Ch8 Pt4 Jugend Aliyah, the kibbutz, and the ATS.

Irena was transferred in 1939 to the newly founded settlement of Beit Ha’aravah – “The House in the Desert” — on the shores of the Dead Sea. The only other outpost of civilisation in this wilderness where the Bedouin roamed was the Potash Company premises. The sandy desert road from Jerusalem led past the Potash Company for two or three miles to the newly established kibbutz of Beit Ha’aravah. Here, in the hottest part of the Middle East, in a landscape of unbelievable aridity and unrelieved mournfulness, young men and young women were attempting to work valuable potash deposits and establish agriculture.

There were no longterm buildings at the kibbutz as there had been at Ashtoth Yakov. Here everybody lived in tents and permanent huts were a long way off, for each kibbutz was charged to become self-supporting in the quickest time possible. The interiors of the tents at Beit Ha’aravah were carefully looked after by the kibbutzniks and soon, with floorboards, home made cupboards, chests of drawers, all sorts of decorations, and partitions in the larger tents, they began to resemble real homes inside. To the outside eye they were nothing but huddles of canvass. 

Everything was done on a communal basis. The work was hard and mostly manual. There was little attention paid to the segregation of the sexes. Clean clothes were drawn from the communal laundry once a week. If they fitted, that was good. If they didn’t fit, one made do as best one could. The single object of the kibbutz at this time was survival. Night attacks by hostile Arabs were frequent. As little reliance could be placed on the Palestine Police, who would normally always have arrived too late to prevent a massacre, the “pioneers”, after a day of back-breaking toil, stood guard around their settlement. Irena took her turn on these guard duties, her rifle held tensely, her ears alert for the slightest sound, eyes strained for the tiniest movement. 

At first the kibbutz could not afford a watchtower and searchlight. Therefore exchanges with marauding Arabs often became a hit and miss explosion of rifles into the surrounding darkness. Despite the apparently disorganised nature of these encounters, the kibbutzniks sustained fatalities and casualties from wounds. This was the common pattern amongst kibbutzim all over Palestine at this time as rifles crackled at night and searchlights installed in the watchtowers quested around in the darkness for advancing Arabs.

Death at other times came unannounced, and with frightening suddenness. One day Irena was fishing in the River Jordan with a sixteen years old youth who was well known for his habit of whistling Strauss waltzes. They knew each other well, for they had escaped from Germany on the same refugee train. Suddenly a shot was fired from the bushes on the opposite bank and Irena’s companion fell dead. Terrified, she ran all the way back to the kibbutz, zigzagging in case the unseen assassin should draw a bead on her.

At night the closest guard of all was maintained around the crèche where the babies slept. For these Israeli-born “Sabras” were the country’s most valuable immigrants. Palestine – or preferably Israel – would be their country and their home. The ancient Hebrew speech, the language in which the Bible was written, would be their native tongue. Knowing nothing of anti-Semitism these young Jews – from the blue eyed blonds of northern Europe to the brown eyed olive skinned people of the Yemen – would face the world completely confident of themselves, unashamed of either their religion or their origin, bowing their heads to nobody.

On the outbreak of war in 1939, all the kibbutzim called for volunteers to join the army and fight against the Axis powers. The response was enthusiastic and many thousands of young men and women flocked to join the British forces. Irena was still too young to volunteer, and stayed at her kibbutz. However, towards the end of 1942 she could no longer put up with the long hours of labour, the continual denial of self, the lack of personal possessions extending even to the clothes which one wore and exchanged at the communal laundry every week. She had worked for no wages for over four years to advance agriculture in the Jewish homeland. Four years’ unpaid labour was enough! 

Here, in 1943, some months prior to her twenty first birthday, she volunteered for the British Army and became a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service — ATS for short. In her army paybook her nationality was noted as “Russian”, the reasoning being that if by some mischance Hitler won the war, or Rommel with his Afrika Korps panzer divisions swept through from Egypt to Palestine, any person in the British Army shown as a German national would immediately be shot for treason. With most of her family exterminated in concentration camps by the Nazis, there was no way Irena felt she was committing treason. Rather she was pleased to be of help in paying back in their own coin those responsible for the cold blooded murder of countless innocents whose only crime was that their ancestors had professed the wrong religion.

She signed up at Sarafand Cantonnement, where she underwent a short period of training. She was then sent to Egypt, where she worked in a munitions dump at Tura, an Arab village just outside Cairo. Subsequently she served briefly in Italy, then in Egypt and Palestine as an interpreter.

During the war she had learnt that her mother Berta had escaped to England and remarried, a London furrier. In 1945 Irena was allowed to take 28 days’ leave in England on compassionate grounds, for she had not seen her mother for eight years. Berta’s new husband pulled as many strings as he could when Irena arrived, and she was demobilised in London, once again on compassionate grounds.

I met Irena at her bed-sitter in North West London about a year after this happened. 

Ch7 Pt1 Cairo to Gaza-under the British Mandate.

                          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.

Ch6 Pt7 Cairo and Maadi 1946

In Cairo itself, I remember King Farouk’s Abdin Palace, white and modern, where that gross and licentious monarch used to entertain the women who were procured for him by his underlings. An Egyptian policeman once forbade a friend and me to walk along the pavement, which ran alongside the building. As we wandered innocently along, he came dashing up to us.

“George, hey, George, pliz,” he stammered, clearly embarrassed, in a guttural, broken English,  “No walk on that side, pliz”.

Apparently everyone had to give the Abdin Palace a wide berth of at least a hundred yards. It was a measure of the trust that Farouk placed in his subjects. I remember the pictures of him when he came to the throne in the late thirties, a slim, handsome youth. Now, only ten years later, he was already a fat, balding, debauched, middle-aged man. In 1952, nobody who knew anything about Egypt could have been surprised when the revolution deposed him and sent him into exile. But Farouk had stashed away a large fortune abroad, and did not want. Yet when I was there the fellahin still thought that the sun shone out of the royal backside. 

