow students and I would return to London with our reading and writing polished and our speech fluent. The first of these aims was stymied by the closure of the university at the outset of the war, and the second proved more complicated than expected.

The first two years of our degree in London was an intensive introduction to what the Arabs call al-‘arabiyya al-fushaa or ‘eloquent Arabic’. This form of Arabic is used for writing in books, and for formal speech – for example a graduation speech or a news bulletin. It doesn’t really belong to any specific part of the Arab World; it could be compared to Latin in the time of Henry VIII. The problem was that nobody really used that kind of Arabic in everyday speech.

On my first trip to the grocer I announced that I wanted toilet paper in my best Henry VIII voice, so to speak. The shopkeeper and assistant were too polite to laugh out loud and translated my request back to me in the local dialect. So what did I do wrong? Here’s the tally:

• I used a posh word for want;

• I added a fancy ending to the word for paper, not unlike saying ‘art thou from Croydon?’

• I pronounced certain letters as they might have been rendered in Arabia in 622;

• I used a word for ‘toilet’ so obscure that it could only be found in the rare dictionaries section of the School of Oriental and African Studies in Bloomsbury.

The closest equivalent than I can suggest in English would be something like: “Verily, I desire tissue for use when I am at stool.” Try that at the Seven Eleven.

So to continue the allegory, when I was speaking Latin, the shopkeeper was speaking street market Sicilian.

If we had been instructed by the boiling method in London, then I learned Egyptian dialect by the absorption method: Months of discussing family history with my wife’s relative, who spoke no English; hours arguing over the phone with utilities companies when the power ran out in our flat or the Vesuvius blew up; trips to the vegetable market, the ironing man, the clothes mender, the milk shop, the pork butcher, and to the Maison Thomas deli.

And besides the problems of Egyptian Arabic’s grammatical peculiarities and its weird vocabulary, I had to get used to the special genius of Egyptian conversational behaviour. Here’s an example from the telephone:

“Where are you speaking from?”

“From my mouth.”

Hmm.

I have a special place in my heart for Egyptian terms of address. I found it endearing that I could address a taxi driver as ‘professor’ and that lots of older men in our neighbourhood were my uncle. And I liked being called bey, the old Ottoman title for a provincial governor, such as in this taxi conversation:

“Oh, Professor, I want to go to Garden City.”

“Right away, Oh Provincial Governor!”

Sometimes when buying a cabbage or some fish in the market, I was called kaptin, which I supposed was Captain, but I encountered my favourite term of address in Alexandria. We were walking across the Roman amphitheatre entirely alone when a figure appeared in the far distance. It approached and grew into a man in a galabiyyah yelling something I couldn’t understand. We became worried. Had we dropped something valuable? Was he warning us of an earthquake? I listened more closely and realised that he was saying ‘Oh Chief Engineer!’, or in the original yaa bash muhandis, the quaint bash being yet another Ottoman archaism. Of course all he wanted was to offer to find us a taxi.

Linguists talk of two kinds of motivation for learning languages: Instrumental motivation is when you want a return on investment; learning a language will get you a job, increase your salary, enable you to study the become a chief engineer, etc. Integrative motivation is when you want to be like the speakers of the language because you empathise and identify with them.

I’d like to add a third motivation – fear. Once the war had begun, we thirsted for news, any news, in any language, to assuage our anxiety of what might happen to us. I wore out my Arabic dictionary studying the papers each day to work our whether the Egyptian army was heading east, west, or round in circles. I learned the meaning of censorship trying to read between the lines of Al-Ahram’s propagandized version of events. Letters from the UK began to arrive with the sides slit and resealed with government tape, so I added ‘opened with the knowledge of the censor’ to my vocabulary.

As an afterword, when I returned to London in 1974 I had to take a crash course in advanced Russian conversation before going to the USSR. Our teacher, a mysterious émigré of no distinct nationality, preferred to give us (a) a course on the painter Ilya Yefimovich Repin and (b) training in reading Pravda, or more specifically reading behind the lines. While a knowledge of Repin was intrinsically worth having, interpreting Pravda came in very handy in 1974 when Turkey invaded Cyprus. I was in Moscow by now, and with no Guardian or Le Monde to offer me a comfortable centre left interpretation of the events, I had to nut out what might have happened from the peculiar communist version in Pravda.

Thus since 1973-74 it has been the practice of this chief engineer to believe only half of what he reads in the paper.

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I think a war just started

In hindsight there were portents in the week leading up to October 6 1973, the day that Egypt and its allies launched an attack on Sinai and the Golan Heights without warning.

People spoke anxiously about spies and secret police: “You can’t trust anyone. Be careful who you talk to.” English friends who went horse riding at Giza on October 5 galloped too close to a military area and just avoided being arrested, perhaps shot. A few days before that, my wife and I were walking one evening past a disused museum when we were ordered into the gatehouse by a couple of Green Goons. These were the intelligence police recruited from university graduates, six inches taller than the black and white askari police who did the routine work of directing traffic and chasing street thieves. We sat in the gloom on hard chairs for half an hour while they studied our passports and asked us, why are you in Egypt? Why do you want to study Arabic? Are you Jewish? We assumed when we were allowed to leave that they were simply bored, but perhaps they really were on the lookout for spies.

Consumer goods were scarce and, again with hindsight, the civilian population may have been hoarding in expectation of shortages. Some shops around the upmarket areas near Tahrir Square were selling one-offs – a bottle of perfume, a woman’s blouse, an ornament – that we were told were brought in by Egyptians flying home from Europe.

On the night of October 6 we went to Madame P’s guest house for dinner. The usual pattern of these visits was that we would arrive to find Madame P holding court in bed wrapped in a crocheted shawl and smoking a Craven A. Often there would be a friend in attendance – an elderly Armenian lady sharing with Madame P the woes of the world. The friend would be booted out in favour of binti and ibni – we’d been promoted to ‘daughter’ and ‘son’, and while the servants made dinner Madame P would regale us with an apparently infinite account of the family in diaspora. We would walk home trying to unpick the knots of Eddys, Dikrans, Roupens, Vartanouches, Sylvias and Serges in Paris, California and Beirut.

