Musings on a burnt pork chop

Five-minute read

I had misgivings at the first whiff of Worcestershire Sauce. My order of Cypriot Mushrooms, as it was called, comprised overcooked fungus drowned in half a pint of the sour liquor.

During my English childhood, every pantry had a bottle of Worcestershire Sauce. The old-fashioned label suggested colonial gents in the era of the Raj, sprinkling a few drops of the brown elixir on their breakfast chops. But this brute of a dish was knocked up in a restaurant in the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, where Mount Olympus watches over ancient Byzantine monasteries. And there was the main course still to come.

This and many other meals have helped frame my view that attitudes to national cuisines are as much to do with politics as with alimentation. Let me go back a few decades.

In the early seventies, a shop in London called Habitat started selling little kits of curry spices. You could buy the same spices in Indian and Pakistani grocers if you cared to enter such a store, but people like me – white people – didn’t. Habitat was the precursor of the cool homewares stores that are nowadays ubiquitous. It was one of the first shops to sell a lifestyle of lightness, quirkiness, ultra-modernity, pop art colours, brushed aluminium. The curry spices were emblematic of the Habitat lifestyle: Adventurous but safe, the Orient without the runs.

If I’d been a clairvoyant I’d have known that in 1978, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said would publish his Orientalism, in which he theorised that Europeans had invented the notion of the Orient as a means of asserting the cultural dominance of the colonisers over the colonised. I’d have considered with foresight – in 1973 – that in cooking up a Habitat Chicken Korma, I – along with people like me – was one of a new breed of colonialist. We were remodelling a cuisine using a limited range of ingredients, cooking methods and named dishes; we were turning the gastronomy of a vast and varied land into three curries: Korma, Madras and Vindaloo, with a spoonful of Sharwood’s to garnish. The depressing thing was that Habitat curry was tasteless. You’d get a much more satisfying feed at the local Paki with its maroon flocked wallpaper, Bombay Duck, and cold lager.

But the taste of culinary conquest was on my lips, and those of many of my friends: Over the decades we colonised new cuisines: South Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Egyptian. Our spice racks were full, our veggie plots sprouted galangal and coriander. Our kids learned to use chopsticks before they enrolled in school. When we travelled we learned new variants, discovered pockets of cuisines we hadn’t conquered, rooted out new stinky delicacies to surprise our dinner guests back home.

My finest moment was, I think, in about 2002, when I cooked Indonesian food for twenty guests at my house in the Blue Mountains. Perhaps it was the big Australian reds being sloshed back that night, but I didn’t see the irony of a table of affluent Australians eating Javanese street food among the gum trees and possums.

It was also when I lived in the Blue Mountains that a critical light was shone on my immature postcolonial sensibilities. If you look at census figures for the Blue Mountains, you will discover that the area has a minuscule Asia-born population. From a culinary point of view, this was brought home to me when I found that the waiters in a local Chinese restaurant were Europeans. My first reaction was that I had been cheated; shouldn’t Chinese restaurants be staffed by Chinese people? How could the food be authentic?

And this from the white guy who had mastered – or perhaps remastered – half a dozen national cuisines ranging from the Atlas Mountains to the Yangtze River. This was the white guy who was just beginning to understand that eating is political. I hadn’t learned those Oriental cuisines; I’d invaded them, pillaged them, and brought them home as trophies.

I’ll go a little further with my postcolonial analysis, and claim that white guys like me tended to conquer the cuisines of those bits of the world that our forebears had colonised, not those of the colonisers. The acquisition of French culinary expertise is seen as difficult, and part of the learning of high culture; indeed we talk about haut cuisine. Anyone can make a curry, but French – that takes real art, n’est-ce pas?

And so I found myself in Cyprus, yet to taste Cypriot Mushrooms, travelling with a companion who had lived there as a child and still cherished sweet memories of the food. We started our journey in the southern, Greek, part of the island where, my companion told me, we’d wander the beachside food stalls in the evenings seduced by the fragrance of lamb kebabs grilling on charcoal braziers. The tender pink meat, singed at the edges, would snuggle up against yoghourt and mint in warm pocket bread.

