Jane’s Memorial Day-A Special Memory.
It seems a long time ago now but then I suppose it is, Forty Three years in fact. In the Spring of 1980 Jane and I visited the land of the pharaohs. I had recently met Hamada and he kindly ask if we would like to go visit his family in Egypt. He was coming towards the end of a postgraduate degree and it was a busy time for him so he kindly asked if we would like to travel to Alex to meet his family. Jane and I jumped at the chance and hurriedly made our plans. Alfie, Mum and Dad waved us off at Heathrow.
We had the usual bags and things seemed easier in those days. I remember well Jane had a fairly substantial carry-on bag with of course the most important items. Layered carefully across the top were a beautiful precious bunch of English daffodils from Jane and Alfie’s garden. Not wanting these to be crushed they certainly must go as cabin baggage. We were stopped at baggage as they weighed the offending large bag and stated it must go in the hold, as much too big. Jane’s very clear voice said this was just not possible as this bag contained her contact lens! Everyone laugh! They smiled and sent us quickly on our way, with bag intact, (things were certainly different to travelling now)
So started a holiday of a lifetime.
We really didn’t know what we were going too! Having only met Hamada a short time before but he assured me that all would be very fine indeed.
As we started the descent Jane and I looked at each other with a little dismay and trepidation as our noses pressed up against the window showed what looked like a very grubby set of playing cards, stacked as houses and the tiny very dirty looking narrow alleyways of old Cairo. We fought our way through the much too busy airport, first time seeing the scary guns of the security guards, everything looked so shabby at that time, subsequently better in the years to come, when I visited again many times, But we found the allotted meeting place, pushing through the crowds, stepping over seated people, donkey traps, bikes, beggars, old taxi’s and the odd camel to where Hamada’s two brothers and older brother-in-law were waiting outside.
They welcomed us profusely and showed us very politely to an old but beautifully cared for, Black Mercedes sedan and we proceeded through a traffic jam and the tremendous noise and bustle in “downtown Cairo to pick up the beach route out to Alexandria. Jane looked across at me with a wink and a reassuring gaze but I knew we both thought perhaps this is a luxury ride to the slave trade! The guys seemed really nice but oh boy it was hot and our clothes were already sticking to us. It was v hot, no a/c was working in the car or perhaps they thought it was not that hot, it was after all only April. About half way on our journey one of the brothers produced a flask and tiny glasses and mint tea was passed around.
We both enjoyed that, although sickly sweet with sugar it revived us and we became more comfortable but their v little English and our no knowledge of Arabic made us laugh when probably we shouldn’t…Two+hours and 122 kilometres later we arrived outside a huge old grand Victoria house set back on a hill overlooking the sea in the bay of bolckly , Alex. A very fine old house with crystal chandeliers and servants, it was cool inside and smelt so good of cedar and oud, lovely after the stuffy car, there we met the family and more extended family and were able to give the precious daffodils to Mamilet Hamada’s Mother. She sent for a vase and water, which Jane and I could have downed in one go! and proceeded slowly to arrange the flowers as if each had gold stems. They stayed on the piano for the duration of our stay and were v much admired by all, even when faded and crisp. Mamilet repeating the story over and over in her deep guttural voice to any guest that arrived, about the gift that the two English girls had brought from England. Not a bit interested in the Stratton powder compact I had given but that was coveted away v quickly by those beautiful hands and dark Jackdaw eyes.
My poem Al Byt, Al Kabeer, on my blog here tells more clearly, and reminded Jane of those times and where you may read her comments beneath. Soon a large pot of English tea and the famous syrupy Egyptian cakes arrived, we looked at each other and knew all would be very fine indeed.
Needless to say we had the holiday of a lifetime. We were given an apartment belonging to one of the daughters for the duration of our stay but every night we would return to the ‘big house’ for a formal dinner, we had fun dressing for that with our limited clothes and each brought a shawl from the souk to cover our arms. We learnt quickly.