But the guest house was hushed and tense tonight. Those gentlemen residents who were at home stayed in their rooms. It was usual for casual diners to turn up during the meal – a mysterious old man in a beret who had been imprisoned in Nasser’s time and told my wife how he remembered her from when she was a child, frizz-haired woe-betiding distant aunties, a homeless cousin who lived with the families she sewed for. But nobody came tonight and we ate our lamb and aubergine alone at the big table with its checked oilcloth cover.

A notable absence was the army journalist. Because of his size, his hee-haw voice and his bonhomie, Mr. H was impossible to ignore. He was often at the big table drinking a bottle of Stella beer and eating cucumbers one after another – ‘like a donkey’, Madame P would whisper in the kitchen.

The evening grew gloomier. Now and again one of the gentlemen came out of his room, conferred with one of the other gentlemen in whispers, and then disappeared again. Then late in the evening as we were preparing to leave Mr. H arrived, except that he was now Major H in an army uniform. And he had in his hand a piece of grey painted wood from a packing crate with Hebrew letters stencilled on the side. It had come, he said, from the front. The gents came out of their rooms and gathered around Major H; the Arabic was fast, whispered, colloquial, and I couldn’t understand the detail. We retreated into Madame P’s room and probably all smoked a Craven A – my exact recollection is faint. But one of us said, “I think a war just started”.

My wife and I walked the few streets home from Bustan Saeed Street to our flat at 29 Muhammad Mahmoud Street. Farag the one-toothed doorkeeper said good evening. I don’t remember whether he called me ‘professor’, ‘captain’ or ‘head engineer’ – he never seemed sure which honorific to use.

The next morning, I went out early into the hushed neighbourhood. There were knots of people on street corners listening as someone read the war news aloud from the newspaper. I bought a copy of Al Ahram and thanked providence that my Arabic was up to understanding most of the detail. On one page was a press picture of captured Israeli prisoners, which you can still find in the Al Ahram archive. Some of them looked like Frank Zappa.

Later that afternoon I returned from the university, whose gates were barred by a tank. Almost home, I heard a voice behind me calling gaasuus israa’eeli – Israeli spy. A small rock flew past my ear, and then a few more. A gang of boys was in pursuit, but I made the street corner ahead of them and dashed into our courtyard unseen.

When it was dark I scuttled through the back alleys as far as Tahrir Square, and then across the raised walkway to the Nile Hilton. There I had a haircut of the kind David Niven would have enjoyed in Monte Carlo in 1939. The sleek and deferential barber, with a pencil moustache that could have been measured in microns, used implements that I’d never seen in Watford; after cutting my hair with belt-driven clippers, he massaged my scalp with an electrical orange rubber vibrating pad; he rubbed in unguents and oils; and then he lit tapers to singe any single strand that dared to stand up from the shiny black dome of varnished hair he had moulded to my head.

I walked home looking like a ventriloquist’s dummy, ready to face my war.

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A tank at the campus gates

The first hurdle to beginning my course at Cairo University was finding the campus. The only information we had been given in London was the name of the professor, who belonged to the Faculty of Arts. ‘Arts’ according to my Arabic dictionary was funuun. I jumped into a taxi and asked for kulliyat al-funuun. This evoked the usual reaction of puzzlement on the part of the driver, and the usual good hearted determination to get the foreigner to somewhere that might not be entirely unconnected with the required destination.

We ground our way to the university campus at Giza, where we asked mystified students and doormen for kulliyat al-funuun, i.e. ‘faculty of the arts’. Eventually somebody directed us back towards the city and we turned onto the bridge leading to Zamalek, the posh diplomatic quarter on a lush island in the middle of the Nile. We stopped outside a garden with high hedges enclosing a lawn where young students painted at easels. One of them came to the gate and solved the mystery: funuun meant ‘arts’ in the sense of painting and sculpture. The word for the ‘arts’ of literature, history and so on was aadaab.

Back we crawled to Giza where the the kulliyat aadaab was located after all, with the driver sporting an ‘I knew that’ expression. Swinging past a roundabout near the university I saw one of the traffic accidents that were so frequent in Cairo and yet treated with apparent apathy: A bus with as many passengers on the outside as inside lurched into a turn, and a man fell off the back hitting the road like a sack of meat, where he lay with the traffic streaming round him.

The professor wasn’t at work so I went home on the Nile river bus; I’d had enough of the roads.

The half dozen or so UK students in my group had dribbled into Cairo over a week or so, and one day we assembled in the Professor’s office to find that the university didn’t really know what to do with us. We were introduced to a group of Romanian students, who sat on the opposite of the room so that a sort of imaginary Iron Curtain separated us. Some of them wore dark glasses like Maciek in Ashes and Diamonds. These were the days of the Soviet sphere of influence, and I suppose that countries like Egypt and Cuba were often sent fraternal benison in the form of Eastern European students with poor eyesight.

There being nothing in the way of a course in Arabic for foreigners, the university decided that we would have tutorials given by some of its dynamic young academics. This required us to buy copies of the textbooks based on their masters theses – apparently a normal way of supplementing academic incomes. I only recall one of these texts, a work on the ancient Arabic epic Sīrat al-amīra D̲h̲āt al-Himma. In fact, I didn’t have a clue that it was about an ancient Arabic epic. I could understand the first four words: It seemed to mean ‘epic of the princess who has the himma’. But what the heck was her himma? Did she wear it, want it, wail about it? So we sat befogged through our classes with the lecturer assuming that everybody knew exactly what Sīrat al-amīra D̲h̲āt al-Himma was. Thinking back, this wouldn’t have been much different from me explaining the life of Worzel Gummidge to a group of visiting Cambodians.