Farouk was possessed, however, of a certain intelligence and wit. He once said, with some prescience, that in a few years there would be only five kings left in the world, the King of England, the King of Diamonds, the King of Hearts, the King of Clubs and the King of Spades. In the cinemas, it was necessary to stand up at the end of each performance while a picture of King Farouk, bemedalled and fierce-moustached, was flashed upon the screen and a gramophone played the Egyptian National Anthem. It was obligatory to do this, but our soldiers, with their customary crude humour had composed an unprintable lyric to the tune of the national anthem, which was always sung sotto voce.

It began……….

                                    “King Farouk, King Farouk,

                                    Hang his (blank blank) on a hook………”

From all reports the nightly song of malediction had little effect on the erotic antics of the mighty Farouk.

How did the English soldiers manage for girl friends in Cairo? The answer is that they didn’t. The few English service women around were reserved for officers. I suppose you could hardly blame them. So the rough and licentious soldiery either had to make do by watching the belly dancers in the cabarets and getting some sort of a vicarious satisfaction, or by visiting the red light area in Seven Sisters Street. In the brothels placed one against the other, unkempt and unattractive women touted for custom in the crudest possible terms, and from all reports the risk of venereal disease was considerable. For myself, I lived a reasonably monastic life in Cairo, but the magic of the place made up for everything.

Sometimes I used to visit the large swimming pool at Heliopolis, really one of the finest pools I had ever come across, and one of the few worthwhile amenities for the rank and file troops. I loved to swim, and spent some very happy afternoons here. Afterwards, I would return to Cairo. (The journey was made by a perilously rapid tram, stopping in the suburbs at little raised platforms like railway stations). Often I used to go to one of the many cinemas in Cairo to enjoy French films. My favourite was the Odéon, in Emad-el-Din Street, where I made the acquaintance of that excellent actress Renée Saint-Cyr, and often admired the fine dramatic talents of Raimu, whose subsequent death robbed the screen and the world of a great artist.

As a rule I went to the half past nine evening performance at the Odéon. At the conclusion of the performance, just after eleven, I used to walk along Emad-el-Din Street. One then turned right and followed Fouad-el-Awal Street for a couple of hundred yards. Ragged fellahin rubbed shoulders with British soldiers and immaculate Egyptians of the “effendi” class, who were dressed in the smartest of European clothes, but still wore the fez. Electric signs winked brightly, advertisements in French, English and Arabic glaringly proclaimed the high quality of the goods of some fashion house or jeweller. Among the popular articles of “bijouterie” on sale at this time were solid gold ladies’ wrist watches at fifty pounds apiece. This would be a small fortune for a British working man, and a sum of money unattainable to an Egyptian peasant. Yet there was a ready sale for this jewellery amongst the Egyptian upper class.

I used to turn left from Fouad-el-Awal Street into Soliman Pasha Street, also brilliantly illuminated, and would then walk down to Midan Soliman Pasha, that great roundabout which always reminded me of Piccadilly Circus. From here I struck left, into a dark turning at the end of which several native bistros were open, rickety tables scattering the street before them, and dirty, galabieh-enveloped Arabs sitting at them, smoking hookahs and drinking coffee. In this street stood the British Embassy, but at the time I used to pass by, it was always in darkness. Natives were invariably sleeping on the pavement in this street, with long handled brooms standing against the wall behind them. These were the road sweepers, the scavengers, bedraggled, without a future. A few steps away, around the corner, in Soliman Pasha Street, and again in Fouad-el-Awal Street, they were selling gold watches at fifty pounds apiece. This shocking contrast between the very rich and the incredibly poor is impressed on my memory.

At the end of the street I turned right, and went past the offices of the famous Egyptian newspaper El Ahram – The Truth. Evidently such comic titles are not confined to the European world. Walking straight on, I shortly arrived at Bab-al-Luq station, whence I took the train to Maadi and my welcome wire bed and straw paillasses in camp.

Nobody who was in Cairo in my time will forget the pickpockets. Their technique was as follows: A couple of Arabs approach the victim. One of them thrusts a photograph in front of his eyes, pretending to want to sell it to him, while the other rapidly rifles his pockets. This went on quite openly in broad daylight. If the victim carried a fountain pen, it was stolen from him by the thief passing a piece of cartridge paper under the clip and removing it in a fraction of a second without the owner so much as suspecting that anything was amiss.

Although accosted frequently by pickpockets, I lost nothing, keeping my hand always on my wallet, and taking care to let nothing show outside my pockets. However the quartermaster, an old sweat who should have known better, was not so lucky. Returning one night by train, he dozed off. A thief extracted his wallet, removed twenty pounds there from, stuffed the wallet with pieces of newspaper, and returned it to the owner’s pocket. The quartermaster did not discover his loss until the following day when, producing his wallet to pay for a purchase, he extracted there from not money, but a bunch of newspaper cuttings.

Part of Cairo was out of bounds to us, so of course, some friends and I had to pay it a visit. We had several beers in the “Taverne Francaise”, an excellent bistro near the Odéon, where a talented guitarist played during the evenings. Thus fortified we set off and reached the forbidden quarter. We ate prawns – and suffered for days afterwards with diarrhoea – in a dirty little dive where a dark skinned, part Arab girl sang in a high, quavering voice, and asked for baksheesh after each rendition. A minor incident took place when a Polish soldier accused an Arab of trying to pick the pocket of one of our fellows, but the matter passed over and the alleged “klefti wallad” scuttled away. We washed the dust from our throats with another beer, and finally left the place with razor blades, combs, pieces of elastic and other odds and ends sold to us by an itinerant vendor. We strolled along the pavement beneath a long balcony supported by thick, shadowy pillars, then entered a restaurant whose proprietor, a Greek, spoke excellent

English and French and, it seemed, perfect Arabic. Later on, when we got to chatting, he switched to German, at which he was also fluent. Indeed, he claimed to have resided in Germany for several years. He also professed to speak Italian, and while I could not try him out, as I did not understand this language, I was prepared to believe him. If one knows one Romance language, it is not too difficult to learn another. He was evidently an intelligent and able man, and I wondered how it came about that he found himself in Cairo, the proprietor of a dirty little eating house. We left after promising to try his eggs and fried chips, which he assured us, were very good.

