Tag Archives: Egypt

A Soviet diplomat’s epiphany in Armenia

KPSU card 001This is a short extract from my novel in progress Cairo Mon Amour that deals with Ivan Zlotnik, a Soviet diplomat posted to Cairo in 1973. I built Zlotnik’s character on slivers of the biographies of numerous Soviet diplomats of the era.

The novel is partly an indirect homage to the Armenian Genocide, which explains why I chose Yerevan for Zlotnik’s epiphany.

The illustration is my Communist Party of the Soviet Union membership card holder, a souvenir from my time as a student in Moscow, when I might have bumped into Zlotnik. Tucked into the card holder is my Lenin Library card.

A big thank you to my critical mates in the Write On! group in Sydney, who gave me input into an earlier draft.

I’d love to hear your responses to this extract.

©Stuart Campbell. Please respect my intellectual property by not copying the extract. There is lots of free stuff that you can legally share elsewhere on my site.

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“You always had it made, Ivan,” his fellow MGIMO graduates would say. It was true: Barely out of university, he had the gaudy rewards of the elite in the tiny Moscow apartment, right down to the Everley Brothers records, the Marlboro cigarettes and a Playboy magazine. But when the drinking was under way –  a shot of Johnny Walker  between slugs of Stolichanaya – his pals’ resentment dissolved in alcoholic comradeship, the good old Soviet way: Drink until maudlin happiness is induced, that is if unconsciousness doesn’t set in first.

It didn’t matter that Yuri grew up in an orphanage while his father was in the Gulag, or that Pyotr was the son of a diesel mechanic from Kazan. They’d all made it through MGIMO and nobody could take away a degree from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

Zlotnik’s MGIMO friends seldom asked about his schooldays in Washington DC, where his father had been a diplomat. As for him, he preferred not to talk about being the one who sat out the Great Patriotic War in capitalist luxury while they froze their yaytsa off and lived on crusts. But his past made a difference; Zlotnik knew the West as an insider; he knew how the West felt. And this, he knew, made him dangerous, more susceptible to blandishments from beyond the Iron Curtain, a man to be carefully watched.

His parents had taken him home to Moscow in 1949, the year that Orwell’s 1984 was published. Zlotnik wolfed the book down a week before they left. But at seventeen, his political sensitivities were too undeveloped to fit the novel into a framework that included himself – Ivan Maksimovich Zlotnik, the American-speaking Russian kid who was going home. But something from Orwell must have stuck, and then it all came unstuck thirteen years later in 1962.

His was a life cut in half, he often thought: First, the years of hope and prospect and privilege when all you did made a kind of sense, and the bits that didn’t could be explained away, even his hollow marriage to Raisa. These were the years when you could reconcile the doublethink – how clever Orwell’s term was – by never daring to imagine that Soviet power was not impregnable; when as the son of a senior diplomat you had a responsibility to uphold the might of the state and prosecute its interests in Jakarta, in Hanoi, in Sydney, in corners of the world where a MGIMO graduate repaid his debt to the people. These were the years when you practised a refined dual consciousness that allowed you to lead a life based on the precepts of the Party in the sure knowledge that communism was doomed. These were the years when you reasoned away the sick in your gut when the Hungarian and Polish uprisings were crushed.

And then 1962, the height of Khrushchev’s thaw: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was in the Moscow bookshops, there for all to read uncensored from cover to to cover, not chopped up in bits of samizdat passed illegally from hand to hand; the Gulag was exposed in all its grinding, petty, bureaucratic cruelty. In May he took a copy to Yerevan, where he was sent to prepare a propaganda article on the removal of Stalin’s statue and the installation of the Mother Armenia monument. But his real job was to collect intelligence on dissidents in the small Russian community who lived among the Armenian majority.

The day before he left he met with his wife Raisa, who was passing through Moscow. She told him that her temporary posting to the hospital in Nizhniy Novgorod had been made permanent: A promotion, not to be turned down. They would get together when they could. He’d loved her, he thought, at the beginning. But she was a doctor, he a diplomat. Their futures belonged to the state, not to themselves.

***

Zlotnik was seduced by Yerevan: The dignified self-sufficiency of the people, the stubborn uniqueness of the culture, the resistance to having their Armyanskaya Sovietskaya Respublika swamped by Russians as all the other ethnic satellites were. It was balmy springtime, the wine was good, and the women were comely. He carefully read Denisovich in his hotel room with faint echoes of Orwell’s 1984 resonating with Solzhenistyn’s words. And something in his head – or was it his heart? – came unstuck.