Perhaps that was the case in her childhood. Now there was pork, lots of the stuff, white and fibrous and dry, tasting of almost nothing. And there were cappuccinos topped with aerosol cream and powdered cinnamon. It was time to go north.

We crossed the border by car and meandered through the northern part of Cyprus, enjoying delicate pastel-tinted Turkish food as well as robust tourist grub. The fourth day found us crossing back into the Greek south; we would cruise down the Troodos Range and end up at Paphos, where we were to stay with family. It was the end of the tourist season and the fragrant pine clad hillsides were still pleasantly warm. We stopped to look at exquisite little churches – squat and rough-walled, interiors painted with glorious two-dimensional depictions of saints. The roads were empty.

Our accommodation – a tiny hotel carved into rock walls – had been booked long in advance. We were the only guests, we were told in the troglodytic reception niche. And the restaurant was closed for the year. Try down the hill. They’re still open.

Taking the winding cobbled lane past shuttered windows, spilling geraniums and sleeping cats, we met a sweating couple passing us on the climb up – English, middle-aged, underdressed and red. A single scooter clattered by and was gone.

The restaurant was one of those sadly anachronistic places, a faded faux Swiss chalet, out of place, out of time.

“I bet there’s a huge menu,” I said.

There was. It was half a yard across, cracked and stained, the plastic coating having given up the fight against greasy fingers. There was a large ‘local specialities’ section, a small burger-and-chips list, and unexpectedly, a standard Indian selection of Korma, Vindaloo and Madras. We were the only diners.

“Does it get busy later?” my companion asked the waitress.

“Not really. It is not so full this time of year,” she replied. What was her accent? Not Greek, I thought.

“I’m famished. I’m having an entrée first,” I said to my companion.

“You might regret it. I’ll just have the fish.”

My culinary antennae were bristling: A Greek restaurant, notwithstanding the curry and burgers. Might I get something resembling honest Greek grub of the kind my companion remembered from her girlhood?

When the waitress brought me a pint of lager (“You’ll be full up before the food comes,” my companion said) I asked the young woman if she was from the village.

“I’m from Romania.”

“How interesting,” I lied. “Is the chef from round here?”

“India, maybe.” Aha, that could explain the curries.

A little more questioning revealed that the regular Greek chef had finished for the season. The guy in the kitchen was filling in till tomorrow.

“What happens tomorrow?”

“The restaurant closes for the season.”

“What does he normally do?”

“He cleans the place. He drives the van.”

And so I found myself with two pints of lager on board, and before me a bowl of mushrooms braised in Worcestershire Sauce. It was as vile as it looked and smelt.

“You’d better eat it. You’ve got to pay for it,” my companion sniggered.

I consumed the solids.

My companion’s fish arrived – light and reasonably edible, she reported. But there was no so sign of my ‘Cypriot Meat Platter’. I had another pint of lager.

When at last the dish arrived – enough for four diners – I guessed that the ‘chef’ had cleared out all the remaining meat in the freezer, laid it out on a zinc slab – lamb chops, pork cutlets, cowboy steaks, sausages – and run a blowtorch up and down the row.

I miserably picked at the charred edges of something.

“Serves you right. Why don’t you send it back and ask for something else?” Did I detect the mildest hint of schadenfreude?

Later I said, “Next time we’ll find a Greek restaurant with a Greek chef.”

“You know that’s nonsense. Half the Italian restaurants in Sydney are run by Anglos, not Italians.”

She was right of course.

“Why don’t we just find a restaurant with a chef?” I said.

###

This is an edited version of a story I first published in 2016 under the title Diners of the World Unite! 

Drop in here to find out about my novels.

Russell Darnley’s ‘Seen and Unseen’: Testimony of a man who kept faith with his vision for Australia in the world.

