‘A post-colonial spy story, full of intrigue and passion.’
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.
Find out more about Cairo Mon Amour here.
This beautiful book cover for Cairo Mon Amour has an interesting evolution. It was actually designed for a self-published edition of the book, but I offered the artwork to my publisher, who was happy to take it over.
When I first discussed the project with my designer Rachel Ainge of Tribe Creative Co, I imagined a cover that tried to tell the story. I cooked up the idea of an aerial shot of Cairo with a pair of women’s shoes (containing feet) on the ledge of a building.
Rachel took things in hand: “Don’t try to tell the story. Leave it with me.” We’d had this discussion before when I’d talked her into creating covers that told the stories of two other books of mine. They were lovely covers, but did they help to sell books? I wasn’t sure. Here they are, along with one of my crude sketches:
Rachel came back to me with the idea of branding the three books under a common theme, including new covers for the older books, and a new title for one of them.
Over to me for the theme. I thought hard about what linked the three books: A contemporary Australian political satire, a psychological drama set in England, and a thriller/romance set during the Yom Kippur War. How were they connected?
It came to me in a flash while I was walking on the beach (that’s where my most creative thinking takes place): Love, betrayal and redemption. That’s what I really write about.
This gave me a formula for uniform subtitles for the three books:
Incidentally it gave me my elevator pitch: Stuart Campbell writes quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.
Next, Rachel asked me for an iconic scene for each book. “I’ll give you the blockbuster treatment – a big dramatic sky and characters looking into their destiny,” she said. I came up with Martin Mooney looking at the distant mountains, Jack Walsingham approaching a rural cottage, and Pierre Farag and Mark Bellamy riding towards the Pyramids. This is what I got:
Cairo Mon Amour will be published in late June 2017 by Austin Macauley Publishers, an independent trade publisher with headquarters in London and New York.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
I returned to fiction after thirty years of writing research papers and management reports, and I seem to have carried over the habits of economy and what I call ‘live’ editing into my practice*. That means that I write a single draft, editing back and forth as I go along.
A single draft? Correct. I don’t write 120,000 words and then start cutting from the beginning until I’m down to 80,000. My Word file for Cairo Mon Amour was a living, quivering thing, like a garden in spring. As it spread in all directions, I pruned a branch here, pulled up a stunted shrub there, planted an exotic species here and waited to see what would happen.
The magic ingredient is my weekly writers group at the NSW Writers Centre. I read chapters to my wonderful buddies, soak up the criticism, and go home to revise. I can’t imagine writing any other way.
People ask me “Do you have the whole plot worked out in advance?” Not really. To use another botanical metaphor, I think of the writing process as walking in a forest where I can see a hundred metres in front of me (i.e. about three chapters), but the thick trees conceal what is beyond (the next six chapters). I have a good idea what’s beyond the hill (the ending).
So for me, writing a book like Cairo Mon Amour is really exciting. I start by getting four or five characters established, put them in a jam, and then see what happens next. Often the book starts to write itself: I may think I know what is going to happen, but suddenly another path appears (the forest metaphor again). It’s exhilarating, high-risk, unpredictable.
I never have writer’s block. I just listen to my characters, and they show me where to go. With Cairo Mon Amour, I didn’t know exactly how it would end until I was eighty-percent through. I then wrote the ending and filled in the last twenty percent.
I read a lot of advice about having dedicated writing time, a favourite chair, a routine, meditation. The trouble is that I was an extreme multi-tasker in my professional career, and I can’t kick the habit. My desk is in a room with two doors, that functions as a rat-run between the kitchen and the bedrooms. I write in short bursts between cooking, grandparenting, exercising, and my consulting work. By the time I get to my Mac, I’ll have written the next two thousand words in my head during a walk to Forty Baskets Beach. Then I actually write it down.
Often, an obscure phrase from the past will suddenly generate a whole chunk of text. Years ago in Malta, I was on the track of my hero King Roger II of Sicily (1095-1154). An old churchwarden booted the tourists out of an ornate Baroque church to give me a private tour when I mentioned my quest. “A beautiful church,” I said. “And rich in history,” he solemnly replied. I put the same words into the mouth of the French priest in an unadorned church in a damp village where my characters Pierre and Zouzou ask to be married. “Rich in history,” he says, gesturing at the gaunt rafters. But of course, Pierre and Zouzou’s experience of Egyptian churches is all gold ornament and opulent robes.