For the next few days he suffered anxiety and shapeless unease. One night he downed a bottle of Armenian konyak and stood on his balcony drinking in the balm of spicy air that blew across the slopes clad with grape vines and citrus. Mount Ararat was fifty kilometres to the south inside Turkey, invisible but palpably sacred in the dark. Later, he often thought, the second half of his life began that night when he heard footsteps below his window. He looked down and a young, dark woman of astonishing beauty called up to him in Armenian from the floodlit car park.

“Sorry, don’t understand,” he mumbled stupidly in Russian.

She was perhaps a little younger than his twenty nine years, dark eyes, pale skin, dressed in a flouncy black dress and carrying a violin case.

“Did you see a car around here? A black Gaz? It’s my lift home.”

“Sorry comrade, I’ve been here all night.”

“Thanks comrade, perhaps I’ll take the tram,” she said, but then a pair of lights appeared on the road outside the hotel and she turned away.

“Before you go,” Zlotnik called out. “Where are you playing?”

She turned and he watched, charmed, as the taffeta dress swirled: “I’m playing in Anoush. At the Spendiarian Theatre. Come and see.”

The next night he traded a favour to get a ticket. Anoush, it turned out, was considered Armenia’s national opera. He was overwhelmed by the majestic gravity of the performance, by the unsettling fusion of oriental and western themes and cadences. He understood nothing of the text, but during the finale he put his head in his hands and silently cried for the loss of the first half of his life. Something had come unstuck, and he would never again be able to reconcile the doublethink; damn Orwell and his word!

In the morning he was recalled to Moscow to take up the second half – the equivocal, duplicitous, dissimulating half – of his life.

©Stuart Campbell

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

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

 

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I think a war just started

 

P1020460This is an extract from my memoir Cairo Rations, which you can download free under a Creative Commons licence. I wrote the memoir as the launch pad for my novel in progress Cairo Mon Amour. The picture, by the way, is my 1973 Cairo University student card.

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In hindsight there were portents in the week leading up to October 6 1973, the day that Egypt and its allies launched an attack on Sinai and the Golan Heights without warning.

People spoke anxiously about spies and secret police: “You can’t trust anyone. Be careful who you talk to.” English friends who went horse riding at Giza on October 5 galloped too close to a military area and just avoided being arrested, perhaps shot. A few days before that my wife and I were walking one evening past a disused museum when we were ordered into the gatehouse by a couple of Green Goons. These were the intelligence police recruited from university graduates, six inches taller than the black and white askari police who did the routine work of directing traffic and chasing street thieves. We sat in the gloom on hard chairs for half an hour while they studied our passports and asked us, Why are you in Egypt? Why do you want to study Arabic? Are you Jewish? We assumed when we were allowed to leave that they were simply bored, but perhaps they really were on the lookout for spies.

Consumer goods were scarce and, again with hindsight, the civilian population may have been hoarding in expectation of shortages. Some shops around the upmarket areas near Tahrir Square were selling one-offs – a bottle of perfume, a woman’s blouse, an ornament – that we were told were brought in by Egyptians flying home from Europe.

On the night of October 6 we went to Madame P’s guest house for dinner. The usual pattern of these visits was that we would arrive to find Madame P holding court in bed wrapped in a crocheted shawl and smoking a Craven A. Often there would be a friend in attendance – an elderly Armenian lady sharing with Madame P the woes of the world. The friend would be booted out in favour of binti and ibni – we’d been promoted to ‘daughter’ and ‘son’, and while the servants made dinner Madame P would regale us with an apparently infinite account of the family in diaspora. We would walk home trying to unpick the knots of Eddys, Dikrans, Roupens, Vartanouches, Sylvias and Serges in Paris, California and Beirut.

But the guest house was hushed and tense tonight. Those gentlemen residents who were at home stayed in their rooms. It was usual for casual diners to turn up during the meal – a mysterious old man in a beret who had been imprisoned in Nasser’s time and told my wife how he remembered her from when she was a child, frizz-haired woe-betiding distant aunties, a homeless cousin who lived with the families she sewed for. But nobody came tonight and we ate our lamb and aubergine alone at the big table with its checked oilcloth cover.

A notable absence was the army journalist. Because of his size, his hee-haw voice and his bonhomie, Mr. H was impossible to ignore. He was often at the big table drinking a bottle of Stella beer and eating cucumbers one after another – ‘like a donkey’, Madame P would whisper in the kitchen.

