THE SMUGGLER

He had never for one moment considered what he was doing was smuggling. The post-World War was going through a gigantic upheaval and fortune had placed him where he flew with the other crew members to link up with those disparate areas recovering from years of turmoil and violence. Barriers had been broken down, refugees wandered looking for homes, the World’s merchant ships were moving food to keep hungry people alive and warships now carried to their homes the millions of service personnel who had been deployed globally.

The World was once more at peace and only Britain of the Imperial Powers remained intact – battered, bombed and bankrupt but intact and Britons strode the planet, unchallenged masters for the span of time needed for the others to sort out a post-war status quo. So they flew from country to country keeping mail, supplies and human agency moving to the places where British control existed.

It did not take B long to work out that whilst Singapore had rubber (latex) and the rest of the world none, India had tea but was unable to export it, North Africa had leather and toilitries, all in demand and, for some reason, the Middle East had watches and watch straps. The supply and demand process, interrupted in 1939, had not returned by 1946. A neighbour had asked him to bring back a carpet, his sisters, silk stockings, a girl friend, shoes. That had been the start, and now….

The gharri (Truck) was waiting on the edge of the perimeter as the York touched down at Almaza airport, driving towards it as it turned from the end of the runway. B opened the aircraft door and rapidly handed out the five large gunny sacks as the vehicle came alongside. It drove off as the York proceeded to the disembarkation area and the now familiar smell of Cairo came to them. ‘You could put me down blindfold anywhere in the World, ‘Tash’ would say, ‘and I’d know at once if it was Cairo.’ B felt that this was a vivid way of expressing what they had all experienced and felt about the strong olfactory effect that this town had on them. You could lose yourself trying to describe it. In those days many cities had their distinctive smells, unlike today, with the ubiquitous and obnoxious, all pervading, polluting smell of the internal combustion engine, these smells were lingering, subtle, earthy and evocative, with some identifiable component parts, although the whole was an amalgam, woven into the context of that particular city, and enhancing it as a perfume enhances a woman.

They were taken to the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, which was one of the reasons they always looked forward to a trip that included Cairo, rather than some of the isolated posts that lay on the routes to the East. As usual, at the end of a leg, they were tired and needed to relax. After they had eaten, a card school was started up spontaneously in one of the bedrooms. They usually played brag or pontoon and a peculiar aspect of their games was that they gambled with money from all the countries they had ever called at along the routes. This never seemed a problem as they all knew the relative rates of exchange and found it easy to convert Indian rupees and annas to Egyptian piastres, French francs to Italian lira, Iraq piastres to Palestinian currency and even Japanese occupation money from East Asia was used so long as it was over-stamped by the British control authorities. All notes and coins changed hands smoothly as the game progressed, allowing individual players to accumulate currencies they required or get rid of any currencies they did not need. Mostly it was a way to relax, with a beer and the superficial card game chat, after the long, busy and noisy hours in the air.

There was another York crew in the hotel, and they came into the room later, some of them to join in the game, others to exchange news and make plans for an outing to Cairo. It was getting hot and crowded when a hotel servant dressed in the customary curdee and fez, tapped on the door, asking for Mason Pasha. Outside on the landing was another Egyptian who indicated that the five sacks of tea had arrived and were downstairs. He led B by way of the back stairs, seeming to know his way around the hotel. Between them they lugged the heavy sacks up the stairs and put them into one of the empty bedrooms. It was difficult to know whether this man was principal or agent, his bearing being accommodating but not subservient. He handed B a card and in very basic English suggested he call at the address the following day to discuss terms.

When he had gone B returned to the bedroom where the card school was just breaking up. Some of the airmen were going into Cairo, others for a drink at the hotel bar where there were comfortable surroundings, plenty of military from  different Services, a few civilians, some women and good imported beer to drink. To one side, on a small stage set in an alcove, a piano player was entertaining the guests. To B, his music seemed exquisite, fitting in easily and simply with a mood of restful nostalgia. Subtle vibrations of space and fulfilment in a world so filled with its own woes, it seemed to say, believe in yourself, follow your star, and love and hope. The music must have affected the others too, because the usual hubbub of the hotel lounge was subdued as though in respect. They stayed until the music stopped and the musician slipped away. B was to meet this musician forty years later playing with a group in a Hamburg restaurant (A walk down Fortune Street 1984).

Next morning , after breakfast, he took the tram at Heliopolis into Cairo. At least, it started out as a tramway service, transforming itself during the journey into part train and part underground tube, gathering speed and racing through cuttings and tunnels at up to 50 mph. It seemed to be a fairly safe mode of transport, in spite of its ambivalent attitude as to what type of service it really aspired to give. The journey ended as it began, in tram-like mode, as it made its way through the crowded Cairo streets, contesting the right of way with donkeys, camels, cars and taxis, as well as pedestrians who made no differentiation on roads without pavements.

