The Suez Veterans Association

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A chance encounter

Dear all, I am a non-member so will be grateful if you would take the time to read my post in the hope that I will be able to somehow find the information I am looking for.

In the summer of 2007 I was sitting in Trafalgar Square waiting for some friends to return from an open-top bus tour in central London and I got talking to an elderly gentleman who described how he had been separated from his parents (and ten siblings) in a riot in Cairo at the age of five. He told me he had to survive on the streets for a long time and, had it not been for the kindness shown to him by a Major in the British army it is unlikely he would have survived.

His family had fled Russia and were in Cairo to get papers/passports and then, I believe, it was their intention to move somewhere else.

Ten years on from my meeting with this very interesting man I have decided to a story based loosely on the information he gave me, but I would like to be as factual as possible wherever I can be. I went to my local library and have searched the internet for information on life in Cairo from 1950 till 1960/65 but have found very little information that is useful.

The gentleman was not specific about when he was separated from his parents but I assume it had to have been somewhere around the "Black Saturday" riot on in January 1952.

In order to do the story credit I am trying to imagine what life would have been like for a "street-kid" in Cairo during that time and I thought it may be possible that someone in your association would be happy to share some insights.

Incidentally, the stranger was reunited with his family many years later (thanks to the heroic Major who managed to track them down in Australia) and was able to go and visit them. His father and most of his siblings were still alive but his poor mother had died not ever finding out what had happened to her little boy.

Thank you and best regards, David Brooke-Mee

Re: A chance encounter

Hi!

Try a 1963 movie, 'Sammy going South' - it may lead to other sources.
Also 'Into Suez', by Stevie Davis.

????

BB

Re: A chance encounter

On second thoughts, ignore 'Into Suez'. It's not relevant and is somewhat fanciful.

Sorry

BB

Re: A chance encounter

Thank you Bill, I will definitely give the movie a try. Your second post suggests I should ignore "Into Suez" so I'll follow your advice on that too.

Thank you very much for taking the time to reply to my post, I'm very grateful.

Kind regards,
DB-M

Re: A chance encounter

Hello again David!

You wrote: "I will definitely give the movie (Cairo Road) a try. Your second post suggests I should ignore 'Into Suez' so I'll follow your advice on that too."

I gather your main area of interest is Cairo, correct me if I am wrong. Perhaps if you were to expand on your project we may be able to provide more relevant information.
Btw, "Into Suez" is largely set in the Canal Zone in the 1950-52 period. I said 'fanciful' because the author's description of the time and place is not based on her own recollections, but gleaned from a variety of other, sometimes unreliable sources. NB: This is a novel, not a history.

If I am correct in my assessment of your area of interest then you need to search for a 1958 Egyptian film (once banned!) entitled "Cairo Station." Arabic language with English subtitles - a real eye-opener!

Regarding "Cairo Road", here is a review published by a Canal Zone-themed Newsletter in December 2004:

WHAT'S ON - Now Showing at a Kinema Near You!
RETURN WITH ME NOW, to those days of yesteryear as we take a trip down Memory Lane, or to be more precise — Cairo Road!
Of course, all you Old Sweats out there will have realised that I am referring to the British Film Industry's 1950 epic, Cairo Road, starring Eric Portman and Laurence Harvey. No doubt, like myself, you will have been thrilled and excited by this film, over and over again, and will need no reminding. However, if there are any young shavers out there who missed it first time around, or perhaps you had your head buried in the sand at the time ("in the sand.." - Geddit! ), well... here goes:
Cairo Road was made in late 1949-1950, on location in Egypt. To those on the spot, this was a source of great excitement. I for one, was on tenterhooks hoping to be lucky enough to be selected as an extra, or at least, for the crowd scenes. A contemporary critic wrote:
"Cairo Road is a detective programmer involving a Narcotics division located in Egypt. Colonel Youssef Bey (Eric Portman) and Lieutenant Mourad (Laurence Harvey) are trying hard to bring down an illegal drug-smuggling ring led by the Pavlis Brothers. This film champions the police and its methods and looks very harshly at the illegal drug trade.
There are some neat twists and surprises here in terms of plot. Portman, Harvey and Harold Lang stand out in their roles. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie."
For me, the film's attraction is, needless to say, its nostalgia content. There are scenes of 1950s Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, the Suez Canal, El Kantara and the Ferry — even the Camel Corps! The finale is played out in Suez. The Treaty Road as well as the Canal Road is featured. You can imagine the catcalls as well as whoops of delight that greeted the film when it was featured at our local neighborhood Astra! Remember, this was the real thing, filmed on actual locations, not in a studio at Elstree.
I took the opportunity to record Cairo Road the last time it was shown on TV, then a few weeks later, I found a commercial copy at a local Flea Market — Sod's Law! If you are a true 'dyed-in-the-wool' Suez Canal Veteran, this film is a must! (A. Bystander.)

