The autumn weather in early October is still warm enough for farms around Ismailia to offer mangos for sale at the entrance of a city that still seems to hold tightly to some of the charms of its youth.
On a first-floor balcony overlooking Al-Geish Street at the heart of what was once the European quarter, Saniya is standing peacefully observing people on the road below. Born in the early 1930s “when Ismailia was very different from what it is today,” Saniya says she has seen “all the glory of the city.”
“It was all very beautiful until the 1967 War and then things changed,” she said. “I don’t remember the details, but Ismailia is not the same as it was. It was not the same after the 1973 War either. But I was younger then and used to have lots of fun. Things change for people and for cities,” she said.
Sadat in the October War operation room
According to some historians, the city that carries the name of the Khedive Ismail who oversaw the opening of the Suez Canal in the late 19th century owes its birth to the day when Ferdinand de Lesseps, the mastermind of the canal, was on an excavation tour and was looking for fresh water.
Led by some local Bedouin to a place with water, de Lesseps promised to construct a city that later became the centre of the Suez Canal Company, hosting its central offices and lodgings for its employees.
It was in 1855 that the fate of Ismailia was decided with the concession of the land that Said Pasha, the then ruler of Egypt, offered for the construction of the Suez Canal. Built between the other two canal cities of Port Said and Suez, the city was not immediately given the name of Ismailia, something that came only later with the inauguration of the nearly 150-year-old canal.
Throughout its early decades, Ismailia was a city of three quarters: the European quarter was used essentially by the employees of the Canal Company; the Arab quarter was for workers who came from all over Egypt to dig the canal and in some cases die while doing so; and the Greek quarter in between the other two was for the many Greeks who had already been coming to find a better life in Egypt and saw the chance for work in the then newly founded city.
The Arab quarter was never as well equipped as the one for Europeans. In fact, according to a study by the Institut français d’archeologie orientale (IFAO) on the architecture of the city in the 19th and 20th centuries, the foreign workers always had much more spacious lodgings than their Egyptian counterparts.
Ismailia was not just intended for the operation of the canal that connected the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. It was also a city of beautiful vegetation, including the varieties of mango that had already been introduced into Egypt earlier in the century by Ibrahim Pasha during the reign of Mohamed Ali.
It was also a city equipped with many entertainment facilities, including a tennis club and horse racing. Indeed, it was a place where Egyptians and foreigners enjoyed living, among them the Ismailia-born French signer Claude François why later described swimming across the canal from the east to the west side.
Nasser inspecting troops during the War of Attrition
It was on the west side of the canal on 5 June 1967 about a decade after foreign families like that of François left Ismailia and other cities of the canal in the wake of the company’s nationalisation in July 1956 that the peaceful life of the city was dealt a shattering blow.
On the western side of the canal on the northern outskirts of the city in the district of Al-Qantara Al-Sharq, Medhat Mounir, only six years old at the time, woke up to the shocking sound of sirens.
“I was very young at the time, but I remember the day very well. I had been hearing news of possible hostilities with Israel from my parents and uncles. but then I got to learn first-hand what war was about,” Mounir recalled.
“It was worse than a child’s worst nightmare; it was like what I had heard Doomsday would be like. There were explosions everywhere and sirens sounding non-stop. The Israeli army was in the city, and we were running in fear. People were losing their children, and older people were petrified. My mother held my hand tightly and those of my two sisters. We left the house in our sleepwear and ran to join my grandmother and two maternal aunts. We were then joined by my father,” he said.
“We had to leave everything behind. The city with its posters in solidarity with president Gamal Abdel-Nasser was left for the Israeli army.”
A few days later at his aunt’s house Mounir remembers the family listening to a statement from Nasser, who had always promised victory, acknowledging defeat. This only compounded the sadness of the family. Mounir, today a physics teacher, remembers that as a child he fell in love with the city. “It was very beautiful even at such a scary moment,” he said.
But the family was not meant to stay in Ismailia, and they left when his father got a new posting at the ministry of transportation. They moved to another city that was built during the heyday of Egypt’s 19th and 20th-century modernisation — Heliopolis outside Cairo.
