Category Archives: espionage thriller

A second-hand ice cream in Cairo

A CLEOPATRA CIGARETTE PACKET FROM 1973

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.

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Find out more about Cairo Mon Amour here.

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Picture gallery: Fading traces of the Soviet era

Aeroflot ticket, 1974. Lost aesthetic or Communist kitsch? (author’s collection)

When I was studying  Russian in Moscow in 1974, it was unthinkable that in  less that twenty years, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would be no more.

For my literary invention Ivan Zlotnik, the flawed Soviet diplomat in Cairo Mon Amour, the USSR was there to stay. Zlotnik gambled his freedom on the date of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war. Did he win or lose? That’s for the reader to judge.

Forty-three years later, tourists buy up Communist kitsch in nostalgic homage to regimes whose harsh outlines soften over the decades. But more permanent traces of the Soviet era remain, as this small gallery shows:

Remnant plaque, Berlin (photo: Stuart Campbell)
Symbols of communist industry and military power, Prague (photo: Stuart Campbell)
Vintage URAL motorcycle spotted in a Budapest street (photo: Stuart Campbell)
Soviet Memorial, Budapest. The Russian reads ‘In honour of the liberating Soviet heroes’. (photo: Stuart Campbell)

Going easy on the f-word in fiction


Writers are getting more foul-mouthed

The recent Guardian article on the increasing rates of foul language in literature got me thinking about my own use of the f-word and its derivatives.

I checked my f-quotient in my last three novels and – yes, my language is getting fouler with every book, rising from a demure 0.012 f*cks per hundred words in my first novel to 0.031 f*cks per 100 in Cairo Mon Amour, my latest.

Highly skilled at cursing

Confession time: I spent my early years on a council estate just outside London, and I Iearned to handle the f-word like an East End fishmonger. Later I became part of the Australian intelligentsia, and honed my skills so that I could out-f*ck any Professor of English Literature in the room.

But why do I use  f*ck in my novels?

Here are the results drawn from the 26 f*cks in Cairo Mon Amour:

  1. Sometimes I use it to locate a character on the British class scale:

Bellamy said, “If we’re right about this we’re finished when those f*ckers from Ealing work out that they’ve put us together.”

“How come you talk like a barrow boy sometimes? I remember that from Shemlan. It’s quite a turn on, you know!”

2.  Here’s a similar example, where I contrast the restrained and courteous Pierre with a thug:

“It’s a .22 calibre model 70,” he grunted. “Israeli military issue. Good quality. Liberated from the enemy. Probably used to shoot some poor Egyptian f*cker. Haha!”

“Take it back,” Pierre hissed.

 3. And here’s Pierre learning to swear in English:

“Well, sort of gallop like f*cking hell. We’re being shot at.”

 4. In this example my Soviet diplomat Zlotnik is supposed to be speaking in Russian, and the f*ck is a translation of the common Russian curse:

 “Where’s that f*ck-your-mother Englishwoman gone?” Zlotnik rarely cursed. It had all unravelled, all gone to shit. He sank into the sofa.

5.  In this last example, I have a bunch of American diplomats fleeing Egypt on ship. There has been a stream of f*cks as they lose their cool. Here’s the last one:

As the Cynthia’s engines groaned rheumatically into life, an American in a suit and a baseball cap pointed at the Soviet ship and shouted, “Look, they’re unloading f*cking missiles!”

I’m actually very pleased with my self-diagnosis: Every example has been strategically selected. There’s not a gratuitous f*ck in the book. Obviously, I was well trained!

Let me know what you think!

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The Middle East conflict that inspired Cairo Mon Amour

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 dead and wounded began to stagger home.

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Cairo Mon Amour: Recreating 1970s London

The fourth and final part of Cairo Mon Amour is called Exile, and includes two long chapters when I send Pierre and Zouzou to London, and Lucy and Bellamy to Moscow. I thought that recreating 1970s London would be easy – after all, I was there. But there were some tricky challenges.

There’s a mystique about seventies London. People younger than me have said they envy the fact that I was there. Well, they wouldn’t have envied the ratty bedsits where I lived, and they’d be shocked at the lack of money, the strikes, and the IRA bombs. They’d be puzzled by the primitive technologies and by living in a pre-silicon chip world. On the other hand, I think they’d be astounded at the intellectual freedom of the time.

I had two distinct challenges: One was to make a seventies London that would resonate with the natives – readers who had been there, and at the same time that would convince the tourists – those born after about 1970 who missed it.

For the natives, small tokens will evoke the era: Green Shield stamps, pressing button B in a phone box, the Benny Hill Show. But I felt I had to work a bit harder for the tourists. How many thirty-year-olds know what a trading stamp is? Can they imagine a city with no ATMs?

And this is where the second challenge comes in: How much detail? How can the writer prevent making the text a cluttered museum to the seventies? Somehow, I had to sketch the background to the seventies, leaving the foreground free for the drama.

