An Egyptian childhood

David Tresilian , Tuesday 8 Feb 2022

English writer Penelope Lively, now approaching her ninth decade, has published a new book including reminiscences of Egypt, writes David Tresilian in an occasional series on books by visitors to Egypt

Book Cover

Born in Cairo in 1933 and now approaching her ninth decade, English writer Penelope Lively has this year published her latest book, a collection of short stories that contains pieces perhaps drawing on childhood memories of her life in Egypt.

She lived in Cairo until her family left at the end of the Second World War, and though she did not become a professional writer until many years later, she has many times returned to memories of the first 12 years or so of her life that she spent in Egypt. These provided material for a book of memoirs she published in 1994, exploring themes such as the relationship between individual experience and world events and the persistence and transformation of memories of childhood in later life.

Entitled Oleander, Jacaranda, A Childhood Perceived, the memoir is of Lively’s early life in Egypt. However, since the memories it contains are entirely taken from pre-adolescent years, the book is also an exploration of the gulf between childhood and adulthood in what Lively calls a process of “double exposure.”

Memories of her childhood in Egypt often return as images in adult life, she says, and one task of the memoirist is to compare these mental pictures, sometimes astonishingly vivid despite the passage of years, with what the adult knows of their wider context and place in a developing story. The book is thus an exploration of the “nature of childhood perception,” insofar as that can be retrieved from an adult perspective, “a view of Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s” through the eyes of a child growing up in the country, and an examination of “the way in which a child sees and how this matches up with what it was that was seen.”

Lively’s first picture is of a journey. “We are going by car from Bulaq Dakrour to Heliopolis,” she writes, her memory of that day being extraordinarily vivid even nearly half a century later and carrying with it something of the intensity of childhood. “The leather of the seat sticks to my bare legs. We travel along a road lined at either side with oleander and jacaranda trees, alternate splashes of white and blue.”

“We would have been going to visit friends, driving from our home four miles west of the centre of Cairo to Heliopolis, the eastern suburb, a journey which meant traversing the city – a slow and incident-strewn navigation amid trams and donkey carts and pedestrians,” the adult writer supplies as context, while wondering at the “irretrievable child and the eerie relationship between her mind and mine. She is myself, but a self which is unreachable except by means of such miraculously surviving moments of being: the alien within.”

This is one form of double exposure, a pristine image swimming up out of childhood memories and an adult’s attempt to understand it by placing it in context, framing it by thinking of dates and times and destinations, when the journey must have taken place, how old the child who made it must have been, where she was going to or coming from.

However, there is also another form of double exposure in the book when Lively decides to try another method of retrieval, this time by revisiting places from her childhood not only in memory but also in fact. “Over the years, it had somehow never been possible” to return to Egypt after leaving it for the last time in 1945, she writes, “either too expensive or impracticable. But the 1980s brought the expansion of the Egyptian tourist industry… and thus it was that I went back as a tourist [spending] three days in Cairo during which we had planned the search for Bulaq Dakrour.”

As anyone who has revisited places from childhood in later life will know, they are, and are not, like the mental images retained of them, recognisable unless there has been some major reconstruction, often very similar, but never quite the same. The people are different even if the landmarks are not, and even if the landmarks are still there, they do not mean the same things.

Lively’s childhood house, rented when her father took a job with the National Bank of Egypt and the family went out to live in Cairo, was “cream stucco with green shutters, flat-roofed and with a wide covered verandah running round most of two sides. The front door was rather grandly porticoed, with a flight of steps leading up… It had been built in the early years of the century, along with its two neighbours, all of them lavishly surrounded by gardens and sharing an access driveway screened by a high hedge.”

Returning to Egypt 40 years later, the words “Bulaq el Dakrour… leaped out at me from road signs,” Lively writes. “It was not a place now but an area, a part of Cairo’s sprawling extension. The city’s teeming dun-coloured spread had gobbled up the fields of berseem and sugarcane” remembered from childhood along with “the villages and presumably our home.”

Taking a taxi from central Cairo and driving out through Mohandiseen, eventually she finds the house, “battered but alive, the old shutters still on most of the windows, the big verandah at the back.” But “of the surroundings, everything had gone. The fields, the village, the palm-fringed canals. Our garden with its thirty-foot eucalyptus trees, the lawns, the ponds, the pergolas. Nothing left but the house, stolidly clinging on. Somehow this was not sad, but curiously exhilarating. I had not expected it to be there at all.”


