Netflix spy drama tackles Yom Kippur War mystery

Netflix’s new drama The Angel tackles the story of the enigmatic Ashraf Marwan, who is claimed by both Egypt and Israel as a master spy.

In October 1973, Egypt was planning a secret attack to recover Sinai,  occupied by Israel in 1967. Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of Nasser and close confidant of President Anwar Sadat, was privy to the date of the attack. The Angel is based on the theory that Marwan warned the Israelis the day before  in an altruistic bid to prevent war. Did Israel receive the tip-off? If they did, they failed to mobilise and as a result  suffered the ignominy of an Arab army retaking occupied territory.

But Sadat had previously set other secret dates, which Marwan had passed on, leading the Israelis to mobilise uselessly. After these false alarms, they dismissed the real date of Yom Kippur 1973. The Angel uses this ‘boy who cried wolf’ theory to explain why the spy was ignored.

Controversy has swirled around Ashraf Marwan for decades. Unfortunately, he’s saying nothing, having mysteriously fallen to his death in 2008 from the balcony of his posh flat in London.

I was enthralled by The Angel, an Israeli-US production running 1 hr and 54 minutes without a moment to catch breath. Ashraf Marwan, played by Marwan Kenzari, a Dutch actor of Tunisian background, is portrayed as an idealist who struggles to earn the trust of his Israeli controllers, although his idealism is tempered by the need to pay for his expensive lifestyle with the wads of cash he received for information. Was I convinced by this characterisation? I’m not certain. My viewing companion thought the plot needed more depth. But we were still talking about it the next day, which sets this movie apart from 90% of what is dished up the TV.

I have a special interest in The Angel. While I was writing my novel Cairo Mon Amour, Ashraf Marwan hovered in the back of my mind as I combed the literature on the Yom Kippur War. Cairo Mon Amour is an espionage romance that covers the same period as the movie. I happened to be studying Arabic at Cairo University during the Yom Kippur War, and it is not implausible that I  passed Ashraf Marwan in the street or sat near to him in the Groppi café.

But the real bonus for me was the handling of the bilingual dialogue. As a PhD in Linguistics and a fiction writer, I’m a serial bore on the topic of foreign languages in English-language movies. If you hear me at a cocktail party complaining about Nicholas Cage’s Italian accent in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, just move away – it’s not pretty. If you insist on knowing my views, look here.

The Angel did the job beautifully, with the Arab characters moving seamlessly between subtitled Arabic to English and back again. Sometimes, the switch was triggered: In one scene, Egyptian officials are reminded that there is a non-Arabic speaker at the conference table, so they politely switch to English; in another, Marwan and his wife switch to English to hide their words from their small children. When there is no explicit trigger, speakers seem to switch from English to Arabic when the emotional temperature of the conversation rises. OK, so some of the language behaviour was not entirely plausible, but the writers of The Angel produced the best solution I’ve seen in a long time for what I call Chermans in ze movies spik like zis syndrome.

Big ticks from me for The Angel.

CAIRO MON AMOUR PAPERBACKS NOW DISTRIBUTED IN AUSTRALIA

I’m delighted to announce that my publisher is now distributing paperbacks in Australia. You can order Cairo Mon Amour online at the retailers below. The really good news is that you pay local freight rather than copping a big postage bill from the UK!

BOOK DEPOSITORY,  AMAZON AUSTRALIAAMAZON US,  AMAZON UK,  BOOKTOPIA,  KINOKUNIYA,  ANGUS & ROBERTSON   

 

 

‘An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity’ relaunching soon!

No, it’s not a how-to-do-it manual! It’s my second novel, which hit the Amazon best-seller ranks in 2016. I’ve left it unattended and unpromoted through 2017, when I was busy with the publication of Cairo Mon Amour.

As with all my novels, I set myself a special challenge: This time, I’d write a thriller with three points of view, two of them female. If the Amazon reviews are anything to go by, I pulled it off (with the help of my friends in the Write On! group at the NSW Writers’ Centre, who put me back on track when I wandered into  blokiness).

Here’s the short blurb:

The Walsinghams dabble in petty crime as they try to enliven a failing marriage. But a figure from the past tips them into a double murder plot. Could this respectable Home Counties couple really be killers?

And here’s where you can buy it for 99c/99p between 5 and 15 March 2018:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Kobo

iBooks

Barnes & Noble

Google Play

Cairo Mon Amour gets big surge from Goodreads

 

espionage romance thriller cairoAfter Goodreads giveaways in November, December and January 2018, word is spreading about my espionage romance Cairo Mon Amour. In total, 2597 people entered the giveaways, and 547 have the book on their ‘to read’ list.