Shortly afterwards we ran into a couple of red-capped military police, who demanded to know what we were doing in an out-of-bounds quarter. We had actually come to have a look at the notorious Seven Sisters Street, but we told them that we had got accidently lost. They were very young fellows, and we were all non-coms and each one of us was wearing campaign ribbons. We began to shoot the bull a bit, and to my surprise the redcaps weakened and finally let us go, having instructed us how to get back to more respectable parts. We all felt very cock-a-hoop about having pulled the wool over the eyes of the “Gestapo”, and walked towards Bab-al-Luq railway station rejoicing.

I shall not quickly forget the “Cinés Jardin” of Cairo. It is extremely hot in summer in Cairo, and hardly ever rains. Hence the popularity at that time of the “Garden Cinemas”. One sits in a wickerwork chair in the open and enjoys the performance while the stars twinkle overhead in the clear, purple sky. Everything is very clean, invariably there is a bar behind the auditorium where one can obtain lemonade, beer or cigarettes, and during the interval the enclosure is illuminated by lamps hidden in the walls, within alcoves, or behind ferns. A warm breeze provides natural air conditioning, and usually the Garden Cinema is far enough away from the main street or sufficiently hemmed in by walls for the audience to be protected from the noise of traffic.

This was something to be taken into account, for never in my life had I lived in a city where the trams screeched so much or where motorists sounded their horns so much as in Cairo. Away from all bother, lounging like an effendi in a basket chair in a Garden Cinema, watching a French film, smoking a cigarette, gazing at the stars and letting my thoughts wander, I spent some of my happiest evenings.

Of course, such modern developments as drive-in cinemas were unknown in those days. Thus the Garden Cinema was something quite new and completely adapted to the Egyptian climate and way of life.

The palatial dance halls – a feature at that time of English town life – did not exist in Cairo. For the military there was the Naafi Empire Club where, at the risk of being injured in the crush, and provided you could find a partner, you could wriggle about for an evening in a very restricted area. There was also the YMCA where one could shake a wicked leg every Tuesday. And at the Alamein Club, on the other side of the Nile, (reached by crossing a great white, well illuminated bridge which reminded me of Waterloo Bridge across the Thames, except that it was longer), dancing went on twice weekly by starlight.

These facilities were not enough for thousands of lonely soldiers. So for those who found themselves crowded out, which was the majority, there were the cabarets. These cabarets were simply dives where beer and other beverages were sold, and where young Arab girls came to sit on the knees of the soldiers who were almost the only customers. There was always an orchestra, a small wooden square which masqueraded as a dance floor, and galabieh-clad Egyptian or Sudanese waiters running busily hither and thither. Some cabarets were filthy and the hostesses – the notices plastered on the walls referred to them as “artistes” – were most unappetising. Yet I saw no evidence of prostitution, and when I made enquiries was told that it was forbidden, otherwise the clubs would be placed “out of bounds” to military personnel and would go broke overnight.

On the other hand, cabarets existed where the girls dressed in elegant evening gowns, where discreetly lit tables were covered with clean, white cloths, and one could enjoy an excellent meal, with a quiet glass of beer afterwards, while listening to a reasonably good orchestra.

Yet nothing comes free in this world. And whether they were looking beautiful in charmingly cut evening gowns or shocking with uncombed hair and dirty faces, the cabaret girls all demanded the same thing for sitting at a customer’s table. This was that he buy them glass after glass of coloured water at an inflated price. The hostesses earned their commission thus, and the proprietor made a very handsome profit.

At about half past ten the dancing finished and a “spectacle” took place. In the better class cabaret there was usually a juggler, perhaps a conjurer, possibly acrobats. But in all cabarets the spectacle ended with the same climax. A voluptuous, very scantily clad young lady would perform what the French call “la danse du ventre”, which we translate literally as “belly dance”. The orchestra would play a barbarous tune, slowly reaching a wild crescendo, with the audience clapping faster and faster in time with the gyrations of the dancer. Let me say that to be a good belly dancer requires a high degree of practice and skill, and that in my view any man must applaud skill, and any man who does not appreciate the sight of a beautiful woman must have something wrong with him. Thus, we all enjoyed the belly dancers of Cairo.

Before leaving these few memories of Egypt and Cairo, I must mention very quickly Shepheard’s Hotel. Shepheard’s was famous in the “belle époque” of British colonialism because all the upper crust used to stay there. Years afterwards it was set on fire, and whether it was ever reinstated I do not know, nor do I particularly care. But when I was in Cairo, I passed Shepheard’s Hotel many times. Of course, I never went inside, for Shepheard’s Hotel was reserved exclusively for commissioned officers. If you had a civilian suit and plenty of arrogance, you might get past the suspicious porters. But which ranker in those days of shortages, high prices, low wages, and clothes rationing ever had a spare civilian suit to carry around? So we private soldiers were excluded from the ranks of the “gentlemen”, and I only ever saw “Shepheard’s” from the outside. At the front of the hotel there was an elevated terrace, open to the warm breeze, and covered with tables, so that the diners and partakers of apéritifs could look down upon the passing hoi polloi. Behind the terrace the famous hotel reared up like a monument. By a coincidence it looked out to the insalubrious quarter which was “out of bounds” to us during our stay in Cairo. For all its pretensions, “Shepheard’s” still could not divorce itself entirely from the common herd of humanity.

English class distinction, raised to the status of a religious shibboleth in the army, annoyed me more than anything else. The situation at Shepheard’s Hotel was repeated at the “Maadi Club”, in the suburbs where our camp stood. The Maadi Club admitted only officers to its precincts, and the hob nailed boots of the private soldiers whose privilege it is to do the dirty work, fight wars, and die for their betters, never crossed the sacred threshold. An exception, however, was made on Saturdays for a short period, when private soldiers might use the Club’s swimming pool. Few cared to avail themselves of such condescending generosity, and certainly not I. In any case, we later succeeded in getting a swimming pool of our own opened. I am sure that our lowly physiques would never have stood up to the spiritually refined atmosphere of the Maadi Club; and that after breathing its rarefied air for a few moments, we should have choked.

