War makes an irresistible setting for fiction, as the never-ending flood of WWII novels and movies shows. Gulf War thrillers are almost a genre in their own right.
The Yom Kippur War has its novels – Herman Wouk and Tom Clancy both weave stories around it. But I wanted to do something different – my novel set during the Yom Kippur War Cairo Mon Amour, is set in Egypt – not Israel.
I felt especially well qualified to write this book: I was a student at Cairo University when the war broke out in October 1973, and I had a ringside seat – or sometimes a seat under the kitchen table when the air-raid sirens went off.
If you can’t remember the main points about this particular conflict, Egypt invaded Sinai to reclaim land lost to Israel in 1967, and Syria attacked the Golan Heights. The conequences of the war included the 1978 Camp David Accords and the final withdrawal of Israel from Sinai in 1982.
What compelled me to write this book was the extraordinary lengths that Egypt went to in concealing the date of the attack. How did President Sadat keep preparations for a massive ground and air attack secret? And how could I spin a story of espionage and romance around this?
Details have emerged in memoirs and works of research: Hospital wards in Cairo were emptied under the pretext of epidemics in anticipation of floods of wounded troops; a military sports carnival was scheduled for the day of the attack; false stories were planted about the attack date. When I did my research, I found so many events that I could dramatise: The sudden evacuation of Soviet families just days before the outbreak of war; the last ship to leave Alexandria, crowded with Americans desperate to get away.
I also wanted to write a very human story, so I created a handful of flawed characters who all have a personal stake in finding out – or concealing – the date when the attack will be launched. We have a Cairo private eye of mixed Armenian and Coptic background; his childhood sweetheart who is now a notorious actress; a Soviet diplomat with divided loyalties; and two British spies who happen to be former lovers.
I made a decision to stick closely to the historical record: The chapters in the first part of the book follow exactly the days just before and after the start of the war. When the Soviet diplomat Zlotnik, drunk in his flat, hears the rumble of the huge Soviet aircraft flying in armaments, it is real; I heard them on that very night myself.
And I tried to capture the day-to-day atmosphere in the streets of Cairo, when, as a British student taking Arabic courses at Cairo University, I found myself in the midst of a populace that swung between elation at the first flush of victory, and distress as the wounded began to stagger home.
An earlier version of the blog article appeared under the title ‘The Middle East conflict that inspired Cairo Mon Amour’.
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There’s a default assumption that big war movies are based on fact. Think of A Bridge Too Far, Das Boot, or more recently Dunkirk. And there’s room for tolerance when the movie is clearly fictional, whether it’s Apocalypse Now with its literary boots in Heart of Darkness or the big-boy romp Inglourious Basterds.
When I wrote my third novel Cairo Mon Amour, I was meticulous about making sure the historical setting of the Yom Kippur War was accurately portrayed. That’s what writers do, isn’t it?
So what has this do with the 1961 movie The Guns of Navarone? I happened to be staying with friends in Rhodes a few years ago. They live at Navarone Bay at Lindos, and I was looking forward to seeing the location of a movie that had thrilled me when I was thirteen.
In case you missed it, The Guns of Navarone is a WWII thriller in which a bunch of Allied tough guys led by Gregory Peck are thrown together in a crack team to blow up a huge German gun emplacement. Our man Peck plays a famous retired mountaineer who will climb up and knock out the guns, which are concealed deep inside a high cliff overlooking Navarone Bay.
“So where were the guns?” I asked my old friend, pointing at the cliffs.
“There weren’t any. It was made up.”
“Made up?” I was stunned. The Guns of Navarone was one of the best films I’d ever seen. It has been part of my personal film canon (no pun intended) for decades. It had never occured to me that the story wasn’t true.
“Yep. In the novel. Alistair MacLean made it up.”
My friend had a DVD of the movie. It wasn’t as I remembered it at the age of thirteen. The characterisations seemed two-dimensional, and the production values were amateurish by today’s standards; the shipwreck scene had the look of a bathtub mock-up. We watched it half way through. “Maybe we’ll finish it tomorrow.”
Before I began writing Cairo Mon Amour, I wrote a memoir of my time in Egypt in 1973, when Cairo Mon Amour is set. Here’s an extract:
We found a flat in Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which led from Tahrir Square to the old market at Bab El-Luq. The charmless street was lined with metal shuttered shops, repair workshops and cafés. The little residential compound at No. 29 was reached through an arch leading into a small courtyard that gave access to three or four flats. Ours overlooked a tiny garden of palms and cactuses coated with a hundred years of grey dust.
