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 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.