One of the bright spots of the tutorials was the sufragi who brought coffee. Tall and moustachioed, and wearing a khaki university uniform, he quietly took orders without writing anything down, and slipped back into the classroom later with a large trayful of tiny cups. At least this kept us awake during long classes when we went in a circle translating the lecturers’ books aloud a sentence at a time and getting stuck on himma.

I attended a few mass lectures and was saddened by the number of poor students with eyes cloudy from trachoma. Such students were never seen on the campus of the American University in Cairo, where glamorous pouting girl students were dropped off by men with gold neck chains driving sports cars. Graduates of government universities were, I was told, guaranteed a job. I saw evidence of this in a Bank Misr branch one day when I exchanged a travellers cheque, and my documents spent forty-five minutes being passed down a row of desks, each manned by a graduate whose task was to read every word twenty times and initial in triplicate. Wincing with diarrhoea cramps, I debated jumping into a taxi sans passport and money and coming back three or four hours later.

Over the weeks of September, I got into the routine of walking from our flat near Tahrir Square to the Nile river ferry stop and taking the boat to Giza. I always entered the boat through the doorway, but most of the passengers climbed through the windows, probably an ingrained habit of the Cairenes given that every public transport conveyance had only a quarter of the seats required for the passengers. I avoided buses because they were hideously crowded. One day in Adly Street I saw a tram, a taxi and a bus collide. The small boys in nightshirts who rode on the bumpers were tossed into the air like footballs and crashed onto the road in bloody heaps. I dashed into a barbers shop and screamed at the owner to call an ambulance; he shrugged and carried on shaving a big stubbled chin. This happened every day.

The day after the war began I went to the university and found the campus gates locked and a tank parked outside. We never returned to our classes. It would be unfair to say that our lecturers must have been relieved that they no longer had to teach the foreigners; the Egyptian forces suffered ghastly losses and it is certain that our teachers’ families would have been touched by death.

Our professor from London visited us briefly after the airport reopened. He took us in an army jeep to an avant garde theatre performance about Ancient Egypt where students – perhaps the ones with the easels – chanted Horus, Horus, Horus for a long time.

Note: I was fortunate enough to be taught in London by Dr Fouad Megally, a distinguished scholar and a gifted and kind teacher. I learned recently that he passed away in 2011. An obituary appears in The Glastonbury Review: Issue 120, July 2011.

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Tea and sugar for foreigners

Mid October 1973. The Egyptian Army is struggling to maintain its gains in Sinai.

Each day Cairo runs out of something else as the country is blockaded: Matches one day, toilet paper the next, cooking oil … The blood bank has set up a loudspeaker outside our house and we receive hostile glares as the woman’s voice, half weeping, half imploring, urges the passers by to give blood for their sons and brothers at the front. Bandaged soldiers with crutches have begun to appear on the streets. Rumours are flying: An Israeli spy disguised as a Moroccan was caught in Ramses Square this morning; a Moroccan spy with an Israeli identity card was caught near the synagogue in Shari’ ‘Adli at lunchtime.

Then there is a rumour that foreigners are entitled to rations. Provisions are running short. My wife’s relative has a secret hoard of sugar. She shows us the US dollars sewn into her dresses in advance of her escape to California one day. Have you heard that foreigners can get rations, we ask. She shrugs in the careworn Armenian manner: Kalaam faadi – ‘It’s all just talk’.

But other foreigners have heard of it too. You need bitaaqa tamwiin, they say, a ‘provision permit’, a ration card. Where can you get it? Ramses Square is the consensus among the foreigners studying at the universities. We set off on foot. There’s nothing much else to do since they put a tank outside Cairo University and locked the gates the day the war started. Crossing the tram tracks we face a massive government building with a sandbagged blast wall across the entrance; all the big buildings have thrown them up in expectation of bombing. Vast rowdy queues thread out the doors and into the street, all composed of shouting foreign men, mostly Africans. We reconnoitre the ballooning masses of people, unable to make sense of any order that might underlie the pandemonium, but suddenly we spot some Europeans. You need an application form, they say – istimaara – and you get it from a scribe by the entrance.

In a gap between the Africans sit half a dozen Arab men in long robes squatting on chairs before tiny desks. We are beckoned by an old scribe with a milky eye. Professor, we want a istimaara for a ration card please. The Professor scribbles on a blank sheet of paper and barks ‘name?’ We tell him our chunky English names and he turns them into fluid sweeps of Arabic on the paper. ‘Address?’, ‘nationality?’ It all goes down and in seconds we hand over a few piastres and take our forms.

The interior of the building is a stifling ants nest of men criss-crossing, stopping, starting, meeting, parting, waiting, pushing; most are African. We spot some Europeans in a small queue: This is for non-African foreigners they say. We shelter with them and our line slowly works its way towards a tiny enquiry window. Every five minutes a foreigner peels off with a look of joy, and the next hands his form to the civil servant inside the window. We are two places behind the leader when the window closes. The queue behind us has been more vigilant and sees another tiny window opening ten feet away, and surges towards it, leaving us at the back of the new line. After an hour we come away with our ration books, roughly printed on hairy beige paper with pages bearing squares to be stamped to verify the receipt of tiny monthly quantities of tea, sugar and oil.

Next day we visit the government supermarket in our quarter. We’ve never been in there before because normally there is nothing for sale except for tins of communist peaches and gherkins, presumably excess stock from a five-year plan in Bulgaria or Ukraine. But now it has become the ration supply centre. Normally we use the baqaala – the grocery a few shops down where I caused a riot of mirth and admiration when we first arrived and I asked for toilet paper in impeccable Classical Arabic. But now the baqaala is empty. The normally comatose shopkeepers in the government supermarket are fighting on the home front, bravely stamping ration cards and heroically handing over goods to customers at the front of the horde packed into the shop.