A toothless concierge – our bawwaab – lived in a cupboard under an external staircase, where he cooked on a primus stove in the midst of his blankets. There was a fraternity of these bawwaabeen in the neighbourhood, and our man Farag had half a dozen of them over on Fridays to be shaved in the courtyard by a visiting barber. Our interactions with Farag were brief and functional, not the least because I had difficulty understanding rural speech spoken through gums. We settled into a daily routine of checking the mail once I had figured out that the concierge word for ‘letter’ wasn’t the standard term risaalah but gawaab, meaning ‘reply’. Most days he’d greet me with ma feesh gawaab – ‘no reply’. I often wondered what this usage implied; did it characterise the recipient as the party repeatedly begging some favour? Were people like Farag so insignificant that nobody would write to them except to refuse a request? Was Farag perhaps awaiting a legacy, heir to some Egyptian version of Jarndyce and Jarndyce?
I recently learned that our old locale is now notorious for the battle of Muhammad Mahmoud in November 2011, when tear-gassed protesters had their eyes shot out by riot police snipers.
But in 1973 it was a homely but unprepossessing neighbourhood where most basic needs could be satisfied within a few minutes’ walk. I took my shirts to the makwagi, the open-air ironing shop where the black hand irons were heated on a brazier, and the ironing man filled his mouth with water and sprayed the garments through his lips. At the open-air cinema, you could buy melon seeds and peanuts wrapped in a screw of paper made from recycled exam papers, and the floor was always carpeted with shells by the end of the film.
Bab El-Luq market supplied the staples, but I was surprised at the narrow range of fruit and vegetables available; lots of bananas, tomatoes and aubergines. One day my wife came home with half a gigantic cabbage, shaken and upset after being berated by a market trader; when she had asked for the monster vegetable to be cut in two, he had cut it and tried to make her take her both halves; apparently, you couldn’t buy a half, but you could ask for it to be cut in two. She would have needed a wheelbarrow to get the whole thing home.
I’d often take a bowl to the fuul shop in the morning to bring back a dollop of stewed horse beans for breakfast. We learned to give baqsheesh at the baker’s shop to make sure the bread was wrapped with the minimum of finger contact, but we toasted the crust over the gas when we got home anyway. It took me a while to find bottled milk, so I took my own saucepan to a back-alley dairy. It was run by a man with a filthy temper, who constantly yelled at the boys sterilising the water buffalo milk in big open vats; he disappeared for a month to go on pilgrimage, and returned transformed into a genial, beaming uncle.
Indeed, the purchase and preparation of food was largely pre-industrial. Apart from cans of superannuated vegetables and fruit from behind the Iron Curtain, there was little packaged food: Rice and lentils were bought loose and had to be picked over for grit; loose coffee came in two varieties – the same coffee, but Arabic (fine ground) and French (coarse ground); water had to be boiled and stored in second hand whiskey bottles, which could be bought from the robivecchi man (why these junk dealers were called by an Italian name I have no idea).
We gradually widened our shopping circle to include a pork butcher tucked in a nearby alley, as well as the upmarket Maison Thomas delicatessen, where the loveliest butter was made into pats on a cool marble counter, and the most toothsome eggs were sold – long and pointy with orange yolks.
Out delicate stomachs slowly hardened until we suffered from diarrhoea only one day in three. After all, people of my generation were well nourished and hygienically raised under a post-war regime that gave us cod liver oil, school milk, the National Health Service, and council grants to install bathrooms; people sometimes had ‘bilious attacks’ in England, not the nagging gassy squits that dogged us in Cairo. Anticipating gastric troubles, one of the students in our group had tried to prepare himself in London by eating small amounts of dirt each day, scraped from window sills and train floors. But nothing could have prepared me for the folly of buying a second-hand ice cream one evening.
“What flavour is it?” I asked the small boy, who was holding the thing in his fist in the crowded market.
“Mango,” he said, poking the orange mush into the cone with his finger. I snaffled it on the spot.
“Why did he only have one ice cream? Shouldn’t he have had a box of them?” my wife asked me.
The next day, tossing a Frisbee on a playing field in Zamalek, I thought I tore a stomach muscle. Hour by hour the pain grew worse until, believing I was dying, I lay on my bed as a doctor – a Syrian specialiste des maladies internes – used a large antique syringe on me that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in a medieval torture dungeon.
My faith in British order and bureaucracy intact, I weakly indicated the student travel insurance voucher beside the bed; the jolly old doctor providing the service was to simply complete the details, post the voucher to Head Office in Swindon or Rickmansworth or somewhere, and await reimbursement by postal order. But the screws on the vice squeezing my bowels turned another twist and by the time I returned from the toilet, my wife had paid the Syrian in cash and he had gone.