And there you have it - Fill yer boots!
BB

Re: A chance encounter

Yes Bill, it's definitely Cairo I'm interested in.

The gentleman I met told me he'd survived on the streets there and there was a close affiliation with British military personnel stationed there.

Actually, the movie you suggested I track down (in your initial reply to my post) was 'Sammy Going South'. I've found it online (Amazon £10) but your second suggestion - Cairo Station is available for free on You Tube - I'm watching it now. I will look for Cairo Road when I'm finished.

Thanks for your further input Bill.

My boots are slowly filling up.

DB

Re: A chance encounter

David I was one of the fortunate who went on one of the tours of Cairo in 1954 after the Treaty was signed. It was only one day but covered all the sights of interest which in some cases required walking through some streets and alleys.

As I say the visit was short, so not very informational, but, my general opinion was as my entire time in Egypt was, is that nothing changed much for the general available to see population, people were going on selling trinkets, jewellery and tourist type souvenirs. The thing that impressed on me most was that at one point we drove past the Palace formerly occupied by King Farouk, now occupied by I think it was Nasser, it just confirmed my non researched opinion that to the average Egyptian it didn't make a lot of difference who was in the Palace, life for them just went on.

Re: A chance encounter

Thank you Robert that is what I had been led to believe so it's wonderful to have some "eyes on" confirmation.

In your wandering, did you happen to notice any beggars, street urchins and the like. Our guy apparently survived by mucking in with that part of the city's inhabitants. He told me one story about stealing hubcaps from an officer's vehicle and selling them back to him later on.

I'm trying to get a feel for how that society would have treated its homeless.

Another thing I've found myself wondering is what type of traffic one would have encountered in the smaller, narrower streets? Would there have been livestock and horse/donkey/ox-drawn carts intermingled with modern vehicles and foot-traffic.

Were the streets noisy?

Can you remember any smells? I know at one time the garlic was impounded and left to rot and the stench was unbearable but that may have been a little before you visited.

Thank you so very much for taking the time to reply. I'm very grateful to you.

DB-M

Re: A chance encounter

I am truly sorry, my memories are vague, I could say yes I saw all the things you suggest, but I would be misleading you terribly. I seem to recall we visited a mosque, and from there walked down very narrow streets or alleys, there were artisans, I remember particularly one hammering strips of silver into trays, the trip took us to the Cairo Museum. We were escorted throughout by an Egyptian army officer, so I suspect we were guided to approriate areas where we saw the best of Cairo. The most major example of this was that we were entertained for lunch at the Gezira Sports Club, where we had lunch in a Country Club type atmospherre, dining in the open restaurant on the roof of the club. After lunch we went to the pyramids where we saw and paid to see an elderly gentleman run up the side of the Pyramid in a stated time earning the money we had donated. There were some younger people who obviously knew British soldiers. and there origins because we in a short time were canvassed as Jock to purchase items, some of which were pictures of a questionable nature, as I have said it was a short trip, and came not long before the much more anticipated boarding of a ship to return to home environs where we could swing the lamp,about our active service experiences. I was nineteen, I didn't realise the importance of what I was seeing, experienceing, or sixty odd years later would still be reminiscing, trying to recall, and stay direct and not deviate to what I think I done or saw.

