Tag Archives: Cairo

Why every noir novel needs a femme fatale

femme fatale, noir, espionage, romanceCairo Mon Amour started out as a noir novel. Whether it ended up as one, you can be the judge. But in the noir tradition, I needed a femme fatale, and that’s why I created Zouzou Paris.

She’s the childhood sweetheart of Pierre Farag, my Armenian-Egyptian private eye. But they’ve been long separated. The sweet girl he knew as a teenager on holidays in Alexandria is now a notorious film actress, protected by powerful men.

But she’s in danger, fearing that a high-ranking official wants her murdered. And that’s how she and Pierre meet again after nearly twenty years – she summons him to her private apartment to ask for his help. He sits agog as she levers off her luxuriant wig, peels off her eyelashes and wipes away the make-up: She’s no longer the hard-bitten Zouzou Paris, but the girl he knew as Aziza Faris, who fluttered her eyelashes at Pierre in their teens.

Well, with a reunion like that, how could I hold back? They’re bound together for life. But first I have to get them out of Egypt. I put them on the last ship to leave Alexandria when the Yom Kippur war breaks out, and then I follow them through France, where they are married – a condition that Zouzou imposes before she will allow Pierre into her bed. There’s a curious reason for her stipulation on wedlock, but you’ll have to read the book to know what it is.

We leave them in exile in 1970s London, both trying to negotiate a city of coin-fed gas meters, evil landladies, cambric bedspreads, and Dixon of Dock Green on the TV.

I’m fascinated with Zouzou – her volatility, her odd wisdom, the depth of her loyalty, her resignation to fate. I purposely didn’t give her a point of view; rather than writing from inside her head, I allowed the layers of her character to build through Pierre’s observations. My aim here -and I think it worked – was for Zouzou to be enigmatic and unpredictable.

A final word on her name: Zouzou is an affectionate version of her real name Aziza. But there’s a connection with a a film that was showing in Cairo around the time the novel is set: Khalli baalak min Zouzou, or ‘watch out for Zouzou’. In the movie, Zouzou is a college student who has to work secretly as a belly dancer to make ends meet – the nice girl with a shameful secret. How could I resist calling my femme fatale anything else? And of course, my Zouzou claims to be half-French, although nobody believes it. The surname Paris is her clumsy attempt at European sophistication, and it’s not so distant from her real family name Faris.

OK, I confess: I’m smitten.

***

You can buy a copy of Cairo Mon Amour here.

A second-hand ice cream in Egypt

THE AUTHOR, SAQQARA, 1973

Before I began writing Cairo Mon Amour, I wrote a memoir of my time in Egypt in 1973, when the novel is set. Here’s an extract:

We found a flat in Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which led from Tahrir Square to the old market at Bab El-Luq. The charmless street was lined with metal shuttered shops, repair workshops and cafés. The little residential compound at No. 29 was reached through an arch leading into a small courtyard that gave access to three or four flats. Ours overlooked a tiny garden of palms and cactuses coated with a hundred years of grey dust.

A toothless concierge – our bawwaab – lived in a cupboard under an external staircase, where he cooked on a primus stove in the midst of his blankets. There was a fraternity of these bawwaabeen in the neighbourhood, and our man Farag had half a dozen of them over on Fridays to be shaved in the courtyard by a visiting barber. Our interactions with Farag were brief and functional, not the least because I had difficulty understanding rural speech spoken through gums. We settled into a daily routine of checking the mail once I had figured out that the concierge word for ‘letter’ wasn’t the standard term risaalah but gawaab, meaning ‘reply’. Most days he’d greet me with ma feesh gawaab – ‘no reply’. I often wondered what this usage implied; did it characterise the recipient as the party repeatedly begging some favour? Were people like Farag so insignificant that nobody would write to them except to refuse a request? Was Farag perhaps awaiting a legacy, heir to some Egyptian version of Jarndyce and Jarndyce?

I recently learned that our old locale is now notorious for the battle of Muhammad Mahmoud in November 2011, when tear-gassed protesters had their eyes shot out by riot police snipers.

But in 1973 it was a homely but unprepossessing neighbourhood where most basic needs could be satisfied within a few minutes’ walk. I took my shirts to the makwagi, the open-air ironing shop where the black hand irons were heated on a brazier, and the ironing man filled his mouth with water and sprayed the garments through his lips. At the open-air cinema, you could buy melon seeds and peanuts wrapped in a screw of paper made from recycled exam papers, and the floor was always carpeted with shells by the end of the film.

