A friend of mine, an expat from Cairo who lives in California, recently sent me a video clip of present day El Alamein.....
...an incoherent agglomeration of hotels, lagoons, canals between buildings..... and Italian gondolas. manned by Arab gondoliers.... all replicas of ersatz glitzy Hollywood props..desecrating one of the most beautiful places in the world. A built up visual outrage which is supposed to attract tourists, reminiscent of the same fate that has destroyed the pristine beauty of Sharm el Sheikh at the tip of the Sinai, and Sokhna, on the Red Sea.
I do not have to delve extensively to remember the El Alamein of my tender years, and my youth. The name conjures stories that my parents had told me, and I clearly recall several trips that we took, driving all the way from Alexandria to El Alamein and further on to Mersa Matruh.
Historically, El Alamein was a last stand for the Allies in North Africa. It lay 68 miles from Alexandria. To the north of the insignificant town was the Mediterranean Sea and to the south was the Qattara Depression.
The battle involved 220,000 men, 1,100 tanks and 900 guns on the Allied side with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery commanding the 8th army which included Australia's 9th division, a New Zealand division, both parts of of the British 30th Corps famous for its defence of Tobruk,
There were actually two major battles of El Alamein, and the decisive one, with Montgomery in charge, started on October 23 and lasted until November 3rd 1942.
These brave heroes faced the 180,000 men, 600 tanks and 500 guns of the Axis powers of Rommel's famous Afrika Korps.
On June 1942. Irwin Rommel's armies had captured Tobruk and started their onslaught on the defensive British line at El Alamein.
Had the German army not been eventually vanquished by Monty's army, the Axis forces would have marched victoriously into Egypt, and the country we lived in would have fallen. They were at the outskirts of Alexandria...just over 68 miles away.
My mother told me recently that at that time, all the bakery ovens in Alexandria had stopped making bread and other baked goods to sell to the Alexandrian population.
The Italian community had taken over these enormous bakery ovens and employed the Arab bakers 24/7. The Italian women were frenziedly making hundreds and hundreds of cakes and other goodies to welcome the Italian soldiers and their German allies when they arrived as conquering heroes in Alexandria.
I wonder what happened to all those cakes.
Had the enemy prevailed and conquered Egypt, my family, and the other Jewish families in Egypt, would have all been sent to Auschwitz to join the Jews who were caught living in the various German invaded Mediterranean islands and countries.
Is it any wonder the British decided to incarcerate all the Alexandrian Italian adult male population, and send them to detention centres in the desert? I suppose they must have done this to the Italians all over Egypt as a very needed precautionary measure.
The visual features of El Alamein easily surface in my vivid memories of the area. The road to El Alamein had been built by our British armed forces during WW2 and was a winding one.
My first visit there was when I was a little girl. During the war, my dad had been in the British Armed forces, in Montgomery's 8th army, and had fought in the North African campaign under his command. He was very insistent that we go and visit El Alamein so I could see the graves of all the fallen British soldiers, the heroes who had saved our life during the war.
Leaving the city of Alexandria we drove through a polluted industrial area called The Mex with its gnarled traffic congestion involving donkeys, camels, carts, cars, trucks and people.
We had to close the windows of the car due to the gagging stench emanating from the local tannery industry.
Leaving this area far behind us, and already surrounded to the left and right by sand dunes, I recall seeing clumps of date palms dotting the desert. There were groves of fig trees growing by the wayside on the chalk embankments nearest the road, and separated from the road by barbed wire.
We stopped for a short while, and I clambered the knolls leading to the fig trees, picking and eating some of the ripe fruit, which dripped with sweetness.
I suppose there must have been a high content of chalk mixed with the sand hence the glistening white sand dunes.
On the way, we passed the beautiful beaches of Agami and Hannoville, and then drove by a Bedouin village called Burg El Arab, where we sometimes stopped to buy fresh laid eggs. They were so fresh that their shells were translucent. The Bedouins sometimes had a young goat to sell, as well as chickens, figs and dates.
We reached Aboussir where I found a piece of Ancient Egyptian painted plaster. I was so excited , but was told by my parents to put it back where I had found it.
I recall seeing miles and miles of unending dunes to the right and to the left of the winding WW2 road..and northwards, past the sand dunes, to our right, there glittered a sea so breathtakingly limpid blue. Mirages appeared and dissipated as we neared them, keeping a respectful distance away.
Further west and on both sides of the road, we finally came upon areas which had been isolated from the road by barbed wire.
We had reached the region that everyone calls North Africa.
At first, we saw large shapeless pieces of metal embedded in the sand. My dad explained that they were relics of WW.2.
Further on, I felt quite unsettled to see the burnt out emasculated shells of British military might: lorries, Sherman tanks, and guns, haphazard rows upon rows of metallic motionless sepulchres to the dead. These were the relics of WW2 . A poignant reminder of the terrible death toll suffered by the heroic youth that comprised Field Marshall Montgomery's army.