I bought Russell Darnley’s Seen and Unseen some months ago and tucked it into a corner of my Kindle, dipping into some of the ‘stories’ in the gaps between my backlog of novels-to-read.

With some holiday time on my hands, I decided to start at the beginning – and I couldn’t stop reading. I now saw that the ‘stories’ formed a coherent narrative woven from threads of spirituality, self-discovery, and an expression of one man’s understanding of Australia in the world.

The motif of the seen and the unseen, drawn from the Balinese notion of sekala and niskala, signifying the ubiquity of the spiritual world, is the strongest of these threads: How else to interpret the first and last sections of the book, when Darnley converses with his dead grandfather on the cliffs at Coogee?

But Seen and Unseen isn’t an extended navel gaze. There’s wonderfully powerful and evocative material about intellectual life in seventies Sydney, about student parties in inner city flats, about the study of Bahasa Indonesia in the brief period when the Australian Government was prepared to fund it generously.

In reading Darnley’s book, I realised that he and I had moved in intersecting circles in the seventies and eighties but had (perhaps) never met. As a university languages school head, I rode the crest of the Indonesian studies movement for a few years, but Darnley’s book brought back uncomfortable memories of my having to close an Indonesian program as funding tightened and the popularity of the language waned in the face of Japanese and Chinese. I was also reminded of the hopes for deep engagement with Indonesia during Gareth Evans’ tenure as Foreign Minister, and the dashing of those aspirations under his successor.

For a newish Australian (I arrived in 1977), Darnley’s account of a childhood in Coogee was fascinating; I’ve lived mostly on the north side of the Harbour Bridge, and Coogee is foreign territory for me. Indeed, the biographical thread running through Seen and Unseen is subtly and tenderly handled. While the ‘stories’ follow chronologically, there are gaps, but the reader is given to understand that each story tackles a new stage in the author’s progress through his professional, personal and spiritual life. The middle section of the book is set mostly in south-east Asia, from which I drew two main impressions: One was Darnley’s wonderful work in establishing and running an overseas study centre for Australian students; the other was his extensive knowledge of Indonesia, and especially Bali, based on his years of residence in the region.

But the core of the book – in my view at least – is the section dealing with the author’s voluntary work in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings (for which he was awarded the OAM). The description of those days is the most harrowing and powerful writing I have encountered in a long time. I had the strong impression that Russell Darnley’s life up to that moment in 2002 was a preparation for the awful work that he volunteered to do, including searching body bags for identification evidence. Russell Darnley surely was the right man in the right place.

Seen and Unseen: The testimony of a man who kept faith with his vision for Australia in the world.

#

Stuart Campbell is a Sydney author. News of his latest novel Cairo Mon Amour can be found here.

‘Cairo Rations’ still #1 in its Amazon category!

graphic cover2Cairo Rations is still #1 in its Amazon category and still free! In fact, it’s permanently free on Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. Today’s stats:
Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,507 Free in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Free in Kindle Store)
#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Travel > Africa > Egypt

Check here to see where to get it.

 

The memoir that inspired my new novel Cairo Mon Amour – get it here for free.

My third novel Cairo Mon Amour is still under wraps, but I will cairo rations  yellow coverrelease publication details in the near future.

Before I started Cairo Mon Amour, I wrote a memoir called Cairo Rations about  my time in Egypt during the 1973 war, to bring back memories of the settings that I wanted to use in the novel.

I’ve just published a new version of the memoir Cairo Rations, which I am distributing free. Click here to sign up for my newsletter and get a copy of Cairo Rations in pdf, mobi (for Kindle) or epub (for many e-readers).

If you have comments about any of my books, please respond through this blog or by email at stuartcampbellauthor@gmail.com .

###

Diners of the world unite!

with gusto coverHere’s a story of mine from With Gusto! 

Diners of the World Unite!

I had misgivings at the first whiff of Worcestershire Sauce. My order of Cypriot Mushrooms, as it was called, comprised overcooked fungus drowned in half a pint of the sour liquor.