Bab El-Luq market supplied the staples, but I was surprised at the narrow range of fruit and vegetables available; lots of bananas, tomatoes and aubergines. One day my wife came home with half a gigantic cabbage, shaken and upset after being berated by a market trader; when she had asked for the monster vegetable to be cut in two, he had cut it and tried to make her take her both halves; apparently, you couldn’t buy a half, but you could ask for it to be cut in two. She would have needed a wheelbarrow to get the whole thing home.

I’d often take a bowl to the fuul shop in the morning to bring back a dollop of stewed horse beans for breakfast. We learned to give baqsheesh at the baker’s shop to make sure the bread was wrapped with the minimum of finger contact, but we toasted the crust over the gas when we got home anyway. It took me a while to find bottled milk, so I took my own saucepan to a back-alley dairy. It was run by a man with a filthy temper, who constantly yelled at the boys sterilising the water buffalo milk in big open vats; he disappeared for a month to go on pilgrimage, and returned transformed into a genial, beaming uncle.

Indeed, the purchase and preparation of food was largely pre-industrial. Apart from cans of superannuated vegetables and fruit from behind the Iron Curtain, there was little packaged food: Rice and lentils were bought loose and had to be picked over for grit; loose coffee came in two varieties – the same coffee, but Arabic (fine ground) and French (coarse ground); water had to be boiled and stored in second hand whiskey bottles, which could be bought from the robivecchi man (why these junk dealers were called by an Italian name I have no idea).

We gradually widened our shopping circle to include a pork butcher tucked in a nearby alley, as well as the upmarket Maison Thomas delicatessen, where the loveliest butter was made into pats on a cool marble counter, and the most toothsome eggs were sold – long and pointy with orange yolks.

Out delicate stomachs slowly hardened until we suffered from diarrhoea only one day in three. After all, people of my generation were well nourished and hygienically raised under a post-war regime that gave us cod liver oil, school milk, the National Health Service, and council grants to install bathrooms; people sometimes had ‘bilious attacks’ in England, not the nagging gassy squits that dogged us in Cairo. Anticipating gastric troubles, one of the students in our group had tried to prepare himself in London by eating small amounts of dirt each day, scraped from window sills and train floors. But nothing could have prepared me for the folly of buying a second-hand ice cream one evening.

“What flavour is it?” I asked the small boy, who was holding the thing in his fist in the crowded market.

“Mango,” he said, poking the orange mush into the cone with his finger. I snaffled it on the spot.

“Why did he only have one ice cream? Shouldn’t he have had a box of them?” my wife asked me.

The next day, tossing a Frisbee on a playing field in Zamalek, I thought I tore a stomach muscle. Hour by hour the pain grew worse until, believing I was dying, I lay on my bed as a doctor – a Syrian specialiste des maladies internes – used a large antique syringe on me that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in a medieval torture dungeon.

My faith in British order and bureaucracy intact, I weakly indicated the student travel insurance voucher beside the bed; the jolly old doctor providing the service was to simply complete the details, post the voucher to Head Office in Swindon or Rickmansworth or somewhere, and await reimbursement by postal order. But the screws on the vice squeezing my bowels turned another twist and by the time I returned from the toilet, my wife had paid the Syrian in cash and he had gone.

###

Find out more about Cairo Mon Amour here.

Another great 5* review for Cairo Mon Amour

A box of paperbacks arrived at my place yesterday!

With two days till publication, the advanced reviews are flowing in. See this from Bill East (original at FB @cairomonamour):

“You’ll feel the heat and taste the dust. The corruption and the danger are palpable. Stuart Campbell knows Cairo and he makes sure his readers know it too. An interesting place to visit though I wouldn’t want to live there!
Stuart’s well researched, punchy prose drives the reader forward to a satisfying if complex and depressing ending.
This is his third novel and without doubt, his best. I read it on a computer but I’d suggest buying a ‘hard copy’ and reading it from start to finish in a comfortable chair with perhaps a glass of red to hand. You’ll be glad you did! Five stars!”

You can pre-order the paperback here.

 

Research on old Armenian dialect in California

OK, this is a bit out of the ordinary, but since my novel Cairo Mon Amour has a half-Armenian hero and I am a former Professor of Linguistics, I found this article from The Armenian Weekly fascinating.  Dr. Vaux’s research itook place in Glendale, CA, where there is a sizeable Armenian community. When you get to read Cairo Mon Amour, you’ll know that the relatives of my fictional private eye Pierre Farag live in Glendale.

Check out the article here.

Cairo Mon Amour will be published in lateJune 2017.

The story of my beautiful book cover

This beautiful book cover for Cairo Mon Amour has an interesting evolution. It was actually designed for a self-published edition of the book, but I offered the artwork to my publisher, who was happy to take it over.