We slowly move to the front, conspicuous among the robes in our jeans and Levi shirts. As we get near to the counter a disgruntled voice from the back says:

Shay wa sukkar lil agaanib – ‘tea and sugar for the foreigners.’

Again: Shaay wa sukkar lil agaanib, this time more voices.

I hand over the ration cards. ‘The sugar’s finished’ the official says.

The whole shop is chanting:

Shaay wa sukkar lil agaanib, shaay wa sukkar lil agaanib

We turn and push through the sweating, glaring crowd. In the street outside my wife says “Show me what we got”, and I hold out an envelope with a spoonful of tea leaves inside.

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Those were the days, Habiibi

From the viewpoint of the wired world of the twenty-first century, our 1973 holiday in Alexandria a week after the end of the war seems like an act of folly. Mobile phones, email and ATMs were decades away; we simply set out one day from Cairo in late October with a meagre fund of cash and travellers cheques and the name of a hotel in Alexandria.

I didn’t keep a diary, but fasting was over and so I deduce that we went to Alexandria in the first week of Shawwal 1393 – the month after Ramadan.

The service taxis to Alexandria started from a dingy street near Kubri El Limoun railway station, which didn’t look remotely like the ‘bridge of lemons’. We endured the customary jibes and comments en route from our flat; with the weather cooling my wife wore a peculiar full-length coat made of crocheted hairy string which invariably drew shouts of yaa kharouf – ‘goat’. My own speciality was to attract dozens of children who leapt in front of me and demanded to know the time. Thus the goat and the master timekeeper made it to the taxi stop and we hung around until a big car was nearly full, and wedged ourselves into the back seat with a male passenger on each side. The car took the Delta road, hurtling at suicidal speed through the towns of Benha, Tanta, Damanhour, which we saw as blurs of green and brown between the shoulders of the passengers.

After three hours we were disgorged onto the pavement near El Raml Station, and by what must have been divine intervention – we only had a big Michelin map of Egypt with no detail for Alexandria – we found a tram stop to the suburb where our hotel was located. The tram clanked through a bright Mediterranean streetscape so different from the claustrophobic grime of Cairo. Later we would discover pavement cafés on the Corniche that still had the flavour of Athens, the lovely gardens of Montazah Palace, the blinding white stone of the Roman Amphitheatre. The contrast between the two cities is easily seen today on Google Maps: Cairo is filthy grey, Alexandria the colour of a meadow.

But our destination was a hotel owned by a friend of one of my teachers. We checked in and passed on greetings from London to the gracious proprietor, and were shown to a small faded room with a terrace facing the ocean. We took breakfasts of exquisite fried eggs and thick coffee each morning on this terrace under a flapping canvas awning.

The hotel turned out to be a haven for artists and journalists, but the intellectual activity was low key and discreet. The walls were hung with abstract paintings and ingenious black and white art photography. I recall a powerfully suggestive close-up image of two fingers with a lemon pip tucked into the fork where they met the hand.

One evening we were invited to a room under the house where a group of journalists – they wrote for a magazine that pushed the bounds of political acceptability – met to listen to foreign radio stations and discuss events. This was a period when, according to Ayman El-Amir writing in Al-Ahram Weekly 16-22 August 2012, ‘The editor-in-chief became the censor-in-chief’, despite President Sadat’s official abolition of censorship. The enormously influential Mohamed Hasanain Heykal was still editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, and the news of the war had been tightly controlled. The atmosphere in the cellar was conspiratorial and intense.

We drifted through four or five days of balmy autumn. I was especially seduced by Montazah Palace with its Turkish Delight rose and white masonry, display cases of gifts to King Farouq’s wife, pastel green gardens and shady walkways. It was empty of tourists, so the few guides and caretakers were bored and talkative: Where are you from, you must be Algerian, some said; you must be Lebanese, others said. We’re khawagaat, I said in my hybrid Arabic, ‘foreigners’, min ingilterra. Ah, they’d say uncertainly, ingliizi.

Nobody knew where we were; we could have been kidnapped and murdered, never to be seen again. Was it because of youthful insouciance that we found ourselves there? Was it that society wasn’t yet paralysed by the terror of being out of touch?

When it was time to leave we took the tram back to El-Raml and stood in the square until someone asked us what we wanted. “A taxi to Masr,” I said smoothly: I’d learned the local trick of calling Cairo Masr, ‘Egypt’ instead of al-qaahirah.

A kitchen chair appeared out of nowhere like ectoplasm at a séance. My wife was politely asked to sit and rest while a car arrived. Glasses of tea materialised in the same way. And then a private car pulled up and a man in a hounds tooth sports jacket jumped out and ushered us into the car. I dispensed baqsheesh to the chair and tea brigade, negotiated a price for the ride with the driver, and we set off.

I don’t need to describe the languid loveliness of the Delta and the one-horse towns along the road; the mystique of travel has been made humdrum by Google Images.

In fact, my principal memory is a musical one. The man in the hounds tooth jacket popped a cassette into the player within a minute of setting off, and the song Those Were the Days began to play. This 1968 pop song by a person called Mary Hopkin had been dinned into the brainpan of almost every human in the Northern Hemisphere by 1970. Even today, reading the title of the song sets off an uncontrollable and unstoppable soundtrack in my mind, with the words accurately reproduced. If you’ve never heard it, don’t look for it.

Back to the car: That’s nice, I thought. I’m sick of hearing Farid El-Atrache and Um Kalthoum all the time. We’re going to hear some English pop music on the way home. But when the song had finished the man played it again, and then again. In fact, over the three hour trip he must have played it over a hundred times. I burned new neural pathways. My brain was permanently altered. If I happen to think of the song on my deathbed my soul will depart this world to the hurdy gurdy accompaniment of,

‘Those were the days my friend,

We thought they’d never end …’*

It was dark when we got back, and the man dropped us near Sayyida Zeinab where there were Eid festivities taking place – food stalls, ice cream, kerosene lamps, embroidered marquees, crushing crowds, children in new shirts. Men with shaven heads slunk in doorways in the dark. I was told later that they were prisoners, pardoned to mark Eid El-Fitr.

