My 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
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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-?