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BETTER ON A CAMEL

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

By Randolph Magri-Overend


EMPRESS OF CANADA

The EMPRESS OF CANADA was the last passenger ship to be built for Canadian Pacific's Liverpool to Montreal service. She left Liverpool on her maiden voyage on 24th April, 1961.





When the “Empress of Canada” docked in Alexandria in February 1962 it felt as if I had come back home. Eight years previously, almost to the day, our family had left Egypt for the greener pastures of England.



Alexandria 1960's


Alexandria itself meant nothing to me. We were Cairenes by birth and the beaches of Port Said were our summer holiday playground. We were not unique in this regard - most Europeans living in Cairo relocated to the seaside every summer. The Greeks and Armenians generally fled to Alexandria to escape the heat, we went to Port Said. Before Nannu Gusi (my maternal grandfather) left Egypt to live in his native Malta he used to rent a wooden cabin for a month right on Port Said beach. My brother and I would join him and then stay on for an extra two months at my stepmother’s flat in town.


When the ‘Canada’ steamed into Alexandria harbour in 1962 the landmarks were unfamiliar. The duplicity of those trying to make a dollar hadn’t changed, however. The galli-galli man boarded and performed his repertoire of tricks; the hawkers of wares from silks to jewelry lined the quay and traded via a straw basket and a length of rope. Those bewitched by the whole atmosphere bought Johnny Walker Black Label whisky only to discover later it was cold tea and the vendor beyond the short arm of the Egyptian law.


Alexandria, like the rest of the exotic places that one reads about over the years, is an experience. We were in port for four days and that first night I dared to venture into town by myself and was befriended by a local tout as I sauntered through the dock gates. He spoke ‘Voice of America’ English and ignoring him failed miserably. In exasperation, after trying without success, I asked him to take me to the nearest restaurant.


I was desperate to re-introduce my palate to Egyptian food, in particular a bean stew, which the locals call ful medames. Spiced mouth-wateringly and served on flat unleavened bread, it was a very simple meal that probably dates back to the days of Moses and the exodus from Egypt.



Abdul “call me Abu” took me to a local cafe. Served from a gigantic pear-shaped copper urn, fool medames is drawn out of its continuously simmering depths by a long-handled ladle, mashed into a rough paste, sprinkled with chopped parsley and lemon then stuffed into the unleavened bread which the locals call Shami. It is the next best thing to heaven.




Abu was obviously on some form of productivity retainer so, after the meal, I allowed myself to be escorted to a nightclub that had as much class as a gaggle of men cavorting in a Turkish bath. Abu disappeared as soon as I entered.


I suddenly found myself surrounded by a bevy of buxom maidens, all clamoring for champagne. I chose a local beer and the damsel least likely to annoy me. Her English was restricted to mono-syllabic words relating to procreation. After her champagne arrived, she caused a fuss when I requested a sip. Wanting nothing to do with her, I tried to explain I was releasing her from any obligations she thought she felt towards me. She seemed to understand this and retreated ungracefully, growling like a temperamental cat on heat and displaying a mouth full of missing front teeth! Before I had time to ponder what else was missing,



I got asked to leave by a spindly-looking fezzed person and the over-shadowing presence of a giant, dark-skinned Nubian character with scar furrows carved on both cheeks. I quickly hailed a horse and carriage and fled back to the comparative safety of dockland.


The next day, six of us left in the early morning for the three-hour drive to Cairo and the Pyramids. Armed with packed lunches from the ship’s kitchen, we placed our lives in the hands of a local taxi driver for the journey south.




They say driving in Egypt is as endearing as Russian roulette. Certainly, it’s no more dangerous than chariot-racing in Caliguila’s Coliseum or cheering an away goal during an English Premier League while surrounded by rabid home-team supporters. Driving we discovered is best left to the locals. As a passenger, it is best to resist the temptation of wanting to see where you’re going because you know the driver isn’t either! After a while you become used to the discord of blaring horns, the squealing of worn rubber, the weaving on both sides of the road, the hypnotic sway of worry-beads behind rear-view mirrors and the constant litany of remarkable profanities from your driver’s lips for the opposing driver’s skills!