A personal crisis now supervened for me, which was largely responsible for my leaving Egypt.

My former girl friend, who had become engaged to a merchant seaman just before we had jumped over Arnhem, had subsequently broken her engagement. When I returned to England after the conclusion of the war with Germany, we picked up our old association. However, she had joined ENSA, the body responsible for organising stage shows for the troops, and she was slated to go to Ceylon. She wrote a letter from Ceylon to me in Egypt telling me that she had plighted her troth to a novelette-writer cum scriptwriter. I only ever saw one of his scripts on an American TV programme many years later, and it was lousy. But that is by the way. I was upset to receive her letter, but this was the second time she had given me my congé. It became clear even to my obtuse mind that I was not the man for her. I also began to suspect that she might never have been the girl for me.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the matter, it was a situation which I had no alternative but to accept. At Maadi they were trying to make me an instructor in radio sets, Morse code and signals procedure. I had but a few months to go in the army, and in my present unsettled state, the last thing I felt like doing was absorbing details of unfamiliar wireless sets, then regurgitating them to open-mouthed students.

I decided to see the Colonel and ask him to send me to join the Sixth Airborne Division in what was then known as Palestine, under the British Mandate. Today, of course, it is the modern Republic of Israel. The Colonel agreed, but reduced me to the ranks. I packed my kit one afternoon and climbed into an army truck.

In a cloud of dust the little white villas of Maadi disappeared behind me forever. Then we proceeded to burn up the black macadamised road that runs alongside the Nile to Cairo. There I had to catch a train to Gaza, beyond the Sinai desert, in British Mandated Palestine.

Ch6 Pt5 Pyramids and Ramses 11.

It is curious how quickly time passes. During my four months on the outskirts of Cairo, I succeeded in visiting only two spots of real interest. The chief reason for this was, of course, the fact that more often than not I was broke. I drew only a pound a week. And that doesn’t take one very far in a place where things were as expensive for Europeans as we found them in Cairo. The other reason was “the exigencies of the service”. In the army overseas you cannot always leave camp when you want. Also, when the political situation is a bit dicey, you cannot always go where you want. Other places are always “out of bounds” to private soldiers, their rarefied atmosphere being reserved exclusively for commissioned officers.  

However, we decided one day to visit the Pyramids and travelled into Cairo. In Fouad Street, we waited for the necessary tram. An Arab tout came along and told us that the bridge over the Nile had fallen down and we would therefore do better to take a taxi, which he would procure for us. We chose to treat this statement as a slight exaggeration, and sure enough, in a few minutes our tram came swaying towards us. It was full to overflowing with Arabs clinging to its sides like obstinate flies. Somehow or other we managed to find ourselves places on the running board, and the vehicle set off again at a hair-raising pace, screeching and swaying to such an extent that I was really afraid that it would turn turtle. We crossed the wide expanse of the Nile, spanned by a magnificent modern bridge. When the city was illuminated at night, the breathtaking sweep of the river at this point reminded me of the curve of the Thames between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars, where I had visited so often as a boy. On the other side of the Nile we continued to the outskirts of Cairo, and changed trams. In this new transport, we succeeded in finding ourselves places on the wooden seats, and it was then a swaying, hilarious journey through the gimcrack, jerry-built outer suburbs. We careered down a hill at full tilt, roared underneath a huge modern cement bridge, then climbed a slope and flew straight as an arrow to the tram terminus. Here we got out, rather white-faced and with small globules of sweat pearling our foreheads.

On the left, Khufu’s Great Pyramid of Giza reared itself into the sky. We approached it by a curving road, passing a restaurant, which looked as if it was falling to pieces and from which a radio blared forth most inappropriately the latest American jive number to hit the record charts. Then we found ourselves at the foot of this fantastic Pyramid, of which each stone was at least half the height of a man. We abandoned our original intention of climbing the Pyramid – it would have been a considerable task, and would have had time for nothing else. Instead we clambered up a few stones and entered the interior. 

We followed a curving passage, scaled a narrow wooden staircase, and gazed with wonder at the immense slope constructed of huge blocks of stone by which the sarcophagus had been raised into the heart of the Pyramid. We came at last to the large, empty “King’s Chamber” where the mortal remains of King Khufu or Cheops had once rested. On the walls were typically Egyptian representations of the various activities of the king and hieroglyphic writing describing his activities and triumphs. We then descended to the somewhat smaller “Queen’s Chamber”. The heat was considerable inside the pyramid, and the enormous blocks of stone on all sides, much larger than those outside, took on a menacing aspect. Supposing it all collapsed? We should be squashed like mud crabs under the heel of a giant.

This Great Pyramid, the largest of all the pyramids was truly an amazing construction. The height of the pyramid was 481 feet, and the base covered an area of 13 acres. It is said that if it were possible to put St. Peter’s Church in Rome inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops, it would occupy only half the ground area. There is apparently a core of local stone within the Pyramid which it is not possible to see, but it has been estimated that the core of local stone and the original outer facing of limestone, (this latter facing now long since gone), were composed of 2,300,000 separate blocks weighing from 2½ to 15 tons each. In the face of such statistics, and having been inside this carefully built edifice which stands up to any test of modern engineering principles, the mind boggles. These tombs were built between approximately 2900 and 2750 B.C. The methods of construction must have been without the benefit of machinery such as we use today. The labour, toil, cruelty and heartbreak involved in building these monuments almost defy imagination.

From the “Queen’s Chamber” we followed a winding, sandy tunnel, and suddenly found ourselves standing in the open air, blinking in the sunlight. It was good to leave behind that tremendously impressive but claustrophobic interior. We jumped from stone to stone until we reached the flat desert sand. We circled the pyramid, marvelling at the fact that almost all of those more than two million stones, all of them large, some positively huge, had had to be cut and brought here from many miles away. A hundred thousand slaves, our guide had told us, had worked for twenty years to raise this edifice, this folly, this wonder of the world. Like a subliminal picture flashed on a screen, I saw in a split second my eight months of misery as a forced labourer in Germany, and compared that with the incredibly harsh life of a slave in Ancient Egypt working for twenty years in much harsher conditions to build this mausoleum for a Pharaoh’s corpse.