The evening grew gloomier. Now and again one of the gentlemen came out of his room, conferred with one of the other gentlemen in whispers, and then disappeared again. Then late in the evening as we were preparing to leave Mr. H arrived, except that he was now Major H in an army uniform. And he had in his hand a piece of grey painted wood from a packing crate with Hebrew letters stencilled on the side. It had come, he said, from the front. The gents came out of their rooms and gathered around Major H; the Arabic was fast, whispered, colloquial, and I couldn’t understand the detail. We retreated into Madame P’s room and probably all smoked a Craven A – my exact recollection is faint. But one of us said, “I think a war just started”.

My wife and I walked the few streets home from Bustan Saeed Street to our flat at 29 Muhammad Mahmoud Street. Farag the one-toothed doorkeeper said good evening. I don’t remember whether he called me ‘professor’, ‘captain’ or ‘head engineer’ – he never seemed sure which honorific to use.

The next morning I went out early into the hushed neighbourhood. There were knots of people on street corners listening as someone read the war news aloud from the newspaper. I bought a copy of Al Ahram and thanked providence that my Arabic was up to understanding most of the detail. On one page was a press picture of captured Israeli prisoners, which you can still find in the Al Ahram archives. Some of them looked like Frank Zappa.

Later that afternoon I returned from the university, whose gates were barred by a tank. Almost home, I heard a voice behind me calling gaasuus israa’eeli – Israeli spy. A small rock flew past my ear, and then a few more. A gang of boys was in pursuit, but I made the street corner ahead of them and dashed into our courtyard unseen.

When it was dark I scuttled through the back alleys as far as Tahrir Square, and then across the raised walkway to the Nile Hilton. There I had a haircut of the kind David Niven would have enjoyed in Monte Carlo in 1939. The sleek and deferential barber, with a pencil moustache that could have been measured in microns, used implements that I’d never seen in Watford; after cutting my hair with belt-driven clippers, he massaged my scalp with an electrical orange rubber vibrating pad; he rubbed in unguents and oils; and then he lit tapers to singe any single strand that dared to stand up from the shiny black dome of varnished hair he had moulded to my head.

I walked home looking like a ventriloquist’s dummy, ready to face my war.

 

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

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

Farts in their drawers: Using and abusing foreign proverbs in fiction

fartsOne of my most treasured books is Arabic Proverbs by  J. L. Burckhardt, a Swiss orientalist famous for travelling to Mecca disguised as a Muslim in 1814-15. I’ve always found the book fascinating, and I couldn’t resist drawing on it in writing my novel Cairo Mon Amour.

A difficult technical challenge in writing this book was finding a narrative voice for my Egyptian characters. I used proverbs here and there to give some oriental spice without stereotyping; I get tired of the Bad Arab Syndrome, a condition that seems to afflict many thriller writers. I’ve vowed that no character of mine will say, “By Allah, the infidel dog will taste bitter dates this night”.

One of my favourite characters is Zouzou Paris. She’s a film actress with a notorious reputation, the mistress of a shady senior military figure. She can barely act, and admits to her friend Pierre that ‘the owl became an actress’. Here she’s explaining to her friend Pierre how she got her start:

” … I couldn’t act, but I could – let’s say – give him the kind of companionship he needed. So with the help of his movie cronies the owl became an actress, as the old saying goes,” [Zouzou said].

“You’re known as a fine actress, hardly an owl.”

“You obviously haven’t seen any of my films…”

In fact, Burckhardt’s original proverb is ‘the owl has become a poetess’, intended to describe a person who is operating above their level of competence. I adapted it to the context and added a bit of support for the reader with ‘as the old saying goes’.

Later, Pierre describes Zouzou as ‘tough as a sheep’s ear’, but this isn’t one of Burkhardt’s: I made it up. My Arabic is reasonably good, but I have no idea whether the Egyptians say this. Does is matter? I think not.

My favourite appropriation is when I have two policemen complaining about their unappreciative superiors. Here’s a snippet:

“Ha! They whine about the breeze around their turbans, but what about the farts in their drawers?” one officer said bitterly.

“And we’re the ones sniffing their farts …”

The original (see illustration) is somewhat different, and Burkhardt’s translation treats the fart word delicately: ‘a slight wind’ in the translation, and then the Latin flatus in the commentary. My version is as bawdy as the original, but I’ve modified the first part so that I give farts more emphasis by placing it later in the proverb. And I couldn’t resist adding the sniffing comeback.

I wonder if other writers have used this strategy?

Stuart Campbell

You can find out about my novels here.