Ariel Sharon and Moshe Dayan after the military breach
For one year the family stayed in Heliopolis and then moved to Zagazig to the east of the Delta.
“It was confusing because we had come from the Suez Canal cities where modernity reigned. Heliopolis was quite similar, but Zagazig was really different — there were different social norms and lifestyles. It was not an easy process of integration,” Mounir said.
However, it was in Zagazig that the family lived through the 1973 War. “It was a Saturday — I can remember it as if it was yesterday. I remember it was Ramadan, and my mother had sent me to buy some groceries ahead of Iftar. I was queuing up with my younger sister and I heard the news on the radio; by then I was 12 and I understood what I was hearing. We were crossing the canal for the first time since the Israeli occupation,” he recalled.
Mounir grabbed the groceries and held onto his sister, running home to break the news to his mother. “It was a moment of joy, but of uncertain joy. We feared we were being misled, and we also worried about two of my uncles who were with the troops,” he said.
As many Egyptian families did in the late hours of 6 October after the radio announced the crossing of the army to the western side of the canal, the family tuned into the Arabic service of the BBC and Israeli radio broadcasts.
“We were reassured that the crossing was real. The news kept coming and the days kept passing, and I was getting very excited writing poems about the victory and bracing myself to go back to my childhood home near the Canal and regain my life that was interrupted at Israeli gun-point,” he recalled.
The family rejoiced when the news announced the liberation of Al-Qantara Al-Sharq from the Israeli army. “My mother was so happy she nearly fainted with joy. A few days later she wounded her forehead as she jumped up to hug one of my uncles who had come there on a short holiday from the battlefield. She hit her head against his metal helmet, and then a few days later she was walking down the street and saw a soldier heading back home so she insisted on giving him the food she had bought to cook us for lunch.”
Mounir was not really aware of the significance of the breach that the Israeli army managed to make later on 22 October allowing it to re-cross the canal and nearly gain Suez.
On that day, Galal Abdou Hashem, a resident of the canal cities, was confident that the breach would not be the end of the war. In his mid-30s at the time, Hashem had been through a lot, having seen the atrocities of the British occupation and joining the popular resistance. Then he saw the heavy Israeli bombings that followed the end of the Six-Day War before a ceasefire was secured.
Egyptian troops cross makeshift bridge over the canal to Sinai
Hashem used the shrapnel from Israeli bombs to build a statue that still stands in the centre of Ismailia and reflects the steadfastness of Egypt in the face of the Israelis. He was confident in 1973 that the breach would be managed by former president “Anwar Al-Sadat, the great military mind who managed to reverse the outcome of the 1967 War.”
Both Mounir and Hashem were also reassured by media statements that offered little insight into the significance of the breach. Later, when the ceasefire was announced, Mounir and his family were getting ready to leave Zagazig. They would not go back to Al-Qantara Al-Sharq, however. It was to Ismailia that they were heading.
For his part, Hashem has never left Ismailia. He was one of the men who were allowed to stay in the city during the war, waiting for the return of his parents and sisters who had left Ismailia after the end of the 1967 War.
Galal hashem (ismailia)
A few years down the road, Mounir and Hashem took different perspectives on the peace talks that Sadat was hosting in Ismailia with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. An active member of the student movement of the 1970s, Mounir adamantly rejected the talks as much as he had opposed the visit to Jerusalem in 1977 that Sadat had made to launch the talks.
Hashem happily celebrated the victory with another statue, however. Also made of Israeli shrapnel, it also stands at the heart of Ismailia. “There was no point in rejecting the peace. The war had not allowed us to regain all the territory that Israel had seized in 1967, and Sadat had proved his credentials as a top-rate politician. We did not know whether we could go through another war, and it seemed that Sadat knew that the talks were the only way to build on the outcome of the October War,” Hashem said.
Born in a city that overlooks the beginnings of the nearly seven decades of British occupation of Egypt from September 1882 and the battle of Al-Tel Al-Kebir where the Egyptian army lost to the British, Hashem is convinced that invaders “have always came to Egypt, and they always leave one way or another. If Sadat had opted for peace negotiations, it was my conviction that he knew what he was doing and that my role as a patriotic citizen was to support him.”
Today in his late 30s, Mohamed Tarek, a resident of Ismailia, has no strict positions on the events of the past. He and his parents talk little about the day they had to leave the city and the day they came back after the re-inauguration of the Suez Canal on 5 June 1975, ending years of closure that started on the eve of the June 1967 War.
“My mother would often say that she did not believe that she was really back, and she was sure after the death of Nasser that it was the end, but Sadat managed to regain the city,” he said.
Tarek is well aware of the history of his city and the emotional legacy it carries. He likes to walk through the old alleyways where the villas of the Suez Canal Company still stand as a residential quarter for Egyptian officials. He likes to meet with friends at the Café Negrelli on Al-Geish Street, this carrying the name of a Swiss-Italian engineer who was a member of the technical committee that issued a report in 1856 recommending the beginning of the construction of the Suez Canal.
“Ismailia has seen a lot. It has seen good days and harsh times. It has a long history behind it, but it has also been losing parts of its history with the demolition of some old buildings. Just like the rest of Egypt, the question for Ismailia today is about the future. We are hoping to see a better tomorrow, for us and for the rest of the Suez Canal cities,” he said.
An old house of the Arab quarter in Port Said
HOUSES OF MY CITY
It takes about 90 minutes to drive from Ismailia to Suez. Unlike Ismailia and Port Said, Suez was founded before the construction of the canal. And unlike the other cities it did not get its name from the rulers associated with its construction.
Suez is built on the ruins of Clysma, a Greek name meaning “a place often covered by waves”.
Clysma, or today’s Suez, contains remains from Pharaonic times and also of the Persian conquest of Egypt by Cambyses in 525 BCE when the country was part of the Persian Empire. It was from Clysma that Moses left Egypt through the Red Sea. And it was there that early monks found the required solitude for their spiritual lives.
It was through Suez that the Crusaders came from the Levant in the Middle Ages. And it was through Suez that pilgrims crossed to reach Mecca and that the covering of the Kaaba in Mecca was sent after having been made in Cairo.
Unlike large parts of Ismailia and Port Said, Suez was not part of the concession made to the company that dug and managed the canal until its nationalisation in 1956. However, it hosts houses built in the enclave of Port Tewfik for employees of the canal.
The crossing from Port Said to Port Fouad
In the later decades of the 19th century, the British, having just occupied Egypt, made Suez a key point on the route to India. The shipping company P&O was one of the first big foreign companies with large investments in Suez. This prompted the French, then in rivalry with the British, to establish the Messageries impériales company.
Standing before a building overlooking Al-Khour Street in Suez, Anwar Fateh Al-Bab, a history teacher and a resident of Suez, said “this is the building that the Egyptian government allocated for the Messageries in the mid-19th century. It is falling into disrepair now, however.”
“We call it the Beit Al-Massaguiri (house of the Messageries) and lament its decline along with other important historic buildings in the city, including the palace of Mohamed Ali and the houses of wealthy Egyptians who lived in Suez during the 19th and early 20th centuries,” he said.
“One always laments the loss of architectural heritage even if one knows that this is a city that was largely destroyed by Israeli attacks after 1967,” Fateh Al-Bab said.
He was getting ready for his first year in school when the Israeli invasion of Egypt on 5 June 1967 took place.
“This is not something that one forgets; for a child who was barely six years old at the time, the sounds of sirens all around us, the expressions of fear on the face of my mother every time the sirens started, the horror that my sister went through upon seeing the body of a neighbour who was killed in an Israeli raid, the screams of horror in the wake of the statement by Nasser announcing his intention to resign, and the devastated look on the faces of the soldiers coming back through the city from the front, thirsty and tired — how could one forget any of this,” Fateh Al-Bab asked.
In September 1967 in the wake of heavy Israeli raids on Suez, the Egyptian authorities decided to evacuate the city. “My mother started to pack, and she said we had to go. We went to my grandfather’s house in Tanta in the Delta,” Fateh Al-Bab remembered.
He also remembers the drive through the city to leave. “There were many ruined houses, and so much destruction. Some houses were burnt down, and others had survived. I clearly remember the broken wooden balconies that used to be key features of the city’s architecture,” he recalled.
It is this image that Fateh Al-Bab still remembers today when he hears the famous poem of poet Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi performed by Mohamed Hamam “Oh houses of Suez, houses of my city”.
For him and his sisters who were brought up in an open city where life was influenced by the modernisation associated with the construction of the Suez Canal, Tanta was simply “ages behind — no water, no electricity and no sewage system,” he said.
In retrospect, he is aware that he did better than many other families whose evacuation was more prompt. “When I thought about it a few months later, I realised that some families had ended up in schools or other public spaces with hardly any privacy. Still, the contrast between Suez and Tanta in the second half of the 1960s was quite unsettling for us as children,” he said.
For six years, Fateh Al-Bab tried to accommodate the change. “It was not easy,” he said. But at 4pm on 6 October 1973 when his father jumped up in joy after having heard the military statement announcing the crossing of the Suez Canal, “all the unease and discomfort were gone. I felt that the pain was gone. I felt that sooner rather than later we would be back.” These were his thoughts before going to sleep late that Saturday night.
An old milk store of one of the Greek citizens of Suez
The following day, Fateh Al-Bab and the rest of the family woke up to an Israeli attack on a missile base in a city near Tanta. “This was very scary. It brought back the bad memories and re-ignited the fear that bad things could still happen,” he said.
In fewer than two weeks, these fears were exacerbated when he joined his family to listen to the news of the Israeli breach and crossing to the western side of the canal. Then there was the nightmarish news of an Israeli penetration of Suez.
“They attacked on three axes, but these attacks were dealt with by the popular resistance. Some Israeli soldiers managed to get through and occupy the police station in the district of Al-Arbaein,” Fateh Al-Bab said. “But this district stands for the resistance. Today, many people would associate it with the 25 January Revolution, but not so many would remember that it was there that the great popular resistance fought hard against Israel, with many great men dying in the combat.”
Keeping the memory of the popular resistance alive is one of the tasks that a group of young people is working on through an initiative called “Our History”.
In his late 20s, Mahmoud Al-Masry, a founding member, said that “one of the worst things that could happen to anyone is be stripped of the memories that are part of who he really is. People should not forget that the British occupied Egypt, nor should they forget that Suez was a beautiful city before the Israeli aggression in 1967. They should not forget that it fought hard to stop the Israeli military breach in 1973, and they need to remember that it was at the forefront of the food riots in 1977 and the launch of the 25 January Revolution,”
Telling such stories is something that the initiative is particularly keen on. Members hold events in public gardens and elsewhere in the city to remind residents of the long history of Suez.
Like Fateh Al-Bab and others, Al-Masry feels that the history of Suez during the 1973 October War has never been properly told. There is always a feeling that the bravery their city showed in helping to reverse the military breach has not been appreciated. Many people feel that this story of people willing to join hands with the army to expel the enemy is something that needs to be told again and again for fear of being forgotten.
Fateh Al-Bab laments the brief references to the October War in general and in particular to the role of Suez in school curricula. He has found few references to the battles in Port Tewfik — an extension of Suez that was built to allow for more housing a few decades after the canal’s inauguration.
“Our history is part of our identity, and we fear that with the passing of time the younger generation will grow up without knowing what Suez is really about and what it stands for. We want the younger generation to remember that their city is home to grand stories of bravery and faith, not just to impressive oil refineries,” Al-Masry said.
The room of Ferdinand de Lesseps in Ismailia
Suez is indeed home to Egypt’s first ever oil refinery, built in 1913. Since then other refineries have been established in the city. Pictures of then Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in one of the refineries Fatah Al-Bab remembers seeing after the October War. The pictures reflected the savageness of the Israeli occupation, he said — “something one can never get over, even though one is grateful to the October War for having rectified.”