We were home.

*Even worse, I discovered from the Wikipedia entry for the song that on the B side was Turn, turn, turn, the bowdlerized version of Ecclesiastes 3. Since I found this out I cannot think of Ecclesiastes 3 without Those Were the Days clicking to autoplay.

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A war half remembered, a story half formed

Memory, it is claimed, is not like a filing cabinet; it is a retelling, a continual re-creation of stories that might or might not bear some resemblance to an objective reality. Over the forty years since the events happened, my memories of the 1973 war have been spun into an erudite narrative that I’ve refined and rehearsed in countless conversations around dinner tables and in classrooms.

But it wasn’t until I began to record the events in writing that the gulf between my narrative and the reality of the events became apparent; with the proviso of course that reality is a shaky concept at best. For example, I’ll admit that an accurate chronology of the first weeks of the war was never a priority in my narrative, and so I had to go to historical sources to build a time scaffold to help in its transformation from dinner party tale to written memoir.

There are events in my narrative that can be confirmed by reliable sources: There was, for example, only one evacuation ship leaving Alexandria, and the sole Jewish student in our group was the only one of us allowed to leave Egypt. Wikipedia says the ship was called Syria, and it left on October 11 for Piraeus.

My memory of a British consular official visiting us must be true; it must be true that he told us not to leave Cairo, because we didn’t venture beyond the city until the war ended. My memory of a visit by Egyptian intelligence officials is definitely true because it was so alarming; I recall their insistence on knowing our religion, and their irritation at one of our friends who gave ‘Church of Australia’. The official probably said, ‘You must be Jewish’.

It was true also that there was an overland route into Egypt from Libya, and we did indeed meet with a couple of young English journalists – they may or my not have been from Time Out – who had arrived after twenty of thirty hours in a taxi, expenses paid by a Gulf potentate. It is certainly true that a group of us marooned British students spent a raucous evening with the journalists in a hotel room boozing and eating on the potentate’s tab. The party may have been at the Hilton, or perhaps it was the Semiramis.

I do recall bombing, and in my narrative I watch it from a high-rise apartment rented by some American academics. I say the bombing was at Helwan, the industrial town near Cairo; however, I haven’t found a corroborating source yet. But I didn’t make up the stories about the air raid sirens; I remember crouching under the kitchen table while the hateful screeching blocked out the normal cacophony of our neighbourhood. While we crouched we thought ruefully of the government films shown in the cinemas, which portrayed neatly dressed families calmly walking to the maglaa (I’ll never forget the word for ‘shelter’) carrying their sandwich boxes while the sirens wailed, not dissimilar to the Duck and Cover films in 1950’s America that showed how to survive the atom bomb. If there had been an air raid shelter in our street you would have been killed in the rush of elbows, billowing robes and chickens. Alas, I can find no trace of those cheesy old Egyptian civil defence films.

I remember watching Egyptian television, but I couldn’t tell you at whose house; we certainly didn’t have a TV. I recall being struck by footage of soldiers carrying metal suitcases, flinging themselves prone and taking out of the suitcases a tank-busting wire-guided missile, which I’ve since learned was the Soviet 9K11 Malyutka. At the time I was struck by the grisly irony that the cost of each missile – gone in a flash, along with the lives of an Israeli tank crew – would have been hundreds if not thousands more than the price of the tiny transistor radios coveted by poor Egyptians. Or perhaps I was struck by it later.

What really surprises me in retrospect is how little I knew of the progress of the war. I’ve written elsewhere about the difficulty of deciphering the news in Al-Ahram, and triangulating it with the BBC and Voice of the Arabs. The truth of this can be checked; but you’ll have to simply believe me when I tell you that one day I leapt across the room to switch off my radio which, while playing Western music by the open window, broke into loud barking Hebrew without warning. I must have been tuned to Israel.

I didn’t know that while I was in Cairo, my oldest friend was in Israel. We two lads from Watford had parted company three years earlier in Gibraltar, me to return to England to resume my studies, he – a newly converted Jew – to Timbuktu, as far as I knew. He’d eventually fetched up in Eilat on the Red Sea, and spent his war snorkelling. He makes beautiful wine in Tasmania these days.

I’ve written too about the night the war started, and how a piece of an Israeli munitions box arrived at my wife’s relative’s boarding house close to midnight. It’s a dramatic story that can’t be challenged, but the army journalist who I say brought the piece of wood back to Cairo really existed; I still have a book inscribed by him, ‘To the English friend, guest of Egypt, the orientalist professor Stuart Campbell, I give my book …’

And as I prod my narrative into written shape, conceding that a memoir can only ever be fiction wrapped around a skeleton of fact, the outline of a new novel starts to emerge; the genre shifts again. I invent my private detective Pierre Farag, half Armenian and half Coptic, and his distant relative Madame Serpouhi, who happens to run a boarding house near Tahrir Square. My planned novel is in the noir tradition and requires an anti-hero who is an outsider; what better than a man with parents from two different minorities? In a first draft I wrote of Pierre:

He could be anyone: A jeweller, a university lecturer, a bank clerk, Coptic, Muslim, an Alexandrian Maltese, Greek … He burrowed unnoticed among the folds and wrinkles of the city, never disturbing its texture, never belonging and yet entirely belonging. If anyone had bothered to ask him, ‘what are you?’ he’d have said misri, ‘Egyptian’, and they’d have taken him at his word with perhaps just an afterthought: ‘His father was probably a Jew,’ or ‘I reckon a Syrian mother’. But nobody asked.