I’m planning more giveaways this year, but if you want to skip the line, just click here to find out how to buy a copy.

Sincere thanks to publisher Austin Macauley for organising the December and January giveaways.

How I created my femme fatale

noir, romance book, femme fatale, cairoCairo 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.

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You can buy a copy of Cairo Mon Amour here.

A ringside seat under the kitchen table

War makes an irresistible setting for fiction, as the never-ending flood of WWII novels and movies shows. Gulf War thrillers are almost a genre in their own right.

The Yom Kippur War has its novels – Herman Wouk and Tom Clancy both weave stories around it. But I wanted to do something different – my novel set during the Yom Kippur War Cairo Mon Amour, is set in Egypt – not Israel.

I felt especially well qualified to write this book: I was a student at Cairo University when the war broke out in October 1973, and I had a ringside seat – or sometimes a seat under the kitchen table when the air-raid sirens went off.

If you can’t remember the main points about this particular conflict, Egypt invaded Sinai to reclaim land lost to Israel in 1967, and Syria attacked the Golan Heights. The conequences of the war included the 1978 Camp David Accords and the final withdrawal of Israel from Sinai in 1982.

What compelled me to write this book was the extraordinary lengths that Egypt went to in concealing the date of the attack. How did President Sadat keep preparations for a massive ground and air attack secret? And how could I spin a story of espionage and romance around this?

Details have emerged in memoirs and works of research: Hospital wards in Cairo were emptied under the pretext of epidemics in anticipation of floods of wounded troops; a military sports carnival was scheduled for the day of the attack; false stories were planted about the attack date. When I did my research, I found so many events that I could dramatise: The sudden evacuation of Soviet families just days before the outbreak of war; the last ship to leave Alexandria, crowded with Americans desperate to get away.

I also wanted to write a very human story, so I created a handful of flawed characters who all have a personal stake in finding out – or concealing – the date when the attack will be launched. We have a Cairo private eye of mixed Armenian and Coptic background; his childhood sweetheart who is now a notorious actress; a Soviet diplomat with divided loyalties; and two British spies who happen to be former lovers.

I made a decision to stick closely to the historical record: The chapters in the first part of the book follow exactly the days just before and after the start of the war. When the Soviet diplomat Zlotnik, drunk in his flat, hears the rumble of the huge Soviet aircraft flying in armaments, it is real; I heard them on that very night myself.

And I tried to capture the day-to-day atmosphere in the streets of Cairo, when, as a British student taking Arabic courses at Cairo University, I found myself in the midst of a populace that swung between elation at the first flush of victory, and distress as  the wounded began to stagger home.

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An earlier version of the blog article appeared under the title  ‘The Middle East conflict that inspired Cairo Mon Amour’.

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A boyhood memory shattered at Navarone Bay

There’s a default assumption that big war movies are based on fact. Think of A Bridge Too Far, Das Boot, or more recently Dunkirk. And there’s room for tolerance when the movie is clearly fictional, whether it’s Apocalypse Now with its literary boots in Heart of Darkness or the big-boy romp Inglourious Basterds.

When I wrote my third novel Cairo Mon Amour, I was meticulous about making sure the historical setting of the Yom Kippur War was accurately portrayed. That’s what writers do, isn’t it?

So what has this do with the 1961 movie The Guns of Navarone? I happened to be staying with friends in Rhodes recently. They live at Navarone Bay at Lindos, and I was looking forward to seeing the location of a movie that had thrilled me when I was thirteen.

In case you missed it, The Guns of Navarone is a WWII thriller in which a bunch of Allied tough guys led by Gregory Peck, are thrown together in a crack team to blow up a huge German gun emplacement. Our man Peck plays a famous retired mountaineer who will climb up and knock out the guns, which are concealed deep inside a high cliff overlooking Navarone Bay.

“So where were the guns?” I asked my old friend, pointing at the cliffs.

“There weren’t any. It was made up.”

“Made up?” I was stunned. The Guns of Navarone was one of the best films I’d ever seen. It has been part of my personal film canon (no pun intended) for decades. It had never occured to me that the story wasn’t true.

“Yep. In the novel. Alistair MacLean made it up.”

My friend had a DVD of the movie. It wasn’t as I remembered it at the age of thirteen. The characterisations seemed two-dimensional, and the production values were amateurish by today’s standards; the shipwreck scene had the look of a bathtub mock-up. We watched it half way through. “Maybe we’ll finish it tomorrow.”

We didn’t.

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You can find out more about Cairo Mon Amour here.