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 Pt6 Saqqara, Apis, and the Step pyramid.

We could not idle at Memphis for very long. Five minutes to take snaps, said our guide. The circle of fellahin, which he had hitherto kept at a respectful distance by spitting out occasional venomous injunctions in Arabic, now closed about us. Packets of snapshots? Ten piastres each. Do you want this piece of old money? Very valuable. I will sell it to you for five piastres. Baksheesh, effendi?

“Yallah! Ana muskid, enta arif? Ana mafish feloos.” Fluent Arabic in their ears, no doubt, but the limit of our vocabulary in that language. The translation? – Buzz off. I’m a poor man, understand? I have no money.” It makes no difference to our fellahin friends. They press around us until we finally take refuge in the waiting taxis.

We were going to Saqqara, a mile or two distant. It was the “boneyard” of Memphis, our guide informed us, and it took a while for me to grasp the fact that he meant “cemetery”. Evidently the United States troops who had found their way to Cairo during the war had been giving our dragoman lessons in American English. Our heavily laden taxis shot off in a cloud of dust, quickly reached the desert, and began to climb a short, steep slope at the top of which was a crudely printed notice nailed to a pole read: “Step Pyramid”.

We pulled up outside a barrack-like hut, built seemingly without any previously formulated design, and now in the process of falling apart. Only the fortuitous juxtaposition of its beams and stones kept it upright. This unlikely residence had sheltered Mariette Pasha against the sandy winds of the desert and against the heat of the Egyptian sun. This illustrious Frenchman, in the middle of the nineteen century, had discovered many tombs in the neighbourhood, and had taken away much baksheesh at the end of his sojourn. Our guide gave as much emphasis to Mariette Pasha as he did to the ruins themselves. He was obviously proud of the fact that in those days the Egyptians gave baksheesh away instead of asking for it.

A great pyramid dominated Mariette Pasha’s house, (now, oh shameful degradation, a sort of canteen where one purchased ginger beer and lemon pop!) This was the “Step Pyramid”, the sides not having a regular slope like the newer edifices at Giza, but being built up step-fashion. It is built up in six steps, or stages, unequal in height. The total height is 204 feet, with the base measuring 411 feet by 358 feet. According to our guide this Step Pyramid dates from 3000 B.C. and is the oldest pyramid in Egypt. It is completely solid – not with passages running through it like the others – for the Egyptians had not yet perfected the art of pyramid building, and the burial chamber had been excavated under the monument. Unfortunately it had been declared dangerous, and visitors were forbidden to enter it.

We turned towards the desert, and followed our guide between the dunes of sand. Through the shimmering heat haze which rose from the yellow, burning desert, the Pyramids of Giza extended in the distance in a long, straight line. It was very hot. I was sweating freely. My rough khaki shirt became soaked with perspiration and I regretted not having put on shorts.        

Where were we going? Our guide had omitted to tell us. A few of our number gave way to importunate Arabs who were following us with little donkeys, and paid several piastres to straddle these animals. No sooner had they done so, however, than we came upon a huge underground tomb, from which the sand has been cleared away on one side, enabling a ramp to be driven downwards. These excavations were the work of our guide’s hero, Mariette Pasha, and led to the tomb of Ti, a builder and powerful statesman in the time of Rameses II.           

We entered the tomb, bending ourselves double in order to pass through a low passage, and came into the room where Ti had found his last resting place. The walls were covered with drawings and carvings of ancient Egyptian life. These were done in the standard manner, the head always being shown in profile, with no attempt made to give the illusion of perspective. In one panel, slaves – men and women – were working at their everyday tasks for their master Ti. On another, they were bringing offerings to him, to his wife and to his son. On the wall, a door had been represented – a false door – in order that Ti’s spirit might leave the chamber when it desired. And in a small neighbouring room the people who had buried Ti had placed a statuette of their lord for every day of the year, wherein his spirit could abide whenever it wanted. At the time of our visit, only one of these effigies was left, the others having been removed to museums.

Near Ti’s chamber were the chambers of his wife and son, whose walls – it was not possible to go inside them – were also covered with drawings representing work and sacrifices, and with rows of hieroglyphic writing. There was also the representation of a false door, allowing the spirit to leave and re-enter at will.

We ascended the cement slope leading to the open, and soon the dazzling sand was again under our feet. The dragoman strode along in front, his blue galabieh swelling like a wind-filled sail, and we followed him obediently.

Shortly we came upon another concrete path leading, like the entrance to the tomb of Ti, into the bowels of the earth. This was the tomb of the sacred bulls of Memphis, and at the bottom of the slope we waited for a while until our eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness, and an Arab, who acted as watchman, had lit several oil lamps. All these tombs had been electrically lit before the war, the guide explained. Even the pyramids were wired for it. However, war in the desert and the close proximity of Rommel’s troops had brought an end to it, and although peace had come, the current had not yet been restored.