During my English childhood, every pantry had a bottle of Worcestershire Sauce in the larder. The old-fashioned label suggested colonial gents in the era of the Raj, sprinkling a few drops of the brown elixir on their breakfast chops. But this brute of a dish was knocked up in a restaurant in the Troodos Mountains, where Mount Olympus watches over ancient Byzantine monasteries. And there was the main course still to come.

This and many other meals have helped frame my view that attitudes to national cuisines are as much to do with politics as with alimentation. Let me go back a few decades.

In the early seventies, a shop in London called Habitat started selling little kits of curry spices. You could buy the same spices in Indian and Pakistani grocers if you cared to enter such a store, but people like me – white people – didn’t. Habitat was the precursor of the cool homewares stores that are nowadays ubiquitous. It was one of the first shops to sell a lifestyle of lightness, quirkiness, ultra-modernity, pop art colours, brushed aluminium. The curry spices were emblematic of the Habitat lifestyle: Adventurous but safe, the Orient without the runs.

If I’d been a clairvoyant I’d have known that in 1978, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said would publish his Orientalism, in which he theorised that Europeans had invented the notion of the Orient as a means of asserting the cultural dominance of the colonisers over the colonised. I’d have considered with foresight – in 1973 – that in cooking up a Habitat Chicken Korma, I – along with people like me – was one of a new breed of colonialist. We were remodelling a cuisine using a limited range of ingredients, cooking methods and named dishes; we were turning the gastronomy of a vast and varied land into three curries: Korma, Madras and Vindaloo, with a spoonful of Sharwood’s to garnish. The depressing thing was that Habitat curry was tasteless. You’d get a much more satisfying feed at the local Paki with its maroon flocked wallpaper, Bombay Duck, and cold lager.

But the taste of culinary conquest was on my lips, and those of many of my friends: Over the decades we colonised new cuisines: South Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Egyptian. Our spice racks were full, our veggie plots sprouted galangal and coriander. Our kids learned to use chopsticks before they enrolled in school. When we travelled we learned new variants, discovered pockets of cuisines we hadn’t conquered, rooted out new stinky delicacies to surprise our dinner guests back home.

My finest moment was, I think, in about 2002, when I cooked Indonesian food for twenty guests at my house in the Blue Mountains. Perhaps it was the big Mudgee reds being sloshed back that night, but I didn’t see the irony of a table of Australians eating Javanese street food while they competed to read the verse of William McGonagall in their best Scottish accents.

It was when I lived in the Blue Mountains that a critical light was shone on my immature postcolonial sensibilities. If you look at census figures for the Blue Mountains, you will discover that the area has a minuscule Asia-born population. From a culinary point of view, this was brought home to me when I found that the waiters in a local Chinese restaurant were Europeans. My first reaction was that I had been cheated; shouldn’t Chinese restaurants be staffed by Chinese people? How could the food be authentic?

And this from the white guy who had mastered – or perhaps remastered – half a dozen national cuisines ranging from the Atlas Mountains to the Yangtze River. This was the white guy who was just beginning to understand that eating is political. I hadn’t learned those Oriental cuisines; I’d invaded them, pillaged them, and brought them home as trophies.

I’ll go a little further with my postcolonial analysis, and claim that white guys like me only conquered the cuisines of the colonised world, or of the bits that we would have liked to colonise. I am persuaded of this by the fact that the acquisition of French culinary expertise is seen as difficult, and part of the learning of high culture; indeed we talk about haut cuisine. Anyone can make Indian food, but French – that takes real art, n’est-ce pas?

And so I found myself in Cyprus, yet to taste Cypriot Mushrooms, travelling with a companion who had lived there as a child and still cherished sweet memories of the food. We started our journey in the southern Greek part of the island where, my companion told me, we’d wander the beachside food stalls in the evenings seduced by the fragrance of lamb kebabs grilling on charcoal braziers. The tender pink meat, singed at the edges, would snuggle up against yoghourt and mint in warm pocket bread.