The army journalist who brought back the battlefield souvenir morphs into Mr. Abd El-Hakim, who drinks too much Stella beer and lectures Pierre on the glories of Arab Socialism. And amidst the tension of pre-war Cairo when spies and informers lurk in every alley – or so it is said – a British citizen could be found murdered in a hotel room, and Pierre Farag could be given the strangest and most hazardous assignment of his career.

As war breaks out on an imagined 6 October 1973, I marshall more facts, facts that I didn’t know in the real 1973, but that with the clarity of hindsight will recreate the era so that is as acute and as sparkling as I half remember it. And as a man in my sixties I retrace my steps from Tahrir Square to Bab El-Louq market; I pass a corner bar where Mr. Abd El-Hakim and Pierre Farag are smoking Cleopatras and drinking tiny cups of strong coffee. I’m distracted for a moment by a couple in their early twenties – both dark haired, speaking English and smiling at some funny observation; they sound like Londoners. They sit down at the bar and give their order to the waiter in Arabic. And who’s to say that Mr. Abd El-Hakim doesn’t look around and beckon them over, saying, ‘Mr. Stuart Campbell, my orientalist friend, I’d like you to meet Pierre Farag’?

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About the author: I used to be a Professor of Linguistics, but these days I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption. I was born in London but I’ve lived in Sydney, Australia for forty years. You can contact me at [email protected] .

 

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You can find out about my other books at my website. Here is an extract from An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity:

What Bestselling Authors are Saying about ‘An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity’

 

“A mystery that unfurls with just enough twists and turns to keep readers guessing right to the closing pages.”

- Francis Guenette, bestselling author of Disappearing in Plain Sight

 

“Told in first person by the three leading characters—Jack, the husband, Thea, the wife, and Fiona, the possibly deranged cop—this is a tour de force by Mr Campbell.”

- Kerry J. Donovan, bestselling author of On Lucky Shores: A Chet Walker Adventure

 

“A riveting psychological bender touched with wit and imperfectly charming characters.”

- Pamela Crane, bestselling author of The Admirer’s Secret.

It was a summer Saturday, Thea’s day, when she would absent herself from the house while I ran William and Zita from one sporting or artistic activity to another, using the wait times to park the car and jog around a convenient field. The family reformed late in the afternoon on the back lawn, me in my running gear making mocktails on the garden bench, and Zita climbing over Thea and sniffing her neck and wrists, guessing the names of the perfumes she’d sampled at the shopping mall in the New Town. The baby sitter was booked for seven, and I had already called my shop assistant three times to make sure that all was well. All fine, she said, not bad for a Saturday. I pushed aside the little niggle of anxiety; I wasn’t looking forward to letting her go.

Thea looked lovely, lounging in the deckchair in a white summer dress against her tanned skin, sipping a green drink piled high with orange fruit, a woman of thirty eight at the peak of her dark mature beauty. She didn’t look like any of the university lecturers I’d been taught by. She didn’t look like a criminal for that matter.

I’d booked the restaurant and I had a small piece of expensive jewelry secreted in my linen suit.

We fed the children at the big table in the kitchen, the afternoon breeze bringing the scent of roses from the tiny walled garden that Thea had claimed as her territory. A little plaque on the doorway said ‘No children past this point’. At six the neighbour’s daughter arrived to take over William and Zita, and we retreated to the bedroom.

I never tired of watching Thea getting ready for a night out: The expensive unguents and delicate implements of beautification, dressing and undressing as she approached – by some logic I didn’t understand – the final choice of outfit; trying on heels and swirling her hips in front of the mirror. And finally the laying out of jewelry, matching the pieces with clothes, bag, shoes, make-up, mood, occasion. But tonight was somehow different. She seemed unusually animated and nervous. I showered, lounged on the bed in a robe and watched her begin the ritual at the dressing table, but she said, “Get dressed and come back later. I don’t want you watching me.” I tried a clumsy manoeuvre, sidling up to her and kneading her shoulders, but she stiffened, raised her palms and said, “Just go”.

Downstairs the children were playing with the babysitter’s body piercings. She had taken her nose stud out and William was prodding it with a spoon. Zita was trying to get one of the teenager’s earrings into her unpierced lobe. “Can we all wash our hands after this game please?” I said. I hung around in the garden reading the paper until it was ten minutes before the arrival of the taxi, and then went upstairs. I knocked gently on the bedroom door. “Not long, Jack.”

After a minute I knocked again and pushed the door. Thea did a swirl for me and I was transfixed by the dress – the muted sheen of the fabric, the deep harmony of magenta and charcoal grey, the way it hugged her body like a slinky second skin, accentuating the lines of her shoulders and legs. I must have had my mouth open because she said, “No need to goggle. What do you think, silver jewelry with it?” I recovered myself: “Silver of course, something discreet.” Thea said, “Right answer, clever boy,” and kissed me deeply.

While she chose the jewelry I saw the glossy carrier bag. As the owner of a select bookshop in the most upmarket shopping street of a wealthy cathedral town, I know that you don’t buy a Jules Hector in British Home Stores. “I’ll just check whether the taxi’s here,” I said. I went into the vestibule and stabbed my phone to log on to our credit card account – no sign of a thousand pound purchase. Thea caught me up: “Stop fiddling with that phone. This is our anniversary dinner. In fact I want you to leave it at home.” I made a face but she gently took the phone from me with one hand and slid the other inside my jacket, caressing my chest: “Just leave it.”

We’d chosen The Secret Cottage for most of our special occasions – anniversaries, birthdays, family celebrations – and I’d asked Maxwell to give us the table in the little nook that looked out into the cobbled lane behind the cathedral. Here you were out of earshot of the noisy groups of twenty and thirty year olds who seemed to have unlimited funds to spend on eighty quid champagne and mounds of oysters flown in from Scotland. But the hum reminded you that you were still on the fringe of the social ritual of public eating. The nook had a rich velvet curtain, and Maxwell drew it half way across. We often ate with friends, and so the evening started with the small talk that couples dining alone use to fill the transition from ordinary life to special occasion – nice tableware, Maxwell’s looking well, red or white, what’s the fish of the day, you smell nice, gin and tonic to start.