To our right another pyramid lifted itself against the blue, cloudless sky. Then it was a succession of pyramids, extending into the yellow, burning desert.

We followed the sandy path separating the two pyramids in our immediate vicinity. These huge monuments towering beside us were pitiful tokens of man’s endless search for some sort of immortality. Yet the suffering of the unwilling builders remains. Perhaps the pyramids are monuments not so much to those mighty Pharaohs of old, as to their workmen, without whose labour these wonders of the world would never have existed.

Eventually, on our left, in a sandy hollow, we sighted the Great Sphinx. The view of the back was disappointing – a mass of badly carved stone. And we saw as we came nearer that the paws had been restored with large and inappropriate bricks. But as we looked at the face of the Sphinx we understood why it had become famous.

For the blind eyes, the strong nose – strong despite the erosion of centuries and the vandalism of Napoleon’s troops nearly a hundred and fifty years before – and the thick lips, curved in an enigmatic, disdainful, merciless smile, expressed a supreme pride and an utter cruelty. The ghosts of a far-off race, at once civilised and savage, defied the passage of time, and still haunted the dry, yellow desert. One sensed a presence hostile to every being who came to profane these sacred places.

We gazed for the last time at the face of the Sphinx, then retraced our steps, reached the highway, and walked silently down to the tram stop. The coaches jerked into motion. Suddenly, the spell that had been cast over us was broken. Native vendors climbed in en route with baskets of oranges and peanuts. We sang boisterously, to the considerable amusement of our Egyptian fellow-passengers, who had no difficulty in understanding certain gestures and onomatopoeic sounds that accompanied our rather ribald repertoire. Even the child beggars, who climbed aboard, displaying their defects and amputations for baksheesh, could not dampen our spirits. Thus it was a gay, pitching, swaying journey into Cairo, illuminated now with neon signs, and very beautiful in the twilight.

A few days before my departure from Cairo, I decided, finding myself in the YMCA canteen in Soliman Pasha Street with two pounds in my pocket and time on my hands, to undertake an excursion. This was a tour to Memphis, capital of Ancient Egypt, and to Saqqara, which had once served the town as a cemetery. I allowed myself to be relieved of forty five precious piastres, and the following Sunday morning, when the tour was to take place, presented myself at the canteen.

When all the party was assembled, we were ushered through the back door into an alley, where we piled into waiting taxis. In ours there were eight people. Two passengers were squashed in the front seat with the driver. (This was a dirty, unshaven, cross-eyed man with a small circular woollen cap on his head). There were two more people on the folding seats behind him, and three others crushed into the bench seat at the back. However, nobody minded. We were looking forward to an interesting trip to Memphis and Saqqara. The director of the trip was a stout, smiling Arab, who spoke English extremely well, and always had a joke on his lips. He was the prototype, in fact, of a whole generation of post-war tourist guides whom we were to know when the world had recovered from the ravages of war, and we all entered better times. Our guide was dressed in a blue, excellently tailored galabieh, which set him aside from others. He went to considerable length to explain to us with obvious pride that this was the “national dress”. He was employed by the YMCA, and warned us not to give any tips – he would pay for everything. This was a real turn-up for the books, and we received the news with delight.

On leaving, we crossed the Nile, and passed the Zoological Gardens. Incidentally, the latter were so clean that one was driven to wonder whether the government cared more about the welfare of the caged animals than that of the beggars who swarmed the streets. We followed dusty tracks alongside sluggish canals, passed irrigation wheels whose design had not changed in five thousand years. We also made several stops for inspection by Egyptian police in white trousers and jackets, with white topees crowning their dark heads.                       

The track became more primitive. We lurched through dusty, dirty villages where Arab shops, devoid of windows, opened directly and blindly upon narrow streets. At every yard we were bounced and jostled as the car wheels slithered over potholes. In these villages, I thought, a European would not walk alone at night. 

We came to Memphis, which consisted of a few clumps of palm trees on the edge of the desert. Five thousand years ago, Memphis was the greatest city in Egypt, and the Pharaohs ruled from here. Now it is nothing, an insignificant village twenty miles up the River Nile from Cairo. As the taxis discharged their occupants, we were at once surrounded by Arabs, who either tried to sell us photographs or pieces of ancient “money” covered in verdegris and “guaranteed genuine.” Failing that, they simply held out their hands for baksheesh.

First we were shown an immense statue of the king Rameses II lying horizontally on the ground because the legs had been broken. After passing this enormous statue, carved from a single block of stone, our guide led us to a small alabaster sphinx, with the King’s head, the ceremonial false beard, and a lion’s body to represent the strength and power of the king. The sphinx had been discovered lying on its side in the Nile, where it must have remained for many years, even centuries, for the flowing waters had completely spoilt the side against which they had washed. A few goats were grazing on the poor, dry grass in the hollow around the impassive sphinx.

Then we were led to a few stones from which time had erased every inscription. They were all that was left of a great temple that had stood here centuries ago. All the other remains had been stolen by Arabs to build houses, for stones were scarce in this vicinity and had to be brought from several miles away.

The mighty king, Rameses II, back in Egypt after a military campaign to extend the boundaries of his empire, and on his way to Luxor, had had two statues made of himself, each one of which weighed eighty tons and stood upright four thousand odd years ago at the entrance to the temple. Thus spoke our Arab guide, standing legs astride, arms akimbo, his cane held lightly in a brown hand. The blue galabieh which enveloped his stout body moved in the wind, outlining his legs and belly. The tassle dangled from the red fez perched on his closely cropped head. But we listened entranced to his guttural voice speaking an obviously alien language, for he was recreating for us the time when people on this very spot, went about their business in an historic and famous city under the rule of a mighty king of civilised, barbaric Ancient Egypt. We stood on a spot where ghosts of the past were present.

The second statue of the king was lying beneath the protection of a roof of corrugated iron. The legs of this statue were also broken off, but it was the better example of the two. We clambered on to a small platform erected around it, the better to examine the carving. As on all these statues, everything had been simplified. There had been no attempt to show every muscle on the torso or the limbs. Yet the impression given was one of great strength, life and immediacy. The face was so carefully modelled that it seemed to have an almost photographic exactness. What tremendous labour to carve such a statue from a single block of stone. And what tremendous labour to move it down the Nile on rafts and then transfer it across land to Memphis.