The public phone box was one of my favourite strategies. The technology gives an instant distinctive edge to seventies life. Phones had wires. There were no answering machines. You could get ‘stood up’ (a rare phrase these days) because your date couldn’t call you on the mobile to say they were delayed. London phone boxes had a special smell -stale fag smoke, old piss, and damp cement. They had little glass windows that steamed up and invited itchy fingers to write initials or draw hearts or penises. They were often adorned by little cards coyly advertising prostitutes.

One evening, my exiled Armenian-Egyptian private eye finds a card on his door. It’s from his hard-boiled landlady and she’s reminding him not to over-use the shared bathroom. Later he’s in a phone box. ‘Call Rita for French polishing’ says the square of cardboard stuck to the window.

This is Pierre’s seventies London: a ‘city of little cards’.

The Armenian thread running through Cairo Mon Amour

In 1973, the world was in the midst of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and its allies were locked in an ideological struggle with the West, a struggle that was enacted through proxy wars. Egypt found itself at the epicentre of the Cold War in October 1973 when it launched an attack on Sinai to regain land occupied in 1967 by Israel. For a few weeks the world stood on the brink of a direct conflict between the USSR and the US, the respective patrons of Egypt and Israel. The wartime atmosphere of Cairo, where I happened to be a student at the time, provided a rich setting for my story.

At the same time, the Cold War was being fought by way of elaborate espionage tactics, unseen by the public except when spy swaps and defections broke through into the press. The fictional Cold War spy exploits of my Soviet diplomat Zlotnik are as plausible as anything that might have happened in real life.

I have connected the settings of Egypt and the USSR with a third thread: The Armenian genocide and diaspora. I was lucky enough – in retrospect – to observe the mood of a city at war in 1973 through the eyes of Egyptian Armenian relatives I had acquired through marriage. Their community lived a sometimes uneasy existence in Cairo, and many had already left for safe havens in the West. Some Armenian families had been ‘repatriated’ to the USSR in the fifties at Stalin’s invitation. At the same time, many Soviet citizens of Armenian origin attained senior positions in science, administration, industry and the arts. Perhaps the quintessential symbol of this link is Artem Mikoyan, the Soviet Armenian aircraft designer; the MiG aircraft that led Egypt’s air attack on Sinai are named for Mikoyan and his co-designer Gurevich. Coincidentally, Cairo Mon Amour was written in the years before and after 24 April 2015, the centenary of the Armenian genocide.

Zouzou, My femme fatale in ‘Cairo Mon Amour’

Cairo Mon Amour started out as a noir novel. Whether it ended up as one, you can be the judge. But in the noir tradition, I needed a femme fatale, and that’s why I created Zouzou Paris.

She’s the childhood sweetheart of Pierre Farag, my Armenian-Egyptian private eye. But they’ve been long separated. The sweet girl he knew as a teenager on holidays in Alexandria is now a notorious film actress, protected by powerful men.

But she’s in danger, fearing that a high-ranking official wants her murdered. And that’s how she and Pierre meet again after nearly twenty years – she summons him to her private apartment to ask for his help. He sits agog as she levers off her luxuriant wig, peels off her eyelashes and wipes away the make-up: She’s no longer the hard-bitten Zouzou Paris, but the girl he knew as Aziza Faris, who fluttered her eyelashes at Pierre in their teens.

Well, with a reunion like that, how could I hold back? They’re bound together for life. But first I have to get them out of Egypt. I put them on the last ship to leave Alexandria when the Yom Kippur war breaks out, and then I follow them through France, where they are married – a condition that Zouzou imposes before she will allow Pierre into her bed. There’s a curious reason for her stipulation on wedlock, but you’ll have to read the book to know what it is.

We leave them in exile in 1970s London, both trying to negotiate a city of coin-fed gas meters, evil landladies, cambric bedspreads, and Dixon of Dock Green on the TV.

I’m fascinated with Zouzou – her volatility, her odd wisdom, the depth of her loyalty, her resignation to fate. I purposely didn’t give her a point of view; rather than writing from inside her head, I allowed the layers of her character to build through Pierre’s observations. My aim here -and I think it worked – was for Zouzou to be enigmatic and unpredictable.

A final word on her name: Zouzou is an affectionate version of her real name Aziza. But there’s a connection with a a film that was showing in Cairo around the time the novel is set: Khalli baalak min Zouzou, or ‘watch out for Zouzou’. In the movie, Zouzou is a college student who has to work secretly as a belly dancer to make ends meet – the nice girl with a shameful secret. How could I resist calling my femme fatale anything else? And of course, my Zouzou claims to be half-French, although nobody believes it. The surname Paris is her clumsy attempt at European sophistication, and it’s not so distant from her real family name Faris.

OK, I confess: I’m smitten.