We stopped for lunch at the Ezbekiah Gardens in the center of Cairo prior to our assault on al-Ahram - the Egyptian for Pyramids. Adjacent was the Cairo Opera House, the venue of Verdi’s premiere of the opera Aida commissioned by the Khedive to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal.






Remarkable timing ….. the canal was opened for traffic in 1869 but Aida was not performed till 24th December 1871. A little bit of information you may not have known . And wished you hadn’t!




While the others ate their sandwiches, I made a very brief nostalgic visit to the street where we used to live. The block of flats was still there, looking faded and very past their prime. Next stop was another cafe serving ful medames. I salivated in anticipation, but when I tried to share my good fortune with my colleagues at the gardens, they turned their collective noses up in unanimous disapproval.


Finally, we made our way to the Pyramids which I had only seen once before. I was thirteen then being the last year before we emigrated to England.



The place was practically deserted. The hawkers were glad to see us, however. We took the obligatory photographs but soon discovered everything had a price. A group photograph taken by one of the locals cost a dollar if we wanted the camera back. Looking on the positive side, we were all offered the chance of playing Lawrence of Arabia. Some of us chose to ride a camel. Others, like Nancy, a busty lass who worked in the ship’s store, were offered a horse.



P.S This is not Randolph.

A film double was used to protect the innocent



But Nancy felt over-balanced on a horse. So for the obligatory payment of a dismounting fee, we swopped. Why she thought a camel provided more security escaped logical evaluation. Horses probably provided too much chesty instability!

In any event, my local ‘equerry’ Sharaf had a brilliant idea. Why not ride out into the desert and then gallop back at high speed and have a picture taken with my own camera? To add a touch of authenticity Sharaf even lent me the type of headgear Yasser Arafat wore. Off I rode as best I could into the distance.


I charged back and he duly snapped away or so he told me. He wasn’t lying. However, when I had the film developed, what promised to be a desert profile of yours truly in trailing bedouin headgear turned out to be a very inactive picture of sand, more sand, and a cloudless blue sky. With not a soul in sight!


But wait! There’s a post-script to all this. Haifa in Israel was our next port of call. You have to remember that this was the era of Arab-Israel conflict. Soon after our arrival, I was approached by a local Israeli functionary and requested to leave the relative security of the Pursers’ Bureau.


The Purser's Bureau on The Empress of Britain later that year.

(Back Row) Mike Howard, Terry Foskett, Ken Roberts, Randolph Magri-Overend

(Front Row) Hilda Longworth, ?????, Joanna Pickett.


With a sense of trepidation, I sat with him in the chairs adjoining the Bureau. The functionary had done his homework and noticed from my discharge-book that I’d been born in Egypt. In a conspiratorial sotto-voce, he whispered “Have you got a camera?” I wondered where all this was leading, but I nodded. “Is good!” he continued, still in a whisper I could only describe as chilling. He continued, “Next year when you go to Alexandria, we want you to take photographs of the port. As many as you can take!”


Recovering from my astonishment, I managed to mumble. “Who is we?” “The highest in the land - Mossad.” “How much will you pay?” I stammered. This couldn’t be happening to me. “We’ll let you know after we see the photographs.”

And that’s how we left it.


­­ Unfortunately, I was not selected for the following year’s Mediterranean cruise.


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6 comentários


Randolph
Randolph
13 de ago. de 2023

Is good!

Curtir

John Martin
John Martin
12 de ago. de 2023

Here is the 1962 cruise itinerary for the 'Empress of Canada'


Curtir

John Martin
John Martin
12 de ago. de 2023

The 'Empress' as featured in the heading is of the 'England' or 'Britain'. The 1961 'Canada' had a different funnel configuration. Whereas her two earlier sisters had a 'top hat' cowling, the Canada had an open vent on the front of the funnel and a vent on the back.


Curtir
Salty Seadog
Salty Seadog
13 de ago. de 2023
Respondendo a

John. I used the wrong picture. Entirely my fault, the correct photo has now be used. Sorry for any confusion.

Curtir

John Martin
John Martin
12 de ago. de 2023

Love this style of story-telling. Especially when one can relate to those stories. 😊

Curtir
    
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