MEMORIES: Later chapters in the book contain other images from Lively’s Egyptian childhood, similarly using them to meditate on the pictures that may accompany individuals through life and how understandings of their meaning change.

There is a visit by a snake charmer, for example, something that would probably not happen now and that struck the child that witnessed it as introducing a note of dissonance into her parents’ otherwise briskly practical lives.

“One year, a further ritual took place – an esoteric form of spring cleaning,” Lively writes. “The snake charmer came. He was brought out from Cairo by my father in the car and immediately taken off to be searched by the servants, who carried it out, and in no way objected to by the snake charmer, who expected it. Everybody knew – the snake charmer included – that inferior practitioners arrived with their quarry concealed about their persons, to be produced with a flourish at the appropriate moment.”

“He began with the garden. Walking ahead of us, he would chant softly, apparently to himself. He would pause, consider. Then would continue, pause again. The chanting would get louder. And then he would shoot a skinny arm out of the sleeve of his galabiyya up into the foliage of the pergola, or onto the overhanging branch of a tree, and there would be a snake, whipping and thrashing in his grasp… with everyone speculating sagely as to how it was done.”

There are also less domestic memories, used by Lively to question the extent of her younger self’s understanding of her social position and events in the world around her as she grew up in the house at Bulaq Dakrour.

“We were English. I was English: that much I knew… It was of central importance – you were never allowed to forget that – but what it meant I could not possibly have said,” she writes. “I saw cosmopolitan, polyglot Cairo. I recognised difference and distinctions – the poverty of the fellaheen, the luxury and flamboyance of shops and cafes, the varying rituals of the place, from the muezzin’s call to the social exchanges of the Gezira Sporting Club or Shepheard’s Hotel – and perceived it all as an immutable state of affairs, requiring observation but no explanation.”

“It was the European Cairo that I knew best… a place of cultural confusion [where] I was battered throughout my childhood by nationalities and allegiances. British, French, Greek, Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish… I placed them within the only context that a child has available – the personal context – and sorted them out into some kind of order. British was us, and most of the people we knew well. Egyptian was the world at large, the myriad faces of the city, of the cultivation. French was the scented, chauffeur-driven mother of a wealthy family we sometimes visited… Greek was the lady in the grocery near the villa we had one summer in Alexandria.”

As the child’s gaze gives way to that of the adult, and as Lively reviews her childhood memories, she is struck by the unquestioning way in which her younger self accepted the surrounding social order, part of the innocence of childhood, she supposes, when states of affairs that are the result of historical processes – British occupation and foreign economic exploitation – are in the main accepted as natural, or would have been had Lively’s younger self not also had a reflective streak.

It is not only that Lively wants to compare what she saw then to what she knows now, often a humbling experience, but also that even then she thinks there were “sudden chinks in [childhood] self-absorption,” revealing glimpses of ignorance.

Remembering summers spent in Alexandria, another city Lively revisited later in life and found greatly changed, she thinks of “the beaches that reflected the complexities of class and culture. Stanley Bay was raffish and multicultural… Sidi Bishr No. 1 was plebian. Sidi Bishr No. 2 was dashing and classy. Sidi Bishr No. 3 was classier yet, and it was there that my mother tried to achieve a beach cabin each summer.”

It would be too much to say that chiefly moments of dissonance are remembered – more often it is simply innocent pleasures like a visit to the Pyramids, tea at Groppi’s, cakes from Baudrot’s in Alexandria done up in ribbons in the French manner, or a visit to the Cairo Zoo where the keepers would allow children to feed the elephants peanuts in return for a five piastre piece. But dissonant moments when something of significance seems to be going on behind the scenes give rise to special wonder.

She remembers a trip to Palestine in the summer of 1942, when the family would have been loaded onto a train to Jerusalem to avoid “the flap” taking place in Alexandria as Rommel’s troops advanced on the city from the Libyan border, only to be halted by the Battle of Al-Alamein in November. Even then she felt that something was taking place that would eventually cut her off from her childhood world.

Palestine meant “grey-green hills with olive trees and rocky outcrops. Miles of orange groves, apparently growing in sand,” but no anxiety about what the future might hold despite the political situation, outside the range of a child’s concerns and presumably carefully hidden by accompanying adults.

Thinking back over such pictures from childhood, Lively says that whereas a child is very often seeing things for the first time and is bound up with the intensity of her perceptions, what the adult supplies on looking back on them is context or double exposure, helping to make sense of experiences that though deeply felt could not have been fully understood at the time.

Penelope Lively, Oleander, Jacaranda. A Childhood Perceived, London: HarperCollins, 1994.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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