Copyright © Robert L J Borg 2009
To my amazement the wall of a shop across the street suddenly bulged as though it were a huge balloon ready to burst. As glass shattered and bricks crumpled spewing out a military tank from its interior; I watched from the safety of my bedroom, as it screeched and rumbled into the street, sideswiped an unsuspecting parked car before it disappeared in clouds of dust down the road heading in the direction of the town centre.
I felt bewildered; wondering how on earth it had ever managed to be in the shop in the first place. But at the tender age of five years, how was I supposed to have known that it had already demolished the rear of the establishment as it passed through the building in an exercise of impressing upon the native population that the invasion force was a power to be taken seriously.
Only days before I watched in awe at a perfect blue sky speckled with what seemed to be thousands of white birds which appeared to be gently floating down onto the beaches not far from our home. High above them a distant drone of aircraft engines exposed them to be paratroopers descending upon the town.
A week or so before all this took place leaflets had fallen from the sky, littering the entire area. It had been a warning, though my parents always made sure that I and my siblings were well protected from the events that were about to unfold, that were to change our way of life, forever.
During that time, most nights were spent in makeshift shelters in basements for protection against aerial bombardment when warning sirens let out their mournful tones letting the population know of incoming jets. At other times, we would huddle in our homes, with purple paper pinned to the windows to prevent any light to be seen from the streets. In the mornings we would be relieved to find that our homes had been spared, or sad to see that our neighbours had not been so fortunate.
This was November 1956. A time in world history known as the “Suez Crisis”, where the ruling Egyptian government had decided to nationalize the Suez Canal; a stretch of water that extends 163 kilometres joining the Mediterranean Sea in the north to the Red Sea in the south. Its construction was completed in 1869 by the French-owned Suez Canal Company, although British investment ensured a stake in its ownership. When western nations withdrew financial support to the building of the Aswan High Dam project, the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, took revenge by nationalizing the Suez Canal. In an attempt to secure their interests, French and British troops were dispatched into the Canal Zone, whilst their allies, the Israelis, occupied the Sinai Peninsula. However, no sooner had the invasion begun, that international opposition quickly forced the Anglo-French troops out of Egypt, and the Israelis withdrew from Sinai in early 1957.
For my family, and perhaps thousands of other Egyptian-born Europeans, this political madness thought up by callous and greedy politicians caused the end of our lives in a land we had known as home for two generations on my father’s side of the family and three generations from my mother’s. We were now stateless subjects, hated by the native population, with no alternative but to give up all we loved to become political refugees and forced to flee.
Perhaps my last memory of those terrifying times was the night of our departure. As we were being ferried to an Italian hospital ship, the SS Ascania, that lay anchored off-shore, I leant against my mother’s leg, holding her tightly. Through teary eyes I watched the brightness of the moon making the phosphorous on the water sparkle as though it were made of silver, whilst the sky near the shore glowed in a reddish haze from fires which were raging out of control at a petroleum refinery. On the pier, slowly getting smaller as we motored away from it, I cried whilst watching as my father, who was to remain for a few days longer, waved us farewell.
RLB – Tomewriter