Re: A chance encounter

Bob Sharp, you are a lucky man. I spent 20 months in the Canal Zone and we were so isolated from Egypt that I have no recollection of ever seeing an Egyptian family or Egyptian woman, or even the houses where they lived.
I was stationed just outside Suez, at night we could see the night sky lit from the city and hear the city noises but we were so removed from Egyptian life that we might as well have been in Aldershot.

We spent our service isolated on a 100 mile long narrow strip of useless desert, squeezed between the West Bank of the Suez Canal and the Atiqa Mountains . . . Egypt might as well have been a thousand miles away.

I can't help but notice that no soldier serving in the Canal Zone ever refers to it as "Egypt" --- we were in "The Canal Zone".
Bob I envy you your sojourn into Cairo and the Pyramids. I would have given my eye-teeth.
I left in July '53, about a year before the Treaty.

JimW.

Re: A chance encounter

Jim:
I do indeed consider myself reasonably fortunate in my Canal Zone experience. Guards, patrols, escorts were what we did, we had no trade training other than warfare. Our basic traing was pretty much drill, deportment, and discipline, our trade training at Pirbright was pretty much weaponry, section and platoon tactics, night patrol lessons, e.g reaction to flares etc. when to drop, when to just stand still.

Port Said was a wonderful experience for an eighteen year old boy pretending to be a big tough guardsman. We had walking out privileges and walked through a tenement housing area to get downtown, met many Egyptians on that walk and heard the music from their homes. The favorite venue was an ice cream parlor on the main street called Gianolas.

Doing esc orts down the Canal and Treaty Roads often incurred stops in places like El Ballah , El Firdan and other smaller towns. Sometimes a long escort would incur a trip as far as Suez.

Our duties were well provided for manpower wise. Guards of course were regular, escorts, etc. also I never felt overworked or under manned for sure.
I never had to do a foot patrol in the desert anywhere, if required we would generally take a section of men with an officer and N.C.O one vehicle with a bren gun. Cannot remember ever doing a patrol in the Sinai.

Recreationally we done our own, our camps were well equipped, and the 32nd Guards Brigade consisted of Scots Guards, 40 Marine Commando, and the battalion of the Parachute Regiment so there was considerasble inter unit sports rivalries.

You are correct the icing on the cake was the trip to Cairo, we were picked up by a bus with Egyptian escorts, driven to Cairo where we were hosted to the full tourist tour, Mosque, Museum, Pyramids. As I said the lunch was something, waiters serving us in a high class facility, couldn't have been better, the Egyptians really looked after us.

In our camps in Port Said and Moascar we had many civilian employees, and businessmen. Laundry was one, and the little counter that sold Assis another, I do not recall any difficulties or fall out with any of them. We did walk softly during Ramadan and at that time were generally restricted to camp and on high alert.

I had the usual dose of the runs on first arrival in the country, but suffered no ill health after that. I fell in love with hot weather and desert and have spent a lot of time in both since. My time in the Canal Zone was a highlight of my life, particularly being so young, it was only outdone by my time doing Royal Duties in London. I had the perfect service as a guardsman, active service overseas, and Ceremonial at home, plus leaving the Regiment with three stripes on my sleeve was a thing of pride.

I have had a good life achieving a degree of success in what I have strived for, pretty much have emptied my lifetime bucket list and can now sit back and enjoy my thoughts while relaxing in my back patio, quietly reminiscing.

