My third novel Cairo Mon Amour (publication July 2016) is set in Egypt in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. I travelled to Egypt with my wife a few weeks before the war started on October 6. I was to study at Cairo University, and my wife was to enjoy a reunion with her Armenian grandmother. We had expectations of the Romantic Orient; these hopes were soon dashed.
I have written about our first days in Egypt in my memoir Cairo Rations!, and I have included the relevant section at the foot of this post. If you would like to have a free copy of the entire 11,000-word memoir, email me at stuartcampbellauthorATgmailDOTcom (replace the AT and DOT with @ and . so that I know you are human) and I will send you a copy and add you to my email news list.
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EXTRACT FROM CAIRO RATIONS!
THE ORIENTALIST STRIPPED BARE
The address we had been given was written in English: ‘Bustan Said’, and that was it. This piece of information had been passed along a chain of relatives from Egypt to Australia to Britain by letter and telephone, and via several languages and alphabets.
On our first night in Egypt we booked into the Hotel Cecil in Alexandria, where Somerset Maugham had stayed and the British Secret Service used to rent a permanent suite. Our mission was to travel to Cairo the next morning to find my wife’s relative’s boarding house. I spent the evening combing the telephone directory for anyone with Madame P’s surname and calling them up. “No, not here. Who’s that?”, “Who, who? Not here!” It didn’t help that the phone book was in Arabic and that Madame P’s Armenian name could have been spelt in at least six ways. But this was 1973: People didn’t expect to locate some exact spot on the surface of the earth in microseconds; people were used to being stood up, missing each other at planned meetings; people were used to unanswered phones. We went to bed without misgivings.
The train took us through the Delta to Cairo the next day, and I fought for and won a taxi at Ramses Station, asking the driver to take us to Bustan Said Street. I tried pronouncing ‘Said‘ in several ways – the four bald English letters gave about half the information needed to guess the Arabic word – and the driver lurched fatalistically into the traffic, no doubt praying that the mysterious location would magically appear before his rheumy eyes. It didn’t of course, although we did crawl up and down Bustan Street many times, craning to see past the bogged traffic and the sticky fingers of the child beggars on the car window, in case we saw a huge illuminated sign for Pension P. Nothing. “Take us to a hotel,” I said, and he drove for miles, eventually stopping outside an unmarked establishment in an empty street blighted with dusty urban poverty. We refused a squalid room upstairs with six frowzy beds, and resumed our journey. This time I said to the driver, “Take us to funduq urubbii“, ‘a European hotel’. I still cringe at the memory of the clumsy request. We were delivered to the posh Borg Hotel, where our room had just one bed.
My only experience of the Arab World had been our honeymoon in Tangier, a memory naturally tinted with romance, or more specifically The Romance of the Orient. Our taxi trip had left me with the impression that most of Cairo looked like a rubbish dump, but waking up in a decent hotel with a view of the Nile restored my hope that the Orient was out there to be found. Even better, the front desk staff knew exactly which street Pension P was in – Bustan El-Saeedi Street, right opposite the Filfila Restaurant. With the missing syllables restored to Madame P’s address, we checked out of the Borg and took another cab. And here we were, outside an Italianate apartment building in chaotic Bab El-Luq with all the prescribed features of The Orient around us: Men in nightshirts and turbans, donkeys, street stalls, thronging crowds, beggars, hullabaloo. We took the shuddering birdcage lift to the fourth floor and were admitted to a large vestibule with a dining table and a dozen or so chairs, and seven or eight doors leading to bedrooms around the sides. A couple of professional gents sat us down and politely explained that Madame P was out shopping. They sent out for fuul medammes and boiled eggs while we waited. The gents were two of Madame P’s boarders. Some weeks later, one of them – an army journalist – gave me a signed copy of a book he had written in praise of President Sadat. He inscribed it in Arabic, To the English friend and guest of Egypt the orientalist Professor Stuart Campbell I give this book.
Now might be a good point to take stock of how things stood with the Orient in 1973, at least among the people that I mixed with. Despite its glee at the dismantling of the colonial order, nouveau intellectual youth culture in the UK had inherited the cultural blueprint of the East drawn up by former generations: The Orient of the Beatles and the bandwagon Indian mystics was sensual, passive, spiritual, dismissive of material concerns. This hippy formulation wasn’t much different from that of T.E. Lawrence’s views of the Arabs he led at the fall of Damascus in 1918. As for me, I spent the first two years of my degree luxuriating in the works of old-time Orientalists like William Lane, Richard Burton and Gertrude Bell. The task, I believed, was for the West and the East to reach mutual understanding, mutual respect, world peace and all that. The bit that I missed was that we, the colonialists, had written the rules and the East didn’t have a say. Five years later the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said launched his seminal book Orientalism, changing for ever the rules of intellectual engagement in the study of cultures. After Edward Said nobody wanted to be called an orientalist.
Let’s return to the dining room at Madame P’s. We had finished the fuul and eggs, and there was still no sign of the lady. The professional gents sent for a young man, a university student, who must have lived in the building, and he was told to take us around the neighbourhood to look for Madame P. We went from shop to shop while the student practised his English on us. I was expecting him to be interested and flattered (I cringe deeply again) that a British student had gone to the trouble of studying his language and his culture. Instead he questioned me brusquely about why I was in Egypt, eventually becoming quite sarcastic and tossing in terms like ‘imperialist’ and ‘invader’. We didn’t find Madame P, but by the time we returned to the Pension she was there, and the sour student slipped away. There were hugs and kisses, and my wife, her relative and an ex-orientalist settled down to catch up on family history.