The Cottage was busier than usual – there was a conference at the university and some of the delegates had found the town’s worst kept secret – and Maxwell apologized that our orders might be a little slower than usual. In the meantime he had a waitress top up our G&T’s so that after half an hour we were both affected by a woozy recklessness. I think that if the entrée hadn’t arrived at that point we would have closed off the velvet curtain and made love on the table, but we settled down to eat moist scallops glistening against flat pink shells.

We finished a bottle of Chablis before the main course and I was trying to stop my head from lolling. Thea looked determined to stay upright, but I knew that she was as far gone as me. I should say that we have only ever been moderate drinkers; we were in territory we’d seldom visited before. Thea’s pink lamb and my veal arrived, along with a leathery red wine. We swapped portions, feeding one another from our forks. Then Thea said, “Well, aren’t you going to ask me?”

“Ask you what?”

“How I paid for the dress. I saw you looking at the bag and I know what you were doing on the phone.”

“You saved up, I suppose.”

“But my salary pays the housekeeping. You know I don’t really have any left over.”

I was feeling a little nauseous and I tried to drown the sensation with a big quaff of red wine.

“I suppose it’s not really my business,” I said feebly.

“Don’t sodding well beat around the bush,” Thea said, smiling.

“So tell me.”

“Hold onto your seat.”

We both swigged more wine. Thea looked directly into my eyes: “I found a wallet on the ground in the university. There were nine hundred pounds in it. I kept the money and threw the wallet in the pond.”

We said nothing. The meat was cooling on our plates. Thea calmly picked up her knife and fork and began eating again, and I copied her. I felt giddy and disoriented, sweaty under my linen suit. I looked at Thea and watched her jaws working. “You look like a hamster,” I said, unaccountably, and kept chewing. “You look like a guinea pig,” she said, and by some hidden chemistry that fuelled our fifteen years of love and intimacy, we both had an urge to giggle. Maxwell popped his head round the velvet curtain and stared at each of us curiously: “Something I’m missing mes enfants?” We stared back and shook our heads, our mouths ready to burst. As Maxwell withdrew we both managed to swallow our food before breaking down into tipsy laughter. When we’d recovered our composure I looked at Thea, who had taken out a compact mirror and was dabbing at her panda eyes.

“I don’t know why I did it, Jack. I was just overcome by this feeling to do something reckless, like skiing off a cliff.”

“Did anyone see you?”

“No, there wasn’t a soul around. It was on a path between the sports centre and the river.”

“Whose wallet was it?”

“Sir Percy Bushmore’s.”

“The Chancellor?”

“Yes, he was at the campus a couple of days ago for the opening of the new gym.”

I thought for a moment. “He’s worth a fortune,” I said, “God, did I actually say that?”

“Yes, you did, and you can’t take it back. By the way, have you forgotten something?”

I fumbled in my suit and gave her the little package. She opened the plush lined jewelry box containing the antique ring: “It’s lovely. It’s what – Edwardian? See how the stone is set in those tiny gold claws. Thank you.”

We shared a dessert like conspirators. Thea’s eyes were glistening, and I felt a wave of desire the force of which I hadn’t experienced for a long time. We got the bill and asked Maxwell to get a taxi, quickly. At the house I rushed the baby sitter next door, giving her too many crisp bills – “No change, don’t worry”. When I got back Thea was slipping out of the dress. I took it from her, held it to my face, breathed in her perfume, and folded it gently on a chair. We made love with the passion of twenty year olds and the knowledge of forty year olds. Later we woke up and, surprising ourselves, did it again.

I opened my eyes to find the bed empty, but I could hear Thea and the children clattering breakfast dishes downstairs. There was no sign of the dress. I felt thick-mouthed and sour-hearted. I stepped into the shower and turned the water on hot, gradually adding cold until I was being drilled by icy needles, and my head began to clear.

The daily routine of breakfasts and tennis packing was under way, with Thea capably directing operations. It was drizzling outside, and the focus was on rain gear.

“Morning,” I said.

“Dad looks sick, Mum,” Zita said. Thea wouldn’t look at me, just kept being capable, although I could see she was pale.

“What time’s your first lecture, love?” No answer.

“Why’s Mum’s taking us to tennis today?” William said.

“Is she?”

I went upstairs and hung around the bedroom window. I watched Thea bundle the children into the car and drive away. I logged on to the big computer in my study at the back of the house and checked the electronic calendar we shared: 11am First year Philosophy Summer School – Ethics Lecture. I sighed a very big sigh, and looked at my watch: Just time to stroll down to the shop and buy a coffee and a croissant on the way.

Walking through our pretty cathedral town never failed to brighten me up. We lived in a three-storey house, parts of which were centuries old, a quarter of a mile from the cathedral and the knot of cobbled lanes surrounding it. My morning walking commute took me along ancient ivy-clad walls, and dinky half-timbered shops selling quills and parchment, rugged woolen yarns, Italian hiking shoes, antique maps, and all the bits and pieces of expensive frippery fancied by tourists visiting a town where Sir Edward someone or other was hanged during the English Revolution, and where any building worth its heritage contains a good many Roman bricks hauled from the nearby ruins before Chaucer was born.

Around the time of the magenta dress, however, my mood would droop by the time I turned the corner near the market square and caught view of Books by Birdswell.

It’s time I explained a bit about myself. First of all I suppose you could say that I was lucky. I grew up in the cathedral town in the house where I used to live with Thea and the children. There was an imposing brass plate on the front wall announcing our house’s name ‘The Windings’. The family joke was whether ‘Wind’ rhymed with ‘find’ or – the source of lots of flatulence humour – ‘sinned’.