Ch6 Pt4 Maadi seen through Jim’s letter.

                          After three weeks at Heliopolis, Mack the Glaswegian and I were sent to a camp some way outside Maadi, a little European suburb on the other side of Cairo. The following is the text of a letter I sent to a friend just after our transfer to Maadi:

Dear George,

                          Casting an eye through the little notebook which is my record of letters received and sent, I suddenly realise that for more than a fortnight I haven’t sent you any news of Cairo, city of clean, well-dressed ‘effendim’, whom one would take for Londoners but for their darker complexions, and of filthily clad ‘fellahin’. City of shining, luxurious motor cars, and of screeching, wooden seated trams, crammed with those same clean-as-can-be gentlemen, and with tattered Arabs who shave once a week, wash once a quarter, and change their clothes once a year.

                          Since there is no actual news to send you, the idea occurs to me to describe to you the journey from our camp to Cairo. Our camp is a sandy area dotted with wooden huts. Above us is a vaulted roof of blue sky scattered with white, furry clouds. Where the corrugated iron roofs of our barrack huts touch the wooden walls, one finds nests of chirruping birds. The chatter of these feathered friends awakes us in the morning, and with it is intermingled the quavering, oriental chant of a sunburned young man as he goes happily about his daily chores intoning an Arab love song. This young man is a seeker after baksheesh by the name of Abdul, who comes every day to sweep up the floor.       

                          Let’s imagine that we are leaving the camp. Before reaching the guardroom, you see on the right a long, stone building. This is the dining hall, and outside sits an Arab selling tiny specimens of fruit whose high quality he advertises by yelling continuously and at the top of his voice: “Gigantic bananas!” Near him there is a young lad who sells newspapers, and who, if you give him a note to change, always gives you back the wrong money. But nobody ever gets angry. You have only to ask him for the missing ‘ackers’ and he will produce them for you with a friendly smile.  

                          “We carry straight on past the dining hall, and arrive at the guard room. This is an imposing building, even though it consists of only one storey. The brick wall is brilliantly whitewashed, and at the door stands the soldier on duty who, at first sight, also seems to be brilliantly whitewashed. However closer inspection restores the reality, and you observe that the illusion is caused by the whiteness of the guard’s webbing, revolver holster and gaiters, which have been blancoed assiduously to a glaring snowball hue.

                          The guard room is the epitome of British army bullshit which, as has so often been observed, will frequently baffle brains. And so it turns out. For completely unknown to the Colonel-in-Charge and the other big brass who think they run the show, Arab workers in the camp are very much impressed by the efficiency of the guard room personnel who lift the boom gate to allow them to come to work each day.     

So much so that they make presents to the guard for lifting the gate. These may be by way of free passes to the picture show, extra sugar for the tea, a gift of a hand of gigantic bananas, or even the introduction on special occasions of an attractive young Egyptian lady into this all-male preserve.

                          How wonderful it is to give baksheesh, for it benefits him who gives, as much as it benefits him who receives.

                          The guard raises the wooden beam, painted black and white and gleaming in the sunlight. We stroll under the barrier with a nonchalant acknowledgement. Then we are free – free of the camp, on our way to Cairo, and provided we keep out of the way of the redcapped military police, (locally known as ‘The Gestapo’), to all intents and purposes free for a few glorious hours of the army.

                          We walk along a dusty road, cross a railway track, and find ourselves in the village of Maadi. Somebody told me when we first came here that the syllable ‘aa’ of this word was identical in sound to the braying of an ass. I heard one such animal in good voice in Cairo the other afternoon, and the sound is indeed exactly the same. When he and I were discussing this small point, a teacher of languages remarked that Arabic was a tongue of animals – of camels and of donkeys. The French population write – and say –  ‘Méadi’, which is nearer to the correct pronunciation than the English loosely drawled ‘Mahdi’.

                          Maadi is made up of very clean villas, and its inhabitants are split up more or less equally into English, French and Egyptians. The spick and span villas remind one of the houses that fairly wealthy people in any European country are likely to possess. But one feels an inexplicable difference. Perhaps it is the fact that nearly all the roofs are flat, or that the houses are generally of white cement. Perhaps, again, it is that they nearly all have wooden shutters, French fashion. The dazzlingly bright sun gives them an indefinably different appearance, like the black and white pictures – a little too black and a little too white for reality – that one sees on the cinema screen.

                          After about half a mile, the straight road reaches the railway station, a cement platform covered with sand. Arabs abound, several of them competing to clean the shoes of whomever approaches, asking three or four piastres at first, but lowering their prices even to half a piastre in their haste to do trade before the train arrives. Mixed in this strange crowd, several Europeans in civilian dress stand elegantly.

                          At the ticket office, one must always buy a first class ticket from the clerk who is dressed in a khaki drill uniform and a red fez. The carriage next to the engine is first class; its seats are leather covered. The other three coaches have wooden seats, and the characters travelling therein can hardly be called clean. Mostly they are a poor, ragged, filthy, pitiable lot.

                          It’s a cosmopolitan crowd that the train pulls towards Cairo. You see bare-footed natives wearing the long robe – generally white – known as the ‘galabieh,’ and the red fez, or sometimes a small circular cap, upon their heads. A few wear down-at-heel shoes. Even those Egyptians who dress European fashion and seem to have copied our every garment still wear their country’s fez. It is the fez which is victorious here, the only garment, so to speak, which holds out against the advance of the occident. I have seen a few Europeans with trilby hats, many with light straw hats, but the bowler, heaven be praised, is conspicuous by its complete absence.

                          The poorer native women, that is, the womenfolk of the fellahin, always go bare foot, and are swathed in a kind of black all-enveloping robe. Generally they are veiled to the eyes, but despite this, one can as a rule gain an impression of their faces. Notwithstanding the privacy imposed by their mode of dress, it is not uncommon to see one of these women sit down on a public bench and pull out a breast to feed her young child, in full view of anyone who may be passing. The apparent inconsistency is no doubt due to our residual Anglo-Saxon prudery.