We advanced very slowly, and noticed some signposts. We stopped to read them. They stood stolidly in place, trembling slightly, as they were buffeted by gusts of desert wind mingled with fine grains of sand . The signs warned that one must not get off the road onto the desert sections as there was serious danger of tripping unexploded land mines.
My father explained that between the two armies was the 'Devil's Garden'. This was a mine field laid by the Germans which was 5 miles wide and littered with a huge number of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. The British Royal Engineers division had cleared as much as they could, but a large number of land mines still remained. I found all this very exciting.
We finally stopped, and I jumped out of the car, and took a deep breath of that wonderfully salubrious air, inhaling the salty whiffs of the Mediterranean Sea that wafted across the desert. I ran up and down, ignoring the ominous warning signs, and my parents' terrified calls, and then hopped over and across the barbed wired on to the desert area between the corroding trucks and tanks, and gingerly touched some of them in great awe.
Everything was so very quiet..but for the sounds of the desert.. A sheet of paper, yellow with age, floated down and landed fluttering like a youthful beating heart at my feet. It was a poem handwritten in English. I read it and wept. I wondered where the author of the poem was. Had he been killed, maimed perhaps..or had he been saved?
God only knows where the sheet of paper is now....I remember taking it home with me, back to Alexandria....but like everything else it stayed in Nasser's Egypt.
I returned to the car and was told off by my anxious parents.
We drove past those wartime emblems, until we came across the rusting metallic, partially destroyed motorized and heavy artillery remains of the Desert Fox's defeated Afrika Korps.
It was then that my mother recounted to me the tragic story of one of the French Vice-Consuls in Alexandria.
He had taken a group of French journalists to view this very area, and had ignored the warnings signs.. There was a deafening explosion, and one of his legs was blown off.
I remember meeting him one day when there was an important "Vernissage" at the "Atelier" in Alexandria. My mother was sitting comfortably in an armchair chatting with another guest. The Vice Consul approached to greet her, and much to my amazement, she got up and gave him her seat. Later on, when we were on our own, she explained that this was the Consul who had lost a leg having stepped on a land mine in El Alamein.
Returning to my memories of El Alamein, I recall that we drove to the cemetery of the Allied forces, and leaving the car outside, we walked through the entrance.
There was a small cabin where a lone Bedouin sat. His job was to look after the cemetery.The meagre pay he probably received enabled him to feed his family with a little more than fava beans.
He was delighted to have living company, and escorted us around answering our questions in English. He said his name was Suleyman, and my dad asked him what other languages he spoke apart from Arabic and English. Suleyman said he also understood and spoke fluent German, but had never attended school so could neither read nor write.
My father later told me that Bedouins had been very canny spies, because of their ability to meld in the landscape and wander around with their camels and goats, anywhere they wished....it was therefore highly probable our Bedouin had been well employed as a spy either by the British, or the Germans...or both.
I stared at the neat rows upon rows of graves with crosses. Many had short heart-wrenching poems inscribed on them. My parents pointed out other tombs with the tragic inscription stating that the person or persons buried there were "Known Unto God".
The graves showed the vast array of nationalities and people, British, South Africans, New Zealanders, Maoris, Australians, Poles etc... of all religious denominations including Judaism with the Magen David, the Star of David.
There was not a living soul around apart from us and the Bedouin, and when we silently looked at the graves, all I could hear was the sad sigh and sometimes soulful moan of the Libyan desert wind.
It was very sunny and quite hot. Lizards scurried away looking for shelter anywhere they could among the gravestones. On a few occasions we sidestepped scorpions skimming across our path, with their lethal tails up in the air, fish-hooked parallel to their bodies.
A small desert tortoise hid in its shell and looked remarkably like a hand grenade. Our Bedouin guide warned us not to get too close to a low broken down wall at the side of the cemetery, as it had become the habitat of a family of Egyptian cobras.
We returned to the car and drove to Tell el Eisa where the German and Italian cemetery was situated. I felt neither pity nor sorrow as I looked at all the graves; just a tremendous sense of relief that so many Axis soldiers had been killed by the Allied forces.
Leaving Tell El Eisa we reached an area with signposts informing us that it was safe to go on the sand dunes leading to the sea.
We opened the doors and my dog Teddy and I hopped out of the car. He raced around thrilled to be out in the open again He became quite intrigued by a beetle that was crawling on the ground, and started barking furiously at it.
The beetle just ignored him...so Teddy resumed sniffing excitedly everything and anything that was sniffable. There were so very many strange, and new exotic smells.
A small desert hedgehog appeared and foraged around, and suddenly rolled itself up into a ball but our dog did not like the smell and kept away from it.
Carrying our beach umbrella and other beach paraphernalia we made our way across the dunes, towards the seashore. We had to return to the car several times, trudging across the dunes to bring the picnic baskets full of delicacies to the place near the sea where we had propped the umbrella.
Alas, the scrumptious food eventually got peppered with grains of sand, but we were all starving and the extra bit of crunch did not deter us from enjoying our picnic.
Flocks of uninvited sea gulls swirled above, attracted by the food, so we accepted them as our guests.