I feel a little embarrassed about my confession. Perhaps I should buy a fountain pen.
Or perhaps not.
*One of my research specialisations was on the cognitive processes in translation between languages. I developed theories on different modes of processing depending on the difficulty of the task at hand. If you are game, have a look at: Stuart Campbell, Ali Aldahesh, Alya’ Al-Rubai’i, Raymond Chakhachiro, Berta Wakim (2010) “Information structure management and textual competence in translation and interpreting: Sentence openings in translation from Arabic into English as a second language” in Baker, Mona, Olohan, Maeve and Perez, Maria Calzada (Eds.) Text and Context: Essays on Translation and Interpreting in Honour of Ian Mason. Manchester: St Jerome, p.27-58. If I had a spare five years, I’d explore the same phenomena in creative writing.
Cairo Mon Amour introduces Pierre Farag, one of my best-developed characters. In some respects, Pierre is the touchstone of the novel, with its themes of shifting loyalties and the propensity of individuals to adapt to adversity.
I made Pierre half-Armenian and half-Coptic, an Egyptian with an ambiguous identity and a shady profession of private investigator and translator. He’s a man who burrows unnoticed in the folds of the city, among the ‘troupe of misfits, malcontents, blackmailers, and square pegs in round holes who fed him scraps of information, shreds of rumour and dollops of sheer spite’.
He is intensely patriotic, the son of a fighter pilot killed in the 1967 war. But like all certainties in Cairo Mon Amour, his patriotism is tested as the truth becomes clear about the cynical diplomatic plot he has been drawn into.
Pierre prefers the French version of his name, although he is Butrous and Bedros in Arabic and Armenian respectively. He doesn’t explain how the French version came about, and I prefer to leave the secret with him.
Where does Pierre come from? My inspiration was an Armenian man who used to occasionally visit the house of my wife’s relative in Cairo in 1973. He wore a beret and tinted glasses, and seemed studious and thoughtful. It was said that he had spent time in prison during Nasser’s time. He never said much, but he has remained in some corner of my mind for decades. Nobody in the family can remember him, and sometimes I wonder if I imagined him!
Music in a novel? Well, if Ann Patchett uses it in Bel Canto, then I’m on safe ground. But am I fooling myself when I weave a piece of music around a scene in my novel Cairo Mon Amour? Just because I get an emotional charge as I bash the keyboard, headphones clamped on my ears, is there any way my readers will share my response?
Well, it depends. Picture my exiled Egyptian actress Zouzou, marooned in a flat in damp London. She sings Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly as she passes the hours. My intention is that the impact of the song is subverted: The words are about the pain of a lovelorn woman listening to a singer. But it’s the gloom of exile that is slowly killing her. Of course, everyone knows this song, and I hope that at least some of my readers will hum along.
But what about the Arabic music? Here’s a passage where I give the reader a little help:
But the last record in the stack was Umm Kulthoum’s The Ruins. He put the record on and let the exquisite Classical Arabic stanzas caress his wary heart, almost against his will. The words told of the capriciousness of fate, the powerlessness of the lover’s heart to follow its destiny. The song – the performance was half an hour long – ended on an ambiguous note, somewhere between hope and resignation.
The truth is that while Arabs swoon over the music of this revered singer, most Western readers would just wouldn’t get it. In this case, I hope my description conveys the emotional impact of the song without the reader having to listen to it. But if anyone is curious, the endnotes to the ebook include a link to a YouTube video. In fact, there are YouTube links to all to the music in the book.
The movie Solaris (the original Soviet version, not the US remake) features in the book, and I’ve referenced Tarkovsky’s arrangement of a J.S. Bach choral prelude.* I use the piece of music as an icebreaker between two characters who are thrown together against their will (no spoilers). One begins to hum the melody, and the other recognises it: They discover they have both seen Solaris; there is a point of connection. If Solaris is on your list of top ten movies, you’ll get it. But even if you know only a little about Bach, what I hope is that you’ll think organ+church, and you’ll be half-way there. And there’s a YouTube link!
Happy listening, even if the music is in your head.
*BWV 639 Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.