The balconied rooftop apartment in Zamalek on the island of Gezira which my father rented when we arrived in Cairo in 1947 looked over the Nile to the east and Gezira Sporting Club to the west. I learned to count to ten by timing the sunset each night, the sand in the air making the sun a scumbled, smouldering ball, dropping fast and heavily, as if overcome by its own heat. My father had gone ahead of us and been to the Mouski to buy Persian and Turkish rugs, mirrors with gilded and curly frames; brass trays engraved with paisley butis and edged in scallops; a brass coffeepot with a toucan bill for a spout; little ruby glasses, also gilded and flowery, for drinking tea; a bronze sculpture of a crane eating a snake twined round its legs. A dressing table for my mother had bulky, rounded drawers, made of some kind of heavy yellow wood the colour of camel hide; she draped it in pink spotted tulle over a heavier satin underskirt, with braiding and a frill to define the kidney-shaped contour of the tabletop. It was a piece made by hand to look machine-tooled and modern; each of the drawers was slightly different so that you had to put them back in the right order. But Esmond – my father – also shipped a drinks cabinet in walnut veneer from London, as well as decanters for port and sherry and a cunning device called a ‘tantalus’ for locking up bottles so ‘the staff can’t tipple,’ some carver chairs, and lots of bits of silver (cigarette boxes, ashtrays, candelabra, pepperpots, decanter labels): tribal stuff, to keep him moored to home ground, which figured in all the colonial residences of the British, as can be seen in photographs in memoirs like Priscilla Napier’s A Late Beginner, published in 1966, about living in Cairo as a child between the wars: her father, Sir William Goodenough Hayter, was a judge with the Anglo-Egyptian Service, a vital arm of the British Protectorate running the country from the wings.
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