Perhaps that was the case then. Now there was pork, lots of the stuff, white and fibrous and dry, tasting of almost nothing. And there were cappuccinos topped with aerosol cream and powdered cinnamon. It was time to go north.

We crossed the border by car and meandered through the northern part of Cyprus, enjoying delicate pastel tinted Turkish food as well as robust tourist grub. The fourth day found us crossing back into the Greek south; we would cruise down the Troodos Range and end up at Paphos, where we were to stay with family. It was the end of the tourist season and the fragrant pine clad hillsides were still pleasantly warm. We stopped to look at exquisite little churches – squat and rough-walled, interiors painted with glorious two-dimensional depictions of saints. The roads were empty.

Our accommodation – a tiny hotel carved into rock walls – had been booked long in advance in our usual neurotic fashion. We were the only guests, we were told in the troglodytic reception niche. And the restaurant was closed for the year. Try down the hill. They’re still open.

Taking the winding cobbled lane past shuttered windows, spilling geraniums and sleeping cats, we met a sweating couple passing us on the climb up – English, middle-aged, underdressed and red. A single scooter clattered by and was gone.

The restaurant was one of those sadly anachronistic places, a faded faux Swiss chalet, out of place, out of time.

“I bet there’s a huge menu,” I said.

There was. It was half a yard across, cracked and stained, the plastic coating having given up the fight against greasy fingers. There was a large ‘local specialities’ section, a small burger-and-chips list, and unexpectedly, a standard Indian selection of Korma, Vindaloo and Madras. We were the only diners.

“Does it get busy later?” my companion asked the waitress.

“Not really. It is not so full this time of year,” she replied. What was her accent? Not Greek, I thought.

“I’m famished. I’m having an entrée first,” I said to my companion.

“You might regret it. I’ll just have the fish.”

My culinary antennae were bristling: A Greek restaurant, notwithstanding the curry and burgers. Might I get something resembling honest Greek grub of the kind my companion remembered from her girlhood?

When the waitress brought me a pint of lager (“You’ll be full up before the food comes,” my companion said) I asked the young woman if she was from the village.

“I’m from Romania.”

“How interesting,” I lied. “Is the chef from round here?”

“He’s from India.” Aha, that explained the curries.

A little more questioning revealed that the regular Greek chef had finished for the season. The Indian guy in the kitchen was filling in till tomorrow.

“What happens tomorrow?”

“The restaurant closes for the season.”

“What does he normally do?”

“He cleans the place. He drives the van.”

And so I found myself with two pints of lager on board, and before me a bowl of mushrooms braised in Worcestershire Sauce. It was as vile as it looked and smelt.

“You’d better eat it. You’ve got to pay for it,” my companion sniggered.

I consumed the solids.

My companion’s fish arrived – light and reasonably edible, she reported. But there was no so sign of my ‘Cypriot Meat Platter’. I had another pint of lager.

When at last the dish arrived – enough for four diners – I guessed that the ‘chef’ had cleared out all the remaining meat in the freezer, laid it out on a zinc slab – lamb chops, pork cutlets, cowboy steaks, sausages – and run a blowtorch up and down the row.

I miserably picked at the charred edges of something.

“Serves you right. Why don’t you send it back and ask for something else?” Did I detect the mildest hint of schadenfreude?

Later I said, “Next time we’ll find a Greek restaurant with a Greek chef.”

“You know that’s nonsense. Half the Italian restaurants in Sydney are run by Anglos, not Italians.”

She was right of course.

“Why don’t we just find a restaurant with a chef?” I said.

###

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You can buy With Gusto!  here, a collection of stories and essays by the Write On! writers group in Sydney.

Learn about Stuart Campbell’s books here.

 

The orientalist stripped bare

inscribed book
“To the English friend and guest of Egypt the orientalist Professor Stuart Campbell I give this book (author’s name redacted)

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.

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!

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.

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-?