So many things happened during that holiday that to us were incredibly exciting. Travelling across the Nile Delta 261 km to Port Said and then across to Fouad City. Where we spent the night in a really dodgy bunk house with a chair pinned under the door and BIL Al Hussany sitting on guard outside the door all night for our protection. We could hear guns firing, odd rumbles, dogs barking all night. We slept in our clothes as the blankets looked well used but still we laughed although we were scared witless!
Then to another extreme, sitting in rattan peacock chairs on the balcony of the grandiose export company friend of the family, Hamza and Co, overlooking the Suez Canal and being fanned, big heavy hand-held punkah fans and served mint tea and small Egyptian baboosa cakes by the v young boys who worked there. Janey said at the time “well, who would ever believe this?”
So many things stay in my mind of that time. Laying in bed in the v early mornings and hearing a bell ringing and the nay of a donkey outside the bedroom window (and Janey with a wail and not ready to wake quite yet and hiding her head under the beautiful soft Egyptian cotton pillows) then leaning out to lower down the rope which was attached to the window frame and pulling up a basket of fresh apricots and strawberries, then the early knock on our door as a tray of warm battered fruits and soft white bread and v strong coffee/or tea would arrive from the big house for breakfast. Hamada’s household had servants And Nora who was assigned to us, would regularly shrink our best trousers and favourite t-shirts till we wised up and put them back in our cases grubby, saying we had no washing today Shukrun!
Jane loved every moment of it, even when we got quite sick with ‘Ramses Revenge’ after eating an under-cooked Nile fish. We took a chance in the end as we got sicker, drinking a family potion that smoked out of the glass and smelt of sulphur, revolting but we looked at each other, pinched our noses and said “ think of England and downed it!
We did all the museums in our matching navy pleated skirts a fashion at the time and when the half asleep guide in the Alex museum unlinked the ropes around the sarcophagus, for a much closer look, we felt special, being English in those days, opened many doors, we were able to lean over to inspect v closely the toes and part faces to see noses poking through the ragged cloths of the Pharaohs bodies, we were enthralled and felt special as the other sightseers had to remain firmly behind the barriers. We visited the then famous boulevarge cafe an open vine covered roof and rattan furnished meeting place, for wealthy young people and lovers. We also visited the Steigenberger Cecil Hotel in Alex, with its dusty palms in the mirrored vestibule, it was built in 1929 by the French-Egyptian Jewish Metzger family as a romantic hotel, Guests have included, Churchill, Somerset Maugham and Al Capone. Jane and I had her favourite Earl grey tea in the lounge, we lingered a long time over this and ate the sugar lumps and studied the cutlery, gorgeous China and many faces looking for the famous film stars of the day. This hotel appears in one of the great works of English fiction, the book ‘The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. Also something I found out later that the British Secret Service retained a suite there. We fitted in well and the service was impeccable!
We spent a further three days in Heliopolis staying with a marvellous elderly Aunt and Uncle again in the most gorgeous home. We toured at night the alleys of Cairo and even wandered the ‘ladies squeeze’ a long very narrow passageway with gift stalls on either side, when all the lights in Cairo went out, a not too uncommon power cut. We clung to each other as faceless galabiyahed folk pressed rather too closely, scared for sure but still we laughed as we clutched our souk purchases and each other!
We rode camels right out in the desert as,many do but in a Kamseen wind, not like it is now, so built-up and spoilt, it was still free and unstructured, we inspected the wonderful Pyramids, everything was so easy in those days…The wonderful music, the warm people, the sounds, the different foods, we tried most everything. When I returned I wrote a poem for Janey called ‘One year Ago’ Janey loved it, she often spoke of this holiday over the years mentioning it most every time I saw her. Of course I have many memories of my much loved sister but this is My memory this is Our memory and one I will take care of, for always…
Susie Moursi. May 2023.
Music of the time: We are Family – Sister Sledge. 1979. Good Times – Nile Rodges.