I can still see, in my mind's eye, the breathtaking colour of the Mediterranean Sea, and its different shades of turquoise blue. Close to shore, the colour changed to such a transparent aqua blue that I was able to watch with absolute delight, the large schools of cheeky, fluttering, flickering minnows, the lonely translucent shelled crabs crawling over the fine grainy sand, and the occasional large fish meandering close to the shore.
The sand was a glistening diamond white and so very fine that it stuck like a veil to my feet and legs. The cobalt blue sky had a few fluffy cotton ball clouds gently sailing past, and the sea shimmered invitingly.
Sand rays came close to the edge of the beach, and then fluttered away. We had been warned that we should not swim far from the shore as the place was teeming with sharks. What amazingly beautiful and unspoiled scenery.
After spending as much time as I could playfully chasing Teddy up and down the beach and into the water, running with my home made kite, watching it soar to the heavens, it was time for me to loll around and do some serious sunbathing. I would then dive in the sea in order to cool off, swimming very fast, parallel to the shore...just in case.... somehow dreading a shark attack.
I heard my mother and father laughing uproariously when I came out of the water. My mother was recounting the story of her last trip to El Alamein. She was manager of Agence France Presse in Alexandria, and had been invited with other foreign journalists to attend and report on the visit of Mrs. Rommel to the two cemeteries.
My mother's description of the event was hilarious. According to her, Mrs. Rommel was an enormous mastodon sized woman. A typical Germanic hausfrau , with bottle blond hair pulled tightly into a severe bun. She wore a comical sunhat, and a large flowery dress with short sleeves. It was very hot and her white skin had turned a mottled beetroot red as had her arms and legs.
Whenever the photographers said they were going to photograph her, she immediately turned on the waterworks..burst into tears and sobbed as if her heart would break.
This charade would stop abruptly when the photographers had finished , and she would chat loudly and in a most jolly manner to whoever was speaking to her in German.
There was a non stop repeat scintillating performance of the above farcical comedy during all the time she was visiting the cemeteries.
My dad looked at his watch..it was time to leave. So I half heartedly returned to our car, for the return trip home to Alexandria.
On the way back, we passed by the battle scarred remains of the heavy artillery of WW2, past the sand dunes, past the groves of fig trees, past the quaint Arab villages and the date palms, until we arrived in Dekhela with its small practically intact Roman harbour where I so enjoyed going fishing.
I vividly remember the inn and restaurant there. We went up the stairs, and were ushered onto the covered wooden verandah overlooking the beach and the harbour. My parents ordered a delectable fish supper - catch of the day, minus the crunchy addition of grains of sand. There were several friends of ours sitting at tables that were laid with clean crisp ironed table cloths.
It was a popular place for Alexandrians who owned cars. In those days, cars and telephones were considered a luxury, and the majority of people had neither. My parents' friends had come with their children, and they waved to us insisting we join them, calling us "Edgar, Sophie, Edna...how lovely to see you..please come and sit with us".
The amiable smiling waiters rushed over and added an extra table and chairs and there ensued such joyous and erudite conversations between the grown-ups. There was so much laughter. So many jokes were exchanged, with my dad who was an amazing wit adding his hilarious in-put to the general laughter.
After supper, as it was still warm and sunny outside, my friends and I put our swimsuits on and rushed to the beach. We jumped in the sea giggling loudly, and laughingly splashed each other and swam as fast as we could.
In those days no one used protective sun tan creams, and our sunburned skin was always peeling. When the sunburns were painful, I remember my mother would beat an egg white until it was frothy, and slather my face and shoulders with it. That was such an awful egg-smelling but soothing relief!
Later on, for a few millimes ( a few cents) we rented donkeys; clambered on their back, and rode up and down the beach, trying to have races. The boy who looked after the donkeys sported a perpetual grin from ear to ear. He said his name was Ahmed, and seemed to be having as much fun as we were as we joked with him.
Ahmed was about our age, and wore a long white robe called a gallabiyah and a skull cap called a ta'eyah. It was his job to help us on and off the donkey, and to lightly wack the donkey's rear end with a stick, whenever the donkey slowed down.
Sadly, it was finally time to say goodbye to Dekhela. I hugged some of my friends, and waved goodbye to others. We made plans to meet at a future date at the Alexandria Sporting Club for tennis and a swim in the pool.
Sun tanned, the picture of health, and replete with memories of the desert, and the beach, and with fine sand still stubbornly clinging to my feet and legs, I clambered into the car with Teddy, and regretfully returned to the "Big City of Alexandria"...which was far from that at the time!
I was recently told that from Alexandria to El Alamein there is now one long string of towns and hotels....
We were so lucky to have seen all those places, and so fortunate to have left when we did - long before the beautiful Egyptian countryside became a Paradise Lost, and was turned into a vast non-ending metropolis comprising a glitzy pastiche of Hollywood movie props.
Aaah...progress..what a lot of crimes were committed and erected in your name!!!!
16 December 2006
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