Re: A chance encount

Bob, in the spirit of sharing: I arrived in Port Said on the troopship HMTS LANCASHIRE around April 15, 1952. Like yourself I was an eighteen year-old British soldier (2 weeks later I turned nineteen). We were confined to camp- waiting for our postings and two days later I was sitting in the back of a 3 ton Bedford on my way to Suez, wherever that was. The only odd thing was that we all had rifles and live ammo in our pouches and when we stopped we posted lookouts - it was exhilarating.
I was one of the last to be delivered and was dropped at the gate of REME Station Workshops in the Suez Garrison. I hadn't a clue where I was - when I went through the gate I couldn't help but notice that everyone was brown and I was ghost white. But, for the next twenty months a four man tent was my home and an uninterrupted view of a large desert from my bunk.

During my stint in Suez I was lucky to go on several convoys to other garrisons to the north so I got to compare different garrisons. My job on the convoy was armed escort - we called it "Riding Shotgun". During the convoys I learned to drive and also learned to ride a motorbike.
I think the Suez Garrison was one of the smaller garrisons, which meant that no matter your unit - you had to soldier first. I was an electrician but took part in a few roadblocks, foot patrols in the Sinai and called out on a few " flaps" - everybody had to. I think we only had four light infantry in the garrison: The Berkshires, Green Howards, Cheshires, Inniskillens. No Marines, No Airborne.
Consequently, the garrison was organized so that in any flap there was an organized response involving much more than the regiments (no matter time-of-day or night). When my camp was "on call", those assigned were confined to camp and signed out their weapons at night. You slept with your rifle under the edge of your mattress and ammo pouches hanging above your head.

Bob, you said " . . . the Canal Zone was the highlight of your life". I echo that sentiment, I have to admit that it is an important part of my inner self-identy and I am glad it happened in my life. I landed in Suez an eighteen-year-old and left 20 months later a twenty-four-year-old.


JimW.

Re: A chance encount

It is nice and interesting to share experiences, you must have been a three year man like me. In my case, first flight in a plane to get to Egypt, short visit to Malta tour of Cairo, and a cruise after also twenty months to get back to Blighty, flying, cruising, touring, an all expenses paid holiday in the sun, boy what a recruiting poster that could have been.

Re: A chance encounter

Robert, this is gold.

Forgive my ignorance but what is/are Assis?

DB

Re: A chance encounter

Assis I am not sure the spelling is correct was a cold drink I suppose in a way like Kool Aid, that an Egyptian shopkeeper on our base supplied at a very reasonable price. It was usually I don't know how quite cold and was refreshing, remember you are dealing with a man who was only eighteen/nineteen for the duration of his time in the Canal Zone, still enjoyed some boyish pleasures.

Re: A chance encounter

Again, very helpful. Thanks Robert
DB

Re: A chance encounter - Here's More....

Try this:

"Cairo in the War 1939-45," by Artemis Cooper
The book is an account of life, loves, attitudes and events in Cairo during World War II. The background to the events of the Desert War is described, putting into perspective stories and descriptions of the personalities involved. Much of the materal is gleaned from personal diaries, including those of her grandparents, Lord Duff Cooper, a high-level diplomat and Lady Diana Cooper, a prominent British society figure.
The book is probably the only comprehensive survey of this fascinating period, with details on just about everything from HM King Farouk and the formidable Princess Shevekiar to the British army's long occupation of Egypt. Not forgetting the Berka, the infamous red light district (Ladies, avert your gaze!).

BB

Re: A chance encounter

David, it looks like you have resuscitated our previously moribund site.

Although I was only in the Suez Canal Zone for twenty months, they were historical months in the lives of the Egyptian people. In that short period, I think I saw Egypt under the rule of King Farouk, Colonel Nasser and just before I left - General Neguib. I was actually on a patrol in the great Wadhi known as the Eastern Desert when a silver-bullet train roared past - it was King Farouk and Queen Farida on their way to safe exile after the Naguib insurrection.
Typically, but sadly, I think it is accurate to say that we were oblivious of these tumultuous events in Egypt. Other than increased guard duty, it was life as usual. Although Egypt was just outside our guarded perimeters, it was on another planet.

JimW.

