Category Archives: memoir

Escape from Egypt during the Yom Kippur War

cynthia ticket 001My third novel Cairo Mon Amour (publication July 2016) is set in Egypt in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. I happened to be a student in Cairo at that time, and as the borders closed, it became very difficult to leave Egypt. Several days into the war, we heard that a ship was to evacuate foreigners from Alexandria.

In the novel I have two of my characters, Pierre and Zouzou, flee the country on a ship around the same time. In my research among US diplomatic cables I discovered the actual ship was the Syria, and that it left Alex on  Thursday 11 October, five days after the war began. I could not find any contemporary descriptions of the Syria, except for an obscure article about the US diplomat Dean Dizikes*, who found the ship in Greece and organised the voyage. I drew on his description of the ship’s graceless departure in my story.

However, I was amazed to discover that US diplomats had tried unsuccessfully to requisition another ship,  the Cynthia, at Piraeus before obtaining the services of the Syria. Why amazed? Because I had sailed from Piraeus to Alexandria on the Cynthia just a month before. I have the ticket to prove it! So, in the interest of literary rather than historical integrity, I put Pierre and Zouzou on the Cynthia and wrote the Syria out of the Yom Kippur War.

The Cynthia was, by the way, a loathsome tub. I have written about my horrible voyage from Piraeus to Alex 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.

*The Yom Kippur War – an evacuation of the ungrateful

Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity  here. Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity and The Play’s the Thing . Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .

EXTRACT FROM CAIRO RATIONS!

BY SCRAPHEAP FROM PIRAEUS TO ALEXANDRIA

We tried to catch a taxi at Piraeus station but couldn’t master the local technique of running alongside the moving vehicles, grabbing the door handles, and claiming possession. Instead I hefted our two heavy suitcases under a blinding September sun from the station to the dock. By the time we found the MV Cynthia my arms were as taut as fanbelts and my anaesthetized fingers looked like salami.

We had tickets to Alexandria for a double cabin, bought through the National Union of Students in London. The NUS wanted to sight our marriage certificate before they would sell us the tickets, and had thoughtfully franked the reverse of our Gibraltar Registry Office document with a big inky stamp.

When we arrived on the deck of the reeking Cynthia the purser shook his head in amazement that travellers with such cheap tickets could possibly believe they were entitled to a double cabin. My wife and I were separated and ordered to different parts of the stinking tub well below the waterline. I lugged the two huge suitcases to her cabin, dropped off the one we thought might contain her clothes, and then continued to drag the other one like a cockroach through the superheated rusting passageways. But I was spared: My assigned eight-berth cabin was festooned with frilly frocks – no place for a man. I used my last ounces of energy to drag the hated suitcase to the top deck. The grudging purser directed me to a double cabin above the waterline, and I threw myself onto the lower bunk and hung my throbbing hands over the side.

With the circulation to my fingers partly restored I went aloft, or perhaps abaft, and searched for my wife on the deck. The greenish tinge of her face augured badly; we were still tied up alongside the caisson wall, but the rocking of the ship, the stench of diesel, and the hot greasy miasma from the vents above the kitchens had started to do their work.

The MV Cynthia juddered out of the harbour at a funny angle like a water rat with a crushed leg. It was her last voyage before the scrapheap.

In the afternoon the ship’s swimming pool was filled up. It was barely big enough to fit six people standing but the weight of the water taken on board strained the heaving engines almost to a standstill. We hung around the canvas awning near the pool to escape the heat. An Egyptian man in swimming trunks did an elaborate callisthenic routine and introduced himself. He was captivated that I could pronounce his name properly, and asked me to repeat it over and over: “Please, what is my name?” We escaped to another part of the ship but wherever we went he seemed to be waiting in his trunks behind a lifeboat or a stanchion, and would pop out and inanely ask, “Please, what is my name?” I would repeat robotically,  “Mar’i Kamil S-“. I leave his last name incomplete in case he is still alive and wants to be my friend on Facebook.

In the evening the toilets overflowed and we had to hop through sewage to get to the hotbox  where dinner was served to the third class passengers. A waiter probably named Malvolio guarded the kitchen entrance with a filthy tea towel over his arm. The food – it hardly needed guarding – was Kit-E-Kat mashed into macaroni tubes. We gagged and picked over our bowls, but our table companions – cadaverous British hippies who had been in India for months – golloped theirs down, and then finished our leftovers. Our hearts leapt as fat peaches were handed out, and then shrivelled when they were cut apart to reveal the plump maggots within.

We parted late that night on the upper deck, but not before I had my first real conversation in Arabic outside a classroom. While my wife leaned over the rail to find some air that didn’t smell of Kit-E-Kat, I watched a Lebanese family chatting in the moonlight. There was another ship in the distance and a man in the group commented that it was from the same shipping line as the Cynthia. He actually said nafsi shirka, ‘the same company’. I grabbed my chance and attempted to join the conversation by loudly intoning nafsi shirka with a questioning intonation. On reflection I suppose I was saying, “Oh, family of complete strangers, is it indeed a fact that the ship we see is from the same company as the ship we are on?”

The family turned to stare at the apparition at the rail whence the odd utterance had come: A moustachioed wraith with shoulder length black hair supporting a young woman who was sobbing and retching under the moon.

I spent the night awake in terror listening to the stranger in the upper bunk making long rhythmic noises like a razor being sharpened on a leather strop.

At Beirut – not yet torn apart by the civil war – we ordered massive plates of rice and minted lamb in a restaurant but could barely eat a few spoonsful, so shrunken were our stomachs. We made it back to the Cynthia by smell alone, and fought the crush of Egyptians who were boarding with boxes of Lebanese apples as big as babies’ heads.

As we sailed for Cyprus a black and yellow flag was raised – cholera! – and instead of entering Limassol harbour we stood offshore in quarantine. A Mercedes Benz was hoisted from the Cynthia’s deck on davits and swung wobbling onto a wooden barge, which puttered off to Limassol with a few passengers.

Like a malodorous pariah, the Cynthia limped towards Egypt, its decks still stacked with boxes of apples. Officials came out to meet us in Alexandria harbour and we were lined up and each given a large white cholera pill, the composition and efficacy of which we knew nothing. The officials had a loud discussion about the apples and a decision was made: Destroy them! They may be infected! The boxes were broken apart and the passengers ate the apples.

Some hours later the Cynthia eased her dented flanks alongside the berth and the engines stopped grinding. We lined up in an immigration hall where men in uniform took all our passports and made a toppling pile of them on a desk. I watched in anxiety: How would they return the passports to the correct owners? What if I got the wrong passport and I had to spend the rest of my life as Mar’i Kamil S-?

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I think a war just started

 

P1020460This 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.

 

Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing