In 1989 I was appointed to the Canadian Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Then the President was Hosni Mubarak who had served under President Anwar Sadat and previously under President Nasser. In those days our Chancery was in Garden City which is a neighbourhood next to Tahrir Square and is very central in Cairo. We had purchased at some point in the 1950’s an old villa and it was a funky spot for an Embassy. At the end of the street was the British Embassy, a large complex which at one point stretched all the way down to the Nile. The British occupied this piece of land in central Cairo since at least 1800. There was several buildings, one being the Residence of the Ambassador in British colonial style with the lawn stretching down to the river, that is until Colonel Nasser who took over the government in a coup in 1952 decided to block river access by building a road, the Corniche al Nil, the reason was that the British had sea planes fly to Cairo and land on the Nile docking at the Embassy. The Egyptian authorities had no control on those planes and the British claimed that they were covered by Diplomatic privilege. However this being Egypt, the government built the new stone wall and gave the Brits some 300,000 Egyptian Pounds in compensation. Next to the Ambassador’s Residence was another building used at one point as a ballroom, it was now used as a Consular section. The third building was quite large and had been built in 1951-52 at the height of tensions between Egypt and Britain when riots took place all around the Embassy compound. The British continued building not paying much attention to the Egyptians. Egypt had been their protectorate since the 1860’s and the British Army and Navy had a strong visible presence in the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and in the Mediterranean. I could walk from my Office to the Commissary store where the British gave us access and we could buy duty free goods, liquor and British style foods which were brought in for diplomats of the Commonwealth. The distinctive feature of the Embassy was the large wrought iron gates with the cypher VR (Victoria Regina) with gas lamps. This Embassy complex saw many events from the glory days of the British Empire and it was a symbol of the importance of Britain in the world.
His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador Residence in Garden City
I lived in Kamal Al Tawil street in Zamalek on the island Gezira on the Nile in Central Cairo, from my apartment I had a panoramic view of all Cairo. I would drive from my home down to the Qsar Al Nil Bridge in dense and totally uncoordinated traffic
The famous larger than life lions guarding the bridge, they were sculpted by a French artist Alfred Jacquemart. The bridge until 1954 was called Khedive Ismail Bridge. The current bridge was built in 1932 by an Australian company.
I had bought a VW Jetta in Canada and had it shipped to Egypt by cargo ship in a container. The car had a nice radio that you could pull out completely and take with you, a security feature. The radio was able to get short wave transmission and I would listen to the BBC World Service while driving around. Marion Marshall one of the most recognized voices of the BBC World Service read the news on the hour coming from London. In those days the BBC identification tune was the military march Lillibulero. The French version is known as the Marche du Prince d’Orange, and is attributed to Louis XIV’s court composers Philidor the Elder and Jean-Baptiste Lully. The basic melody of Lillibulero appears to have been adapted by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for the theme of the first movement of his Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K.
Anytime I hear this tune I instantly think of those days in Cairo. This was amongst one of the best posting I had. Life in Cairo was fun and always full of extravagance and peculiarities so Egyptian. Cairo a Capital of 15 million people is a vast metropolis full of history going back thousands of years. It is reflected in the way the Cairene think of themselves. Previous to my posting in Egypt I had read several books by Nobel Literary Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) his stories of the people of Egypt, ordinary people living in and around old Cairo are fascinating. I could walk the streets and recognize buildings and sights described in his books. He use to say; If we reject science, we reject the common man.
Another writer was Lawrence Durrell who writes about life in the Middle-East prior to 1940. His book The Alexandria Quartet begin with young David Mountolive on the Hosnani estate near Alexandria, where he has begun an affair with Leila Hosnani, mother of Nessim and Narouz. This leads to a recollection of Mountolive’s maturation and career as a diplomat, a career which in time returns him to Egypt. This book won many awards, and is fascinating to read.
I have not returned to Egypt in 20 years and I don’t know if I would recognize it today. But I do keep the most wonderful memories of my time in Egypt.