When I first discussed the project with my designer Rachel Ainge of Tribe Creative Co, I imagined a cover that tried to tell the story. I cooked up the idea of an aerial shot of Cairo with a pair of women’s shoes (containing feet) on the ledge of a building.

Rachel took things in hand: “Don’t try to tell the story.  Leave it with me.” We’d had this discussion before when I’d talked her into creating covers that told the stories of two other books of mine. They were lovely covers, but did they help to sell books? I wasn’t sure. Here they are, along with one of my crude sketches:

 

 

 

 

Rachel came back to me with the idea of branding the three books under a common theme, including new covers for the older books, and a new title for one of them.

Over to me for the theme. I thought hard about what linked the three books: A contemporary  Australian political satire, a psychological drama set in England, and a thriller/romance set during the Yom Kippur War. How were they connected?

It came to me in a flash while I was walking on the beach (that’s where my most creative thinking takes place): Love, betrayal and redemption. That’s what I really write about.

This gave me a formula for uniform subtitles for the three books:

  • Love, betrayal and pure theatre
  • Love, betrayal and genteel crime
  • Love, betrayal and espionage

Incidentally it gave me my elevator pitch: Stuart Campbell writes quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.

Next, Rachel asked me for an iconic scene for each book. “I’ll give you the blockbuster treatment – a big dramatic sky and characters looking into their destiny,” she said. I came up with Martin Mooney looking at the distant mountains, Jack Walsingham approaching a rural cottage, and Pierre Farag and Mark Bellamy riding towards the Pyramids.  This is what I got:

And I’m very happy with the result!

Cairo Mon Amour will be published in late June 2017 by Austin Macauley Publishers, an independent trade publisher with headquarters in London and New York.

###

A sneak peek at the sequel to Cairo Mon Amour

Yes, I’m writing a sequel to Cairo Mon Amour, and here’s a 450-word extract. The working title is Bury Me In Valletta. While Cairo Mon Amour revolves around the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war, the sequel weaves a story around the smuggling of arms from Libya to Ireland in the seventies. The picture, by the way is from a nineteen-seventies pack of Cleopatra cigarettes.

It’s London in 1975. Pierre, the Egyptian-Armenian private eye, and his wife Zouzou the film actress, are exiled in London and living under false identities. Zouzou has got work singing one night a week in a night club …

Extract starts here

A brief June downpour hadn’t quenched the alcoholic fervour of the Tuesday night crowd at The Orient Club in Soho. The tiny cube was crammed with drinkers at 11pm when Pierre and Zouzou arrived. A girl in a caftan belted out a song in front of a guitarist with a hairy chest, and another girl played a jewelled electric violin. A boy with an extraordinarily thick mop of orange hair walloped a drum set in the smoky shadows behind the guitarist.

The music seemed pointless to Pierre’s Egyptian sensibility. Music was meant to be convoluted, poetic, enigmatic. It was supposed to lead the listener to unexpected places. This stuff was repetitive, the same pattern played over and over, the drums bashing alongside to keep it from straying.

Zouzou pulled his ear to her mouth and yelled something about ‘West Coast sound’, whatever that was. She stood rocking her shoulders to the music, then joined a knot of dancers in the midst of the half-dozen tiny tables.

“Brandy,” Pierre shouted to the barman. He watched Zouzou gyrate and laugh with the dancers: A British late-night mélange – girls in gauze and feathers and almost nothing else, businessmen in unbuttoned white shirts, youths of interchangeable gender in leather waistcoats and huge hair, Iranian students on the loose, a red-faced Irishman capering in a tweed jacket.

Even Pierre began to be enthralled by the hypnotic pounding of the music. Zouzou stepped out from the tight circle and pulled him onto the dance floor, where he jerked and shuffled, now with Zouzou, now with an African man in a kaftan, now with a saucer-eyed blond girl, now with a slinky Persian boy in black, all bathed in a miasma of patchouli, beer, hashish and perspiration. How he had changed, he thought: Eighteen months ago, he was a man ‘turned in on himself’, a man who’d never had a youth. Zouzou had given him back his years.

When the music stopped, Zouzou went to the backstage lavatory to change and fix her make-up, while Pierre stepped outside and strolled up to Greek Street, where the air smelt of taxi fumes, urine, and frying spring rolls. A fat man laughed with a bouncer at the doorway of a strip club. A crowd of laughing men – a stag night party? – stumbled out the sex shop next door under the flashing yellow and mauve DUREX sign.