Re: A chance encounter

Hi Jim

I'm so sorry it's taken me this long to reply; the thread has become rather confusing and difficult to follow. I received a notification that there had been a reply but I wasn't at my main frame computer (was operating from my phone) so couldn't for the life of me figure out where the reply was sitting.

It's interesting what you say about Farouk departing by train; for some reason I'd always thought (assumed I suppose) they'd left by ship.

I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like to patrol in the desert beyond it being blindingly hot during the day and freezing cold at night.

I suppose people do tend to become a little unenthusiastic when they think all of the stories have dried up, which is a shame because there are still so many untold stories out there.

Thank you for your time once again Jim.

Regards,
DB

Re: A chance encounter

David,
Just to keep things tidy. I believe Farouk did leave by boat, but he had to get to the boat.

JimW.

Re: A chance encounter

Thank you Jim.
DB

Re: A chance encounter

Not a chance encounter but an employee in our Battalion. Our officers mess had a chef, being Guards officers they did not have a cook as they also did not have a batman but an officers servant.

The chef was an Egyptian his name was Dahab Ali Hassan, he was an elderly gentleman, very typical chef, master of his kitchen, and very good at his job. He lived on the base all week, in his own tent. He had his own toilet facility and a thing that caused us some humor was the fact we were aware of him not having toilet paper, but he did have a paint brush and a bucket of clean water, we were told this was for the purpose of post bowel movement cleansing. There was one occasion when someone added some turpentine to the water, the culprit was never found but would have been seriously punished, of course Dahab questioned our hygiene practises because of our cleansing method with paper.

I talked to Dahab quite frequently, he told me about spending some time in London, I suspect he worked in one of the larger hotels. He would often go on a tirade about the disgusting practise of English women particularly in Hyde Park selling their body for sex, this obviously had disturbed him seriously. He I suspected although a willing employee was not particularly fond of the British our relationship was strange to me because I was not sure if he liked me or just put up with me, as a young man I had very black hair, and of course a deep tan.
Dahab would get angry at me sometimes, and say "Sharp you Yahoodi" I took it he meant jew, this seemed to be the stongest insult he could throw at me, of course in my youthfulness I didn't really care, I didn't particularly have anything against Jews got on fine with the few I knew. Sometimes he would when I was on a fatigue in the mess, give me a special treat, food that he had leftover from one of the meals, always fantastic. I tasted asparagus for the first time in my life.

Dahab lived with his family in El Ballah, never of course saw his house or met his family, crusty old bugger, but I sort of enjoyed knowing him.

Re: A chance encounter

Robert, thank you for yet another great contribution.

When I read your post I recalled an incident that happened to me in China and was compelled to write about it on my blog. Thats' why it's taken me all day to respond. The article is too long to transcribe here (I'm only a guest after all) but if you do want to have a read you can find it at https://thedeltabravo.com/296-2/

There are indeed cultural difference that separate us and its our seeming inability to learn and be tolerant of them that keeps in conflict; a two-way street of course.

Your man Dahab sounds like quite a character who I imagine, from your description, to have been certain of his place in this world and proud of who he was. Thank you for sharing this memory. I have a feeling your man will find his way into my story somehow.

Regards,
DB

Re: A chance encounter

Hello again!

"City of Gold" by Len Deighton, 1992. A riveting tale of Cairo in WW2.

In view of your special interest in Cairo, maybe you would care to join us in a session of community singing? If so, grit your teeth and check out a new topic, coming shortly - "Sing Something Simple."

Caveat Emptor

BB

Re: A chance encounter

Haha Bill, I shall keep my eyes open and will participate if I don't have a sore throat that day.

Caveat Venditor

DB

Re: A chance encounter

David, this will be a NEW topic. You may need to click on 'Index'at top left, above 'Recent Posts'.

I agree, it can be confusing, especially if one replies to a posting earlier in the same thread.. and a pathway fraught with peril for the Octogenarians that inhabit this Forum...

Nothing personal...

BB