It was a few months after the beginning of the end of the War on 28 October 1973 that the Fateh Al-Babs were packing to head back to Suez. They all shared the wish to go back to Suez rather than stay on in the Delta.
“We knew that we were going back to a city that had been destroyed during the war. We had been hearing stories from people who had gone — about the declining infrastructure and services, for example. But what we thought, all of us — parents and children alike — was that we wanted to go home. Suez was home, and we always wanted it to be home,” Fateh Al-Bab said.
The trip back to Suez was slower and more composed. “We were not rushed or scared, but we were happy and saddened at the same time. We were happy to be back, but the volume of the destruction left us with a sense of awe. I still remember the trip back, as I remember the trip out of Suez. I can never lose the memory of those two days,” he said.
Of the many things that Fateh Al-Bab was saddened to see was the destruction of the city’s cinemas. Prior to the 1967 War, Suez had around 15 cinemas that were widely attended. After the evacuation, some of these cinemas started to fall into disrepair. The Israeli raids destroyed more.
“But some survived the years of the war, even though then the problem became how to ensure that they were maintained. Many were neglected and eventually demolished to make space for new buildings that fail to recapture the beauty of the city — be it the European quarter or the Arab quarter,” Fateh Al-Bab lamented.
“There was obscurity everywhere, and it was hard to find any trace of light in a city distressed by the 1967 War.”
This was how novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani recalled his visits to Port Said in his years as a military correspondent shortly after the defeat of the Egyptian and Arab armies a little over 50 years ago.
In an article included in an IFAO book on Port Said, Al-Ghitani shares his memories of the harsh and enduring pain that came when he was in the city to see the Israeli flag hanging on the eastern side of the canal. He also reflected on the pain and fear that the driver accompanying him on his travels felt every time he looked at the eastern side of the canal.
During the 1967 War, Israel occupied the eastern side of the canal, except for Port Fouad that escaped the invasion after the seven-hour Ras Al-Eish battle. Al-Ghitani developed, he wrote, an immediate affinity for Port Said the first time he went there in 1963.
For him, everything seemed to be peaceful, and it was a city “where all the different pieces come together in an easy harmony” and where art was always important, for example in performances of the simsimya and tamboura (two musical instruments) or in the cooking of delicious fish dishes in typical Port Said fashion.
“Up until 1967, life in Port Said was a tranquil flow, but then with the morning of 5 June 1967 all the bits fell apart in a litany of endurance and pain that only ended with the 1973 October War,” he wrote.
The houses of the Canal Company in Ismailia
GRIEF AND GLORY
It takes 90 minutes by road to go from Suez to Port Said. Like the rest of the roads leading from Cairo to the Suez Canal cities, this road shows clear signs of security.
“We cannot take any risks, and we have to keep our eyes wide open. We cannot allow infiltration from North Sinai in particular,” said a security guard on the road.
For the past five years, the state has been combating terrorist operations in North Sinai, a tough and long fight that this guard compared to the War of Attrition that started in the wake of 1967 and lasted until a ceasefire was established in 1970.
For three years, Egyptian and Israeli forces battled on both sides of the Suez Canal, even if the 1967 War was not the first encounter for Port Said with Israeli troops. In October 1956, Israel, along with Britain and France, attacked Egypt in the Tripartite Aggression after Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal Company some months earlier.
“Anyone who lived through that war cannot forget it. No matter what happened later with the 1967 defeat and the 1973 victory, the 1956 War for the people of Port Said has a particular significance because this was the war that saw most of the destruction the city has seen in its entire history,” said Mahmoud Abul-Hoda, a businessman.
mahmoud aboulhoda (port said)
Born in the early 1930s, Abul-Hoda said he “had seen the real grace of the city. It was a city divided between the European and the Arab quarters, but it was for the most part a peaceful parallel existence between both sides and at times even a peaceful coexistence as in the case of our school, the Lycée of Port Said, where I attended along with European and Jewish students,” he recalled.
Port Said was constructed with the canal itself after Said Pasha granted de Lesseps the concession to build the Canal. Given its place at the linking point of the Mediterranean and the canal, Port Said was always a fast-growing city.