Pierre hooked a squashed lager can from the gutter, and dribbled it down the alley towards The Orient; a policeman coming in the other direction tackled him and booted the can under a car. “You’ll be playin’ fer West ‘Am soon, son!” he said, and Pierre laughed without mirth. He hadn’t the measure of these London coppers yet.

©2017 Stuart Campbell

 ###

The mother of hypodermic syringes

While I await the publication of Cairo Mon Amour in late June, let me offer you a chapter from Cairo Rations, a memoir I wrote to trigger my memories in preparation for writing Cairo Mon Amour. Here, I describe the Cairo neighbourhood my wife and I moved into in 1973.

 

We found a flat in Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which led from Tahrir Square to the old market at Bab El-Luq. The charmless street was lined with metal shuttered shops, repair workshops and cafés. The little residential compound at No. 29 was reached through an arch leading into a small courtyard that gave access to three or four flats. Ours overlooked a tiny garden of palms and cactuses coated with a hundred years of grey dust.

A toothless concierge – our bawwaab – lived in a cupboard under an external staircase, where he cooked on a primus stove in the midst of his blankets. There was a fraternity of these bawwaabeen in the neighbourhood, and our man Farag had half a dozen of them over on Fridays to be shaved in the courtyard by a visiting barber. Our interactions with Farag were brief and functional, not the least because I had difficulty understanding rural speech spoken through gums. We settled into a daily routine of checking the mail once I had figured out that the concierge word for ‘letter’ wasn’t the standard term risaalah but gawaab, meaning ‘reply’. Most days he’d greet me with ma feesh gawaab – ‘no reply’. I often wondered what this usage implied; did it characterise the recipient as the party repeatedly begging some favour? Were people like Farag so insignificant that nobody would write to them except to refuse a request? Was Farag perhaps awaiting a legacy, heir to some Egyptian version of Jarndyce and Jarndyce?

I recently learned that our old locale is now notorious for the battle of Muhammad Mahmoud in November 2011, when tear-gassed protesters had their eyes shot out by riot police snipers.

But in 1973 it was a homely but unprepossessing neighbourhood where most basic needs could be satisfied within a few minutes’ walk. I took my shirts to the makwagi, the open-air ironing shop where the black hand irons were heated on a brazier, and the ironing man filled his mouth with water and sprayed the garments through his lips. At the open-air cinema, you could buy melon seeds and peanuts wrapped in a screw of paper made from recycled exam papers, and the floor was always carpeted with shells by the end of the film.

Bab El-Luq market supplied the staples, but I was surprised at the narrow range of fruit and vegetables available; lots of bananas, tomatoes and aubergines. One day my wife came home with half a gigantic cabbage, shaken and upset after being berated by a market trader; when she had asked for the monster vegetable to be cut in two, he had cut it and tried to make her take her both halves; apparently, you couldn’t buy a half, but you could ask for it to be cut in two. She would have needed a wheelbarrow to get the whole thing home.

I’d often take a bowl to the fuul shop in the morning to bring back a dollop of stewed horse beans for breakfast. We learned to give baqsheesh at the baker’s shop to make sure the bread was wrapped with the minimum of finger contact, but we toasted the crust over the gas when we got home anyway. It took me a while to find bottled milk, so I took my own saucepan to a back-alley dairy. It was run by a man with a filthy temper, who constantly yelled at the boys sterilising the water buffalo milk in big open vats; he disappeared for a month to go on pilgrimage, and returned transformed into a genial, beaming uncle.

Indeed, the purchase and preparation of food was largely pre-industrial. Apart from cans of superannuated vegetables and fruit from behind the Iron Curtain, there was little packaged food: Rice and lentils were bought loose and had to be picked over for grit; loose coffee came in two varieties – the same coffee, but Arabic (fine ground) and French (coarse ground); water had to be boiled and stored in second hand whiskey bottles, which could be bought from the robivecchi man (why these junk dealers were called by an Italian name I have no idea).

We gradually widened our shopping circle to include a pork butcher tucked in a nearby alley, as well as the upmarket Maison Thomas delicatessen, where the loveliest butter was made into pats on a cool marble counter, and the most toothsome eggs were sold – long and pointy with orange yolks.

Out delicate stomachs slowly hardened until we suffered from diarrhoea only one day in three. After all, people of my generation were well nourished and hygienically raised under a post-war regime that gave us cod liver oil, school milk, the National Health Service, and council grants to install bathrooms; people sometimes had ‘bilious attacks’ in England, not the nagging gassy squits that dogged us in Cairo. Anticipating gastric troubles, one of the students in our group had tried to prepare himself in London by eating small amounts of dirt each day, scraped from window sills and train floors. But nothing could have prepared me for the folly of buying a second-hand ice cream one evening.

