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.