Lifting our oil lamp above our heads, we see that we are in a great, high passage. In fact, with so little illumination, it is not possible to distinguish the roof. The ground beneath our feet is sandy, and we shuffle along in almost total silence. The walls of this tunnel are pitted at intervals with huge recesses, each one of which contains an immense granite sarcophagus. Each sarcophagus once held the mummified carcass of an Apis bull, which in a bygone age the inhabitants of Memphis had worshipped. A small golden statue of the dead animal into which its spirit could retire was also placed in the sarcophagus.

The sides of the sarcophagi were covered in hieroglyphics praising the fine qualities of the defunct sacred bulls, and there was also in each case a representation of a door so that the spirit could leave and re-enter at will. The ancient Egyptians worshipped only one bull at a time, its sarcophagus being prepared for it during the duration of its life, which lasted on an average, about twenty five years. If the bull died before its sarcophagus was appropriately inscribed, the inscription nevertheless ceased, and its coffin took its place unfinished with the others already in the tomb. Thus, the tunnel and its cavities were not constructed all at once, but piecemeal, as and when needed. It is calculated that the ancient Egyptians took five hundred years to dig this tomb out of the solid rock, lengthening it a little to accommodate each sacred bull as it died. One stands amazed at the enormous trouble taken to bury an animal. Yet even today human beings pay special allegiance to certain animals. One thinks of the American eagle, the British lion, the Russian bear, the Australian emu and kangaroo, and the goat – the mascot of a crack English Guards regiment and given the honorary rank of corporal. The more it changes, the more it is the same thing, and we are not really so far removed from the citizens of Memphis, those mysterious people who lived more than four millennia before Christ.

Then, of course, one asks oneself what link there is between this virile race and the tattered inhabitants of modern day Egypt. What part did our guide’s ancestors play in building these fantastic tombs? These questions can only be pure speculation. Some encyclopaedias show mummies and pictures suggesting a people with almost European features. We shall never really know.

At the end of the main tunnel there was a short opening big enough to admit a man’s body which robbers had made in their search for fresh booty. But they had been out of luck, for the tunnel ends here. It is a tunnel which, after five hundred years of toil, finishes nowhere. Like the rest of us, these people had been playing with pebbles on the beach while waiting for eternity.

We retrace our steps, and at the entrance our guide stopped us to explain one more point.  

“The slope which leads to the surface was constructed by Mariette Pasha,” he explains. “But this is not the real entrance. The original entrance to this tomb was a huge hole made up there, high above us in the roof, where the floor of the desert lies. So the questions is, how did the ancient Egyptians get those huge tremendously heavy granite coffins all the way down here to this underground catacomb? They did it by completely filling up this part of the tunnel with sand – right to the very top. They then manhandled the sarcophagus from the desert above on to the sand, which filled up the hole, after which they commenced to shovel the sand out. When the sarcophagus had at length descended to the tunnel floor, where we are standing, they put wooden rollers under it and pushed it away to its niche”.

We return to Mariette Pasha’s house, drink a bottle of fizzy lemonade, known in these parts as “gazoosa”, and pack ourselves once more into our taxis. Then the bouncing, dusty journey back to Cairo begins. On the way we pass Arab men and women working patiently by the sides of irrigation canals, which bring water to the desert. The trees which grow alongside these canals are heavy with red blossoms and give shade to the people who scratch a living from this sandy soil where fields of corn grew before the desert was unleashed, and where once the kings of ancient Egypt reigned.

Despite the squalor of the poor, benighted fellahin, pleasure predominates when I think back on my stay in Egypt. I had always wanted to travel abroad, and this was my first protracted stay in a foreign country. It was also the end of an era of British colonialism, which made it doubly interesting.

The day was coming when I should have to leave Egypt. Therefore I tried in the diary I kept at the time to pass things in review.  I recorded a general impression of the fabulous city of Cairo and the way things were with me – a young and impressionable fellow coming to the end of a protracted stint of enforced military service. 

I always liked Maadi, that pretty, mostly European settlement on the banks of the Nile, just outside Cairo. The streets of Maadi were planted with trees whose branches were laden with red, sweetly smelling blossoms. One day, when I return, I shall identify the species. Today, I can no longer remember clearly exactly how they looked. But Maadi always seemed to be bathed in sunlight. The people of Maadi were upper middle class, conscious of their intellectual and social superiority, and therefore had little to do with the rough soldiery to whom we belonged. For a few weeks I used to visit a school teacher called Phillippa……..and her other name escapes me…….who was also entertaining a captain from the “Signals” camp. Needless to say, we never visited Phil on the same night. There was nothing between us. Phil was merely being kind to an English soldier who was far away from home. She was approaching forty, unmarried, although not unattractive, and had adopted a daughter, who was away somewhere at college.

I was grateful to Phil for her kindness, but there was always a constraint between us. She had a certain arrogant self-assurance that I inwardly resented. It was possibly because, coming from the east end of London as I did, and being conditioned to the English class system, I suffered from a fairly large inferiority complex. I knew some French people in Maadi, before whom, pleasant as they were, I felt the same constraints.

The fellah and the effendi………

As I grew older I would develop my own secret intellectual arrogance for those who thought that they knew everything, although in reality they had never left school. And the real wisdom, of course, is the realisation that it all behoves any man to look down on another, for we are all mortal, and during our short stay on earth we all have something to contribute to the Common Weal.

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