                          The wives and daughters of the richer Europeanised Egyptians dress as we do, and very often in the height of western fashion. Are they attractive? They most certainly are, may Allah forgive me, and when I observe them from afar, I often feel the hot blood of youth boil madly in my veins. Yes, the human race is indeed one: a maid is always a maid, wherever one finds her, and quite evidently a man is always a man.

                          The train creaks into movement and leaves Maadi. We rattle across yellow, sun-beaten desert. Often a band of green, cultivated fields follows the railway track on either side. A warm breeze enters through the open windows; the train whistle sounds joyfully and almost continuously. Voices discuss in Arabic, French, English, Greek, Italian – even in Polish, for we have many Polish soldiers stationed in the neighbourhood of Cairo. One hears every possible language. A fuzzy-haired Melanesian from the outermost Pacific island group would not feel out of place in Cairo’s cosmopolitan atmosphere.

                          We begin to pass tumbledown hovels which are almost visibly collapsing and crumbling away, but which shelter innumerable Arab families. Then we come to the modern little railway station of Bab-el-Luq, which is the terminus of this line. We leave the train and give our ticket to the blue-uniformed official who stands at the exit gate, and whose fez, perched jauntily on his head, leaves the tassle to dangle and dance above shining black eyes. We decline to buy from an Arab lad a paper-backed copy of “Snappy Stories”, the cover of which is embellished by the picture of a nearly naked lady with a wickedly seductive smile. We descend a few steps, and we are in the street. The sun drenches the pavement in warmth and golden light. Dark-skinned urchins run hither and thither. The drivers of ultra modern American taxis seek us as fares. Coachmen from horse-drawn gharries call to us. ‘Hey, Jock! Effendi! Take you to the YMCA? Very cheap!’

                          We carry on straight along this street of native stalls and shops. To the left is an Arab bistro with people inside drinking at dirty tables and smoking hookahs they have rented. On the wall, behind the counter, are hung several more of these ‘hubbly bubbly’ pipes for the delectation of anyone who cares to pay a piastre or two. This bistro has always attracted my attention, for the proprietor’s radio, perched above one corner of the counter, ceaselessly screams out Arab songs, sung by a sobbing, whining voice, which breaks off at the oddest moments, apparently in mid-phrase, and rises above the chatter and shouting of the crowd.                                                    

                          At the end of this street one finds the tramway and the tall buildings of modern Cairo. Near here also is a dark alley where I was accosted the other evening by half a dozen pickpockets, who seemed to appear from nowhere. There was something of a running fight, but I managed to reach a well-lit boulevard before things became desperate and without losing any money.”

Jim

Ch6 Pt3 Egypt 1946 first impressions.

The next morning, those of us who can keep any food down are queuing along the upper deck, waiting our turn to descend to the mess deck for breakfast.  Here we learn that one of our three engines is useless, and that one of the screws has broken during the pitching and tossing of the night.

After breakfast I go up on deck again and see to the starboard a mountainous island rearing itself from the sea, an island encircled by cloud, gloomy and menacing. Corsica! The island of Prosper Mérimée and of Guy de Maupassant who wrote such bloodthirsty tales about Corsican vendettas; the home of that military and administrative genius and scourge of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte; and of that “other Corsican”, the singer Tino Rossi. No doubt Corsica is a beautiful island, but today, looming and misty, it has an air of menace.

Towards midday the sea began to get extremely rough again, and become more or less calm only at twilight on the third day, when we were sailing between the green, hilly coast of Italy and the island of Sicily. Here, in nineteen forty-three, the allies had successfully completed the invasion of Sicily from North Africa. Then they and the Germans gazed at each other from opposite sides of the narrow Straits of Messina, poised ready to spring at each other’s throats.

Some members of the ship’s crew told us that this was the roughest crossing of the “Med” they had ever known, and we could quite believe them. Nevertheless, we had periods of relative calm. At these times, it was good to promenade the deck and look at the immense expanse of sea, really blue now, whose billowing, white-crowned waves leapt and pranced as far as the eye could reach. Sometimes, when the sun shone and the skies were swept clear of clouds, it was most pleasant to lean on the handrail and look at the turbulent, foaming water cut and flung aside without mercy by the bow of our ship. I shall always remember one night when I had climbed on deck to get a breath of fresh air. It was pitch black. The sea and the sky were fused together in one single mass of darkness. Only the beat of water against the iron body of the ship could be heard. A few squares of light, escaping from the cabin windows illuminated, from time to time, foaming whirlpools, or white, threatening waves. Then, from the other end of the deck, men began to sing. Others joined in. And suddenly it was a wonderful blend of deep, melodious, all-male voices, and of the hissing passage of beaten, foaming sea. Everything was in rhythm. The soft wind carried away my cares, and nothing mattered in the world except the beauty of that moment.

At about ten o’clock in the evening of the sixth day, we saw to starboard twinkling points of light. Over there lies the coast of Egypt, and we are approaching Port Said. The acolytes of the engine room have had their work cut out on this voyage. They have worked frenziedly, but rumour has it that despite their efforts two of our three engines have failed, and we have sprung leaks in three places. Certainly we are visibly lower in the water, but all’s well that ends well. In half an hour we are at Port Said, the motors stop, and we drift with the calm, black waters shimmering and sucking at the sides of our ship. Opposite, on shore, are myriad lamps throwing a wan light on deserted streets. They illuminate monstrous cranes and send a thousand reflections jumping and glittering across the rippling water.

Sirens sound. Busy little bum-boats approach us. I see for the first time an Egyptian wrapped in a garment like an outsize white nightshirt, which I later learn is called a galabieh, with a red fez on his head. But the illusion of a dignified, mysterious oriental world is shattered when an Arab vendor, who has failed to sell a soldier a leather handbag, gives vent to his disappointment in very colloquial Anglo-Saxon English, making me believe that his command of ‘four-letter words’ is possibly equal to my own. Ah, well, it just goes to prove that English really is the true international language.

