At the “Brew-Up Canteen”, opposite the arching entrance of Cairo’s Central Station, I nibbled my last biscuit and drank my last cup of tea in Farouk’s exotic city. I crossed the big courtyard, avoiding motor cars and horse drawn cabs, then mounted the two or three steps leading to the station, my sleeping-bag and blankets in a large roll on my back, an over-stuffed kit-bag and large pack dragging behind me, a rifle slung over my shoulder. The din from the platform struck me like a wave. Everyone was in a hurry. Newspaper vendors in galabiehs and small circular woollen hats dashed hither and thither with guttural cries of “Egyptian Mail!” – “Bourse! Bourse!” Here I saw my last braided Egyptian military big bug. These fellows were done up like field marshals, although their true rank would probably have been much less exalted. I extricated myself for the last time from the clutches of tattered beggars who wished to move my kit a few yards, even a few inches, for a grossly inflated tip. And I had my last close-up glimpse of an Egyptian native woman, with her black eyes so shockingly daubed with make-up. (In later years this became a fashion in the western world and finally seemed no longer strange). I got into the train, noting with relief that it was reserved exclusively for the use of troops. So much the better. There would be less chance of losing one’s rifle or other kit through thieves. I sat down on a wooden seat, the train groaned into motion, and then we began to leave behind the palaces and the hovels of Cairo.
At the first stop, I bought my last bottle of the inevitable fizzy lemonade from the inevitable dirty vendor. Made drowsy by the hum of the wheels, I watched Egypt abandon me. The palm trees, the cultivated patches of ground, sparsely covered with verdure, the irrigation canals with their muddy water, the dry desert – all passed quickly by. I was in the shadow, and the breeze from the open window struck my face. A ray of sunlight hit the floor at my side.
I had time to think of the future. I had enjoyed my stay in Egypt. I had even made enquiries about working there, and had found the difficulties insurmountable for one of my limited qualifications. Yet perhaps this did not matter after all. Egypt was not the country for me to spend my life in. This exploitation of the poor by the rich could not last. It was based on rotten principles. I must find a new country to settle down where a man is as good as his master, where there is no class distinction and no colour bar. Where shall I find this place? I do not know. Only one thing is certain. Years of pen-pushing at the County Hall in London will never satisfy me. One day I shall marry – for life without a woman to turn to is finally only half a life. But I must find some skill to earn a decent living, for I can never again put up with the poverty known by my parents and grandparents. And then I must leave England and plant my children in a new land. Because I have weighed English society, observed it, lived with it, and I have found it wanting. It may well be that England has rejected my people in the past. But I have now finally and forever rejected England.
But these are things for the future. I have gained experience in Egypt, and I have enjoyed my stay. It is a credit entry in the ledger of life.
I dreamt thus as the train left Egypt and the sun went to bed behind the sandy horizon. Some hours after nightfall we steamed into a siding and left the train to have a snack in a huge, badly illuminated barrack where food had been prepared for us. This was El Kantara, our last stop in Egypt. Here you either got rid of your Egyptian piastres – “ackers” to the soldier – in the perpetually open Naafi, or changed them into Palestinian “mils”. A “mil” being a one thousandth part of a Palestinian pound is worth therefore about a farthing English. Back in the train again, I sat on the floor, rested my head on a wooden seat, and drifted off into an uncomfortable slumber.
I awoke with every limb stiff. My eyes were sticky with sleep, my face was greasy and dirty, and my head ached abominably. Outside I heard someone shout a name. Was it “Gaza”? That was my destination, our first halt after Kantara, and we were supposed to arrive there at five o’clock in the morning. It was already half past four, and I had no wish to miss my stop and finish up at Haifa, on the Mediterranean coast near the Lebanese border – I had too much kit to lug about. I asked one or two soldiers who weren’t stretched out sleeping if they knew where we were, but they had no idea. I opened the carriage door and climbed down onto the shingley railway track. There were several sidings near to us, and I could distinguish a whitish hut just opposite which might have been some sort of a stationmaster’s office. Evidently we were in a station of some sort, but where? Was it Gaza, that lonely spot where rumour had it that the British Government was going to install all those troops whom it would shortly find itself obliged to evacuate from Egypt? At the head of the train I could see a crowd of men standing in the glare from the headlights of two motor cars. What was going on? Some days ago terrorists had blown up the railway line between Cairo and Gaza. Could this be something similar? I began to make my way through the darkness in the direction of the light, but suddenly the brilliance of an electric torch exploded in my face, and I put up my hands to protect my eyes. A voice demanded: “Who are you?” The light was lowered, and I could distinguish the white straps and the red-covered cap of a man of the Corps of Military Police. Beneath his arm he held a small machine gun.
“I’m going to Gaza. What’s happening over there?”
“Nothing. Get back into your carriage.”
“How far is it from here to Gaza?”
“An hour’s journey.”