My father was a doctor and so I grew up with quite normal expectations that I’d go to university and be another doctor or a dentist or a vet, and marry somebody like my mother, who never worked a day in her life. Things went only slightly to plan. I became a chemical engineer down in London and not a medical person. I met Thea in my mid-twenties, we married, and we settled down in a rented flat in Kilburn, saving for a deposit on a house – she tutoring in philosophy at one of the better ex-Polys, and me working in a lab designing the next generation of baby wipes. By the time the children arrived we were still in the same flat, wondering when we might ever scrape the last few thousand pounds together.

The change came in the form of a head on crash with an articulated lorry during a night of freezing sleet just near Reading, five years ago. By the time they’d cut my parents out of the Jaguar, both had expired and I was an orphan with an inheritance. Thea and I moved into The Windings. We converted the consulting rooms into a guest flat and still had acres of space for our small family. Thea got some casual work at the local university and I gave up baby wipes while I pondered what to do with the pile of cash and shares I now owned. Thus, Books by Birdswell, named for the little river that threads its way through our town, a shop with a steady tourist clientele, a nice agency arrangement with the cathedral gift shop, and a rock solid annual textbook contract with the university. And that’s where my luck began to run out; having bought BBB I soon learned that I didn’t have a clue how to run a business. The previous owner was incommunicado, no doubt laughing kitbags in a farmhouse in Tuscany, so I couldn’t ask him why the takings were thirty percent less than they were under his management. Then a couple of years later a London book chain unexpectedly signed up with the university and I lost the core of my business . Anyway, that’s enough history for now.

My part-time shop assistant was due in at eleven to help for a few hours with the lunchtime rush, such as it was, but I phoned her and said she wasn’t needed. There was silence at her end, and then she said, “I depend on this job. I can’t rely on it if you keep putting me off. I need to find something else.”

“I have to let you go,” I said, almost choking not on what I was doing, but on the trite phrase.

“That’s it then.”

“I suppose so.”

***

At midday Mr. Firth the verger came in carrying a suitcase and looking sheepish. I kept an eye on the midday ‘rush’ – a few loiterers getting a free read and soiling the book covers with their sandwichy fingers – and greeted him. I stared at the new shiny plastic badge on his lapel. Next to a discrete cross it said ‘M. Firth Business Development Office’. I knew why he was there.

“I’m so sorry Jack. The Dean had a management consultant go over the Cathedral’s finances, and they’ve recommended we go with another firm.” He discretely placed the suitcase by the counter. “No hurry to return the suitcase. All the remaining stock is in there.”

Which left me with Major Clive Handwell.

I unpacked the verger’s books, shelved them, sold a self-help book to a lunchtime loiterer (he’d left a greasy one on the shelf and paid for a clean one) and then sat down to have a good think about my retired Major.

The mood at dinner that night was dire. The children were silent and sullen, and willingly scooted to their rooms when they had gobbled their dessert. Thea and I filled the dishwasher in silence.

“How was your day?” I said at last.

“How was yours?”

“So so. The usual.”

“When I dropped William and Zita off at school this morning, the bursar asked me to come to his office.”

I fiddled with a tea towel. “The bursar? Oh, the silly old sod. Was that about the cheque for the fees? I thought I’d phoned him. I picked up an old cheque book for some account I don’t use any more and it bounced of course. I said I’d send him a replacement.”

Thea looked at me unsteadily: “Jack. What’s happened? Are we in trouble? It’s the shop, isn’t it?”

***

You learn to become invisible after a few months in prison. I fell in with a group of other misfits, among whom the common factor was that we were educated to a level that would be measured in the stratospheric in comparison with the rest of our fellows. The four of us ate together, exercised together and always tried to appear as no more than four smudges on the wall. My three friends were all in for shortish stretches for financial fraud of one variety or another. Me, well I was in a different league altogether; on remand for a start, with only the vaguest idea of my trial date. At least I wasn’t in the remand wing; you heard horrible stories from there – men trying to hang themselves, vicious fights with sharpened toothbrush handles. When I asked why I’d been put in with the sentenced prisoners they said, “because with a posh accent like that in the remand wing you’d get your brains bashed in, especially after what you’ve done”. We had ten university degrees among us – I say had, because one day my cellmate didn’t wake up, died of a brain aneurysm during the night, and we were down to seven degrees and three smudges and me wondering who I’d be sharing the open toilet with.

Here I am then, stuck for presumably quite a few years in prison in a forlorn field in the Midlands, miles from the pretty cathedral town where Thea and I broke the mold cast for us by family, school, university, and the law of the land. Here I am, forty, getting portly on jailhouse stodge, just starting an online bachelor of something or other that I don’t need except as an antidote to brain rot, and becoming even more vastly overqualified for my prison job as mopper of floors and duster of handrails.

###

 

You can buy An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity at Shakespir.


Cairo Rations

In 1973 I travelled to Egypt to study Arabic at Cairo University for six months as part of the BA in Modern Languages at the Polytechnic of Central London. War broke out shortly after I arrived, and I spent a far more eventful study abroad than the Poly had planned. This little book began as a memory jogger. I was planning a novel set in Cairo during the October 1973 war, but I struggled to recall the details. So during 2014 I wrote these nine essays, about one a month, publishing them on my website as they were completed. Friends and relatives seemed to like them. I prepared this book by putting the original essays in chronological order and tidying up loose ends. As I wrote the essays, the fog of four decades cleared. My research for the novel filled some of my memory gaps, especially the lead-up to the war. By the time I began writing the novel I was able to easily transport myself back to 1973 - or at least a version of 1973 cobbled together from memory traces, retellings of the stories, and published accounts of the period and its events. I’m delighted to say that the novel Cairo Mon Amour is now complete.

  • Author: Stuart Campbell
  • Published: 2016-06-13 08:20:08
  • Words: 13477
Cairo Rations Cairo Rations