This is an extract from my memoir Cairo Rations, which you can download free under a Creative Commons licence. I wrote the memoir as the launch pad for my novel in progress Cairo Mon Amour. The picture, by the way, is my 1973 Cairo University student card.
In hindsight there were portents in the week leading up to October 6 1973, the day that Egypt and its allies launched an attack on Sinai and the Golan Heights without warning.
People spoke anxiously about spies and secret police: “You can’t trust anyone. Be careful who you talk to.” English friends who went horse riding at Giza on October 5 galloped too close to a military area and just avoided being arrested, perhaps shot. A few days before that my wife and I were walking one evening past a disused museum when we were ordered into the gatehouse by a couple of Green Goons. These were the intelligence police recruited from university graduates, six inches taller than the black and white askari police who did the routine work of directing traffic and chasing street thieves. We sat in the gloom on hard chairs for half an hour while they studied our passports and asked us, Why are you in Egypt? Why do you want to study Arabic? Are you Jewish? We assumed when we were allowed to leave that they were simply bored, but perhaps they really were on the lookout for spies.
Consumer goods were scarce and, again with hindsight, the civilian population may have been hoarding in expectation of shortages. Some shops around the upmarket areas near Tahrir Square were selling one-offs – a bottle of perfume, a woman’s blouse, an ornament – that we were told were brought in by Egyptians flying home from Europe.
On the night of October 6 we went to Madame P’s guest house for dinner. The usual pattern of these visits was that we would arrive to find Madame P holding court in bed wrapped in a crocheted shawl and smoking a Craven A. Often there would be a friend in attendance – an elderly Armenian lady sharing with Madame P the woes of the world. The friend would be booted out in favour of binti and ibni – we’d been promoted to ‘daughter’ and ‘son’, and while the servants made dinner Madame P would regale us with an apparently infinite account of the family in diaspora. We would walk home trying to unpick the knots of Eddys, Dikrans, Roupens, Vartanouches, Sylvias and Serges in Paris, California and Beirut.
But the guest house was hushed and tense tonight. Those gentlemen residents who were at home stayed in their rooms. It was usual for casual diners to turn up during the meal – a mysterious old man in a beret who had been imprisoned in Nasser’s time and told my wife how he remembered her from when she was a child, frizz-haired woe-betiding distant aunties, a homeless cousin who lived with the families she sewed for. But nobody came tonight and we ate our lamb and aubergine alone at the big table with its checked oilcloth cover.
A notable absence was the army journalist. Because of his size, his hee-haw voice and his bonhomie, Mr. H was impossible to ignore. He was often at the big table drinking a bottle of Stella beer and eating cucumbers one after another – ‘like a donkey’, Madame P would whisper in the kitchen.
The evening grew gloomier. Now and again one of the gentlemen came out of his room, conferred with one of the other gentlemen in whispers, and then disappeared again. Then late in the evening as we were preparing to leave Mr. H arrived, except that he was now Major H in an army uniform. And he had in his hand a piece of grey painted wood from a packing crate with Hebrew letters stencilled on the side. It had come, he said, from the front. The gents came out of their rooms and gathered around Major H; the Arabic was fast, whispered, colloquial, and I couldn’t understand the detail. We retreated into Madame P’s room and probably all smoked a Craven A – my exact recollection is faint. But one of us said, “I think a war just started”.
My wife and I walked the few streets home from Bustan Saeed Street to our flat at 29 Muhammad Mahmoud Street. Farag the one-toothed doorkeeper said good evening. I don’t remember whether he called me ‘professor’, ‘captain’ or ‘head engineer’ – he never seemed sure which honorific to use.
The next morning I went out early into the hushed neighbourhood. There were knots of people on street corners listening as someone read the war news aloud from the newspaper. I bought a copy of Al Ahram and thanked providence that my Arabic was up to understanding most of the detail. On one page was a press picture of captured Israeli prisoners, which you can still find in the Al Ahram archives. Some of them looked like Frank Zappa.
Later that afternoon I returned from the university, whose gates were barred by a tank. Almost home, I heard a voice behind me calling gaasuus israa’eeli – Israeli spy. A small rock flew past my ear, and then a few more. A gang of boys was in pursuit, but I made the street corner ahead of them and dashed into our courtyard unseen.
When it was dark I scuttled through the back alleys as far as Tahrir Square, and then across the raised walkway to the Nile Hilton. There I had a haircut of the kind David Niven would have enjoyed in Monte Carlo in 1939. The sleek and deferential barber, with a pencil moustache that could have been measured in microns, used implements that I’d never seen in Watford; after cutting my hair with belt-driven clippers, he massaged my scalp with an electrical orange rubber vibrating pad; he rubbed in unguents and oils; and then he lit tapers to singe any single strand that dared to stand up from the shiny black dome of varnished hair he had moulded to my head.
I walked home looking like a ventriloquist’s dummy, ready to face my war.
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