Like the rest of the Suez Canal cities, it was divided into Arab and European sides, with obvious discrimination allowing a European’s house to be built on a space that would accommodate at least four houses on the Arab side. And like the other cities, too, it has lost much of its architectural heritage, partially due to the Wars and partially due to neglect.
Port Said had a diverse European presence that is still reflected in the many churches in the city, but there are few other cultural traces left, except perhaps for the Gionala tea room that was owned and run by a Swiss-Italian national. Today, the francophone influence is the strongest, and the Alliance Française, a grouping of the graduates of the city’s French schools, is committed to underlining the French influence.
Abul-Hoda is a member of this group, and he is currently working on the reopening of the French Lycée. “We have to put things into perspective: there is politics, and politics brought our cities wars and destruction. But there is also culture, and francophone culture is part of our city. I took part in the popular resistance to the British occupation, but culture is different from politics,” he said.
The ability to draw a line between what is political and what is cultural, Abul-Hoda argued, is one of the “outcomes of the October War”. He adds that “when you are defeated, you are weak; you have grievances; and all you are thinking of is how to get even. When you are winning, you feel confident that you can engage with the other on an equal footing,” he said.
This was how Abul-Hoda felt after the 1956 War that “left us with a definite political victory to support our nationalisation of the canal” and after the 1973 War “that secured the end of the Israeli Bar Lev Line and allowed the many people who had been forced to leave the city to come back and try to reassemble their lives.”
The return of the people of Port Said started in 1974. In 1975, Sadat reopened the canal and announced that Port Said would be a free zone, starting an influx of business into the city.
Sayed Karawya, a businessman in his 60s born and brought up in the city, argues that Sadat’s decision to turn Port Said into commercial free zone was not a reward for the city for the “resilience it had showed for 20 years”.
“I know that many people liked the idea and that many people did find jobs and many people made money. But what did the city get? I would argue hardly anything,” Karawya said. What Port Said and the other Suez Canal cities lost as a result of the wars with Israel was “truly well-thought through development,” he adds.
“Lots of people lament the loss of what they say was beautiful cosmopolitanism, and this might be true, at least partially. But in fact the most significant loss was the development schemes for the Suez Canal cities, not just Port Said. There is a need for a holistic approach today, just as there was in the 19th century with the construction of the canal,” he said.
“This is what we have been hoping for since the end of the October War.”
TOMORROW AND YESTERDAY TOO
Political commentator Osama Al-Ghazali Harb is optimistic about prospects for the development of the Suez Canal cities.
“The state is working on a plan. It is still being put together, but it has been initiated,” he said.
Judging by what the state has shared since digging an extension to the Suez Canal inaugurated by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in 2015 and the digging of tunnels to connect the west side of the canal to its eastern side, Harb says there has been “action on this front.”
“Many things have been done since the October War in terms of infrastructure and the building of universities, and today much more could still be done,” Harb said.
He argued that whatever the assessment of consecutive regimes after the October War, given that the full recovery of Egyptian territories that Israel had occupied was only secured in 1981, “the ultimate reality remains that this war ended a deep sense of humiliation that the entire nation had to live with for six years after the 1967 War.”
Yet, what is gone cannot be forgotten, argued Nayera Yehia, a researcher currently working on the long-term impacts of the forced evacuation of the Suez Canal cites on their inhabitants before and after their return at the end of the October War.
According to Yehia, the memories of the war and the evacuation have yet to be documented, and they would explain much of what the people of the cities lived through and what they have to say to their children and grandchildren.
Relations at the popular level between Egyptians, often born after the October War, and Israelis today, Yehia argued, could focus on the accounts of those who fled their homes in their sleepwear and nothing else on a day that many have described as “Doomsday”. Their stories also reveal much about the relations between urban and rural inhabitants at that moment of Egyptian history.
“The fact that these people today would rather talk about their return to the Suez Canal cities than about their forced ejection from them is very telling of how they feel today and how they may feel tomorrow about what they have been through,” Yehia said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Remembering the October War