Sulieman Pasha Street, where he had to go, was one of the main thoroughfares, and before long he was at a store, open at the front, as were most of the stores and shops. It was a leather works shop and the treated skins were hanging down to be selected by customers for making up the articles they required. When he announced himself an Egyptian, who spoke quite good English, greeted him. They sat down at the back of the store on couches with many cushions, in an area spread with rugs, on which stood small, intricately carved tables. ‘My cousin Abdul say you have tea to sell,’ the shopkeeper said. ‘He driver at Almaza, and good friend of English. I also very good friend of English. I, Ahmed, your very good friend too. But please, you have drink?’ he called out and someone came in with a cool sherbet-like liquid in glasses which B found to be very tasty.

He was not at his best at these sort of occasions, being no Bill Scaife, giving as much empty bonhomie as he received. But he knew that a £1 a pound weight was the price. The tea had been bought at Karachi with the assistance of his wartime friend who was stationed there, and they had paid a rupee a pound. So there was a profit of 18 shillings and sixpence on each pound. That worked out at one thousand and three hundred percent. If he kept that fact in mind and didn’t waver in the ensuing negotiations, all would be well. ‘How much tea you have?’ ‘Two hundred and fifty pounds,’ said B. ‘I give you fifteen shillings each pound.’ ‘One pound sterling for each pound,’ said B, realising almost immediately that he should have started higher. This flaw cost him kudos as a negotiator, and classified him as an inexplicable sort of Englishman who did not know how to bargain. Ahmed tried eighteen shillings, but his heart no longer seemed to be in the proceedings when B repeated £1 to his offer, and he knew with the type of seller before him, there would be neither the frisson of closing into a price in small steps going up and coming down, nor the rarer possibility of trimming sixpence from the price they both knew was the trading price. It was therefore at this figure of £1 the bargain was struck, and the time arranged for the collection that night.

B was ushered out on to the surging crowds of Sulieman Pasha Street and before returning to Heliopolis he decided to wander about the town. Comparing it with a recent call at the nearby town of Tel Aviv across the border in British Palestine (Israel) which was an all Jewish town and in its way, quite western, Cairo was mainly a Muslim town and, at that time there was little western influence around.(BLOG – Palestine Curfew). There were few people in western clothes, the majority of the passers-by wore loose white robes called the curdee and for headware, either a fez, a caftan or an embroidered talpock. Manual workers or street venders were more often wearing skull caps. Sometimes a young, well-off man could be seen in baggy trousers, a waistcoat and a white braided jacket. Most of the women wore yazmaks, these being veils, ranging from the flimsy see-through type to the full purdah with only a small slit for the eyes. Walking around was interesting and the streets alive with movement, but he did not enter into any of the side alleys remembering a previous event when calling here. (BLOG – A Cairo Tour).

That evening B waited in the lounge for the arrival of one or both of the traders. A servant came to call him and lead him to the rear of the hotel, where the sacks had been brought the previous day. Abdul was at the wheel of a Chevrolet taxi with Ahmed standing nearby. B led the way up the back stairs with Ahmed following. As he pushed open the bedroom door, muffled squeals came from the dark interior. A dim light was switched on so that he could see two of the east bound crew in bed, and there were two women with them. ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ he called out. There was shuffling and adjusting. The women seemed terrified, of police no doubt, and the airmen awkward and annoyed. ‘They’re playing cards in our room,’ one said, ‘we thought you wouldn’t mind.’ B caught sight of Ahmed outside the door and resolved to cut matters short. ‘I want some bags in here first and then I’ll leave you. Stay there.’ This last bit to Ahmed. In some peculiar way he was ashamed for the Egyptian to see two British airmen in this situation.

He dragged out the five sacks and closed the door behind him. Ahmed had a knife and cut open one of the sacks. The packets of tea were tipped out on to the floor of the passageway and counted back into the sack, which B held. There were fifty. Ahmed did not count the contents of the other sacks, but produced the biggest wad of notes B had ever seen from under his robe and handed it over. They were £1 notes, and he flipped through the wad, then nodded. They dragged the sacks along the passageway and down each flight of stairs. There was a mezzanine with a balcony overlooking the first floor foyer and, as the two shuffled the sacks along, B could see below, as in slow motion, a steady stream of high ranking military personnel passing across the foyer and entering a side door. Each officer removed his hat before entering and placed it on a hat rack in the foyer, before disappearing out of sight. There was a French kepi, American peaked caps with braid on the peaks, British caps, both peaked and forage. It seemed that there was going to be some high level meeting in one of the hotel’s conference rooms. He stopped, rivetted by the unusual sight until a hiss from Ahmed, waiting at the top of the stairs, got him moving again.

Down at street level, the three of them bundled the sacks into the back of the car. There was a brief exchange then the two got into the front seats, doors slammed and the taxi drove quickly away. B mounted the stairs, wondering what he was going to do next, as he hugged the bundle of notes inside his battle dress blouse. He was carrying more than a years pay.

1946