Although it is night, the wind on my cheeks from the neighbouring desert is warm. When are we to disembark? Nobody knows. In the British army you get used to waiting for somebody else to make decisions for you. However, this is my first journey outside Europe. I’m in no hurry, and it is pleasant to watch the Arab vendors who have gained access to the deck, and a conjuror who gives a ten-minute floor show for suitable remuneration and produces small day-old chicks from the most unlikely places.

Eventually we disembark at two o’clock in the morning. Our large valises are strapped to our backs; our small valises are on our hips. For portability we wear our thick great coats under our webbing. We hump our heavily laden kit bags on our shoulders. Sweating and cursing we cut across the quay, file between shadowy bales stacked one on top of the other, and scramble aboard an Egyptian train waiting in a siding.

During this time a few very young soldiers, who haven’t kept up with our group, lose themselves after leaving the “Empire Battleaxe”, get tangled up with a completely different group of soldiers who are leaving Egypt, and finish up in another ship. This sails triumphantly into the wide blue yonder carrying our friends back to dear old Blighty! We hear nothing of them until several weeks later. Having sailed the length of the Mediterranean three times, they finally finish up at our camp in Egypt, where they should have arrived the first time. That’s par for the course with the British army – everything in a state of absolute and continuous chaos! God only knows what the pay clerks costed their wages to!

Fortunately my own small party reached its allotted railway carriage with no difficulty. I fell asleep on a wooden bench in the long, grey coach in which I found myself after having unhooked my corset of webbing and let everything fall to the floor.

When I awoke, dawn had broken, we were rattling along at a fine speed, and it was surprisingly cold for a tropical country. It was February and still mid winter. Through the windows we could see the yellow, undulating desert. But there were wide lengths of greenery close to the railway, and tall, soaring palm trees dotted the adjoining landscape. Often we passed tumbledown, seemingly half-completed dwellings, on whose roofs were untidy piles of straw, apparently placed as protection against the heat of the sun.

At this hour Arabs were leaving their hovels like animals quitting their caves. Men enveloped in white, burnous-like galabiehs and muffled to the eyes because of the cold, travelled astride small, trotting donkeys. Each was followed by his wife – on foot! – swaddled in a black shawl and generally veiled. Sometimes, the donkey was replaced by a slow, ugly, incessantly nodding camel. One could not fail to notice the abject poverty of these “fellahin”, and this never ceased to appall us during the whole of our stay in Egypt. There seemed to be the very poor and the very rich, with only a small and insignificant middle class.

Towards ten o’clock in the morning it got very hot. Off came greatcoats, and tunics were unbuttoned. The country became bare, dry and uninviting. The trains stopped at several stations, and hordes of vendors descended on us. The technique was for them to approach us slyly and to show suddenly a glittering ring, which they would immediately hide again in a dirty palm. How much? – Two pounds, effendi. A real bargain, oombashi. After the usual haggling, of course, these prices would descend spectacularly to something in the region of five piastres – a shilling.       

Then sellers of oranges, (stolen from roadside groves), would do their best to make a quick turn at our expense. Or banana sellers would clamber aboard, and there was a temptation, for bananas had not been available in England for years. Unfortunately or otherwise we had received no Egyptian money as yet, and very few of our lads had any English or French money left. One thing that surprised us was the fluency with which these dirty, apparently uneducated natives spoke English. Doubtless their range was narrow, but within that range their fluency was perfect. They had, of course, learnt the language by ear, and their grammar was more often than not at fault, but here was a demonstration if I ever saw one of the necessity for linguistic back-up in foreign language teaching, and of the poverty of book teaching if that linguistic back-up is omitted.

At about one o’clock in the afternoon, the train pulled into a siding and we got out. We clambered into lorries, passed through the outskirts of Cairo, and arrived at a reception camp on the edge of the suburb of Heliopolis. The Greek name was well given, for the sun beat down from a cloudless sky and glared back from the white walls of the stone buildings. The lorries stopped, vomited men with their heavy kit and clattering hob-nailed boots, then moved off as each soldier set about finding an empty space in the sea of white tents which covered a plain of sand.

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/maps/africa/zoomify136595.html

[Above is an interactive map from The British Library Online, showing an array of allied sites in Cairo in 1946, and where the troops may or may not go.]

We stayed at this camp for three weeks. There was little to do except scrub one’s packs and webbing with sand and water until they were white. An Arab would be only too pleased to perform this enervating task for a couple of piastres. We used to spend the evenings on the canteen terrace, drinking tea from glasses made from beer bottles, chatting and writing letters.

At this time the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty governing the British occupation was up for rediscussion. There was much talk about this in the newspapers. The better class of Egyptian – the effendim – did not seem particularly anglophobe. No doubt they realised which side their bread was buttered and understood the vast amounts of British currency keeping the economy afloat. But a few louts from among the fellahin used to wait for us in the guise of boot blacks at the entrance to the camp. Thus, whenever we were going into Heliopolis or Cairo we had to run the gauntlet of these fellows, who would approach us pretending to want to clean our shoes. These were always dirty after we had trudged across the sand to the gates. To accept, however, meant that one’s trousers would be smothered in boot polish. We were officially forbidden to resist these people, however much they pestered us, thus cracking a few heads with some sticks and putting an end to the matter was out of the question. However, we used to go out in groups, and if a bunch of Arabs became threatening, there were always a few large stones around which we could pick up and look as if we were prepared to use – as indeed we were. Thus a number of ugly incidents, which blew up from time to time, always seemed to peter out. 

The native shops and stalls, the bistros with their tables scattered across the pavement at which Arabs – some dressed in galabiehs, some European fashion, but most wearing the ubiquitous fez – sat drinking coffee and often smoking hookahs, had a great interest for us. This was unfortunately marred by the hostility we encountered during our first days in Egypt.                                               

Another pastime of the Arabs in the vicinity was to organise raids on the camp. At night, they would cut the barbed wire which marked the perimeter, quietly enter the tents, and steal whatever they could lay their hands on. A rifle was worth twenty Egyptian pounds, a small fortune for a fellah, which was one of the reasons why the arms of all British forces in the Middle East were kept in locked armouries when their owners did not need them.