“Are we going to stay here long?”
“I don’t know.”
He had planted himself in front of me. I turned my back on him and regained my carriage. The bloody Gestapo again! No wonder these military police are the outcasts of the British army. Their only object in life is to bully their comrades and put them on charges. It’s a pig’s job, and it takes a certain type of piggish mentality to carry it out.
On my very first leave in the army, I had run up against the military police, and thereafter kept as much out of their way as possible. I had left my parents’ flat without my pay book or my pass, for I was still very much a greenhorn. Naturally, a military policeman stopped me and asked me for my papers, which I was unable to produce. However, I told him that I had left them at home, just two steps away, and if he would come with me, I would produce them. He refused to do this, and took me to the local police station, where he put through a call to Scotland Yard, (apparently their military headquarters), telling them he was bringing me in. A military police sergeant then appeared. I explained the position to him, and eventually prevailed upon him and his understrapper to accompany me to my home so that we could end this silly business. This was done, and I produced my pass to their satisfaction. However, since a phone call had been placed to Scotland Yard they told me that they would now have to deliver my body there so that the whole matter could be tied up in red tape and filed away. So we got into their vehicle and I finished up at Scotland Yard, where I was finally turned loose.
I could have lost half a day’s precious leave through this, but the last laugh was against the military police because I had intended to go into the west end anyhow. In my eyes, they had merely finished up giving me a free lift. Nevertheless, this little encounter reinforced my previous opinion that there were two major qualifications necessary to be a military policeman. First of all you had to have a natural, inbuilt inclination to be a rotten bastard. Secondly, it was mandatory to have a fair amount of bone and not too much brain between the ears.
Turning these matters over moodily in my mind, I sat down once again on the floor of my carriage, rested my head on the hard wooden seat, and eventually fell asleep.
It might have been an hour and a half later when I awoke. Around me haggard wrecks which one recognised with difficulty as being human beings were picking themselves off the floor. Never mind. Somewhere “our boys” had mothers who loved them and wives who thought they were handsome! Our train still had not moved, and I staggered towards the door, teetered on the threshold, and descended to the track. It was extremely cold. To think that yesterday I had been in Egypt, where all the nights seemed to be warm. The crowd I had noticed the night before was still gathered at the front of the train, and I strolled in its direction.
Officers and military policemen were searching the kit of a number of Jewish soldiers – big, tough looking men with words on their shoulder flashes in the unintelligible Hebrew tongue. But the search was almost finished, and they were packing up.
I walked idly back to my carriage. About me wagons still rested silently in their sidings. Dawn was just breaking. The sky was half grey, half blue, and there was as yet no trace of the sun. Fields extended on either side, gloomy and indistinct. Not a sign of movement attracted the eye. Nothing was happening. The land was dead. Yet this country of Palestine was torn by internecine strife between Jew and Arab. We English were there because we had a duty to maintain some semblance of order in the land under mandate to us from the old League of Nations; but also because, when we had left Egypt, we should need some territory as a military base to protect our lines of communication with the Orient, and our Middle East oil against the menace of foreign powers, principally Russia. Naturally, we received in the process kicks in the backside from both Jews and Arabs. From the Jews, because we wouldn’t allow a rush of immigrants to enter the territory. From the Arabs, because we wouldn’t make our measures more restrictive than they were against the Jews. Never again will I believe – if I ever really have — the old propaganda from my schooldays, that wherever he goes ‘everybody loves an Englishman’. In my experience, the exact reverse is often the case, and sometimes it is the Englishman’s fault.
During my stay in Palestine, I noticed a marked hostility to the Jews in all ranks in the British army. I even felt it within myself, but in the interests of fairness, tried to suppress it. I was familiar and friendly with Jewish English people from my childhood days, but had never thought to try and see the world through Jewish eyes. In Palestine I now began consciously to try to do this.
2 thoughts on “Ch7 Pt1 Cairo to Gaza-under the British Mandate.”
Jim is growing in self-awareness. “I have gained experience in Egypt, and I have enjoyed my stay. It is a credit entry in the ledger of life.” Yet he is still plagued by his lack of formal education, aware “of my limited qualifications”. He takes us back to chapter 1, remembering his family as coal miners and ‘east-enders’. It is symbolic that he is travelling on the old train, between two worlds, whilst considering his future. Focused on education: “I must find some skill to earn a decent living, for I can never again put up with the poverty known by my parents and grandparents.”
Same class system, different country, but still with English influence. Jim’s observations are already forming a plan for the future he doesn’t want again to live in a country where there is separation of people by class, finances or education. He’s seen the worst of man in the POW camp. His stubborn, rebellious streak that helped him survive is also rebelling against any form of further restriction of his freedom – like the “gestapo military police”. Jim’s life is gaining direction, and with more social adventures in lands afar, he is learning tolerance and understanding in the school of life. He is changing.