‘A post-colonial spy story, full of intrigue and passion.’
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.
After 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.
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 a few years ago. 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.”
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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.
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.
Every author I know tackles writing differently. Some set targets, some write four drafts, some hand-write in green fountain pen on legal pads.
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.
I’m pleased to announce that my novel ‘Cairo Mon Amour’ has been accepted for publication in 2017 by an international publisher, thanks to the great work of my agent Michael Cybulski and the team at New Authors Collective. Many thanks to those who have supported my efforts in bringing ‘Cairo Mon Amour’ to this point. I’ll be keeping my readers up to date with details of the release date as they come to hand.