“What flavour is it?” I asked the small boy, who was holding the thing in his fist in the crowded market.

“Mango,” he said, poking the orange mush into the cone with his finger. I snaffled it on the spot.

“Why did he only have one ice cream? Shouldn’t he have had a box of them?” my wife asked me.

The next day, tossing a Frisbee on a playing field in Zamalek, I thought I tore a stomach muscle. Hour by hour the pain grew worse until, believing I was dying, I lay on my bed as a doctor – a Syrian specialiste des maladies internes – used a large antique syringe on me that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in a medieval torture dungeon.

My faith in British order and bureaucracy intact, I weakly indicated the student travel insurance voucher beside the bed; the jolly old doctor providing the service was to simply complete the details, post the voucher to Head Office in Swindon or Rickmansworth or somewhere, and await reimbursement by postal order. But the screws on the vice squeezing my bowels turned another twist and by the time I returned from the toilet, my wife had paid the Syrian in cash and he had gone.

***

Cairo Mon Amour: My flawed Soviet diplomat

Cairo 1973: A Soviet diplomat is drinking Armenian cognac in his jerry-built flat in a Cairo suburb. His name is Zlotnik, and I’ve invented him for my novel Cairo Mon Amour, set during the Yom Kippur War.

Zlotnik is a man with an awful inner conflict. He is cultured, well-educated, urbane: He should be as a graduate of the Moscow Institute of International Studies, the top Soviet school for diplomats. But he spent his high-school years in Washington DC, the son of a Soviet diplomat. He read George Orwell’s 1984 in the US the year it was published. When he’s not being a Russian, he speaks and thinks like an American.

I wanted to have Zlotnik experience an epiphany, and I took him to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia in 1962 for that purpose.

He’s just bought a copy of Solzhenitisyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, banned for years in the USSR but suddenly available in the bookshops as Krushchev relaxes censorship restrictions. In Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, he observes the destruction of Stalin’s statue and the erection of the Mother Armenia monument as the Soviet authorities loosen the leash on Armenian nationalism.

On a drinking binge in his Yerevan hotel, he finally realises that he has to make a choice: East or West. The years of doublethink – a word he learned reading Orwell at school in the US – must end. Here he is, grappling with his conscience:

He thought of the early years of hope and prospect and privilege when all you did made a kind of sense, and the bits that didn’t could be explained away. He thought of the years when you could reconcile the doublethink – where had he learned that English word? – by never daring to admit that Soviet power was not impregnable; when you pledged to uphold the might of the USSR, while not actually having to live there; when you reasoned away the sick in your gut when Hungarians and Poles were crushed for daring to defy Soviet rule.

Zlotnik is an amalgam of the biographies of numerous senior Soviet diplomats, and he can’t be identified as any particular individual. Although I had fun inventing him, I developed a strong emotional attachment to him. I really wished sometimes that I could have dinner with him in the Estoril restaurant in the centre of Cairo. He’s suave, urbane and multilingual, and I gave him an old-fashioned but twisted sense of chivalry. But he’s flawed by his internal contradictions, which ultimately lead to his downfall.

You can now order the paperback of Cairo Mon Amour in Australia from Booktopia here. 

Click here to see other ebook and paperback purchase options.

Zouzou, my femme fatale in ‘Cairo Mon Amour’

Cairo Mon Amour started out as a noir novel. Whether it ended up as one, you can be the judge. But in the noir tradition, I needed a femme fatale, and that’s why I created Zouzou Paris.

She’s the childhood sweetheart of Pierre Farag, my Armenian-Egyptian private eye. But they’ve been long separated. The sweet girl he knew as a teenager on holidays in Alexandria is now a notorious film actress, protected by powerful men.

But she’s in danger, fearing that a high-ranking official wants her murdered. And that’s how she and Pierre meet again after nearly twenty years – she summons him to her private apartment to ask for his help. He sits agog as she levers off her luxuriant wig, peels off her eyelashes and wipes away the make-up: She’s no longer the hard-bitten Zouzou Paris, but the girl he knew as Aziza Faris, who fluttered her eyelashes at Pierre in their teens.

Well, with a reunion like that, how could I hold back? They’re bound together for life. But first I have to get them out of Egypt. I put them on the last ship to leave Alexandria when the Yom Kippur war breaks out, and then I follow them through France, where they are married – a condition that Zouzou imposes before she will allow Pierre into her bed. There’s a curious reason for her stipulation on wedlock, but you’ll have to read the book to know what it is.

We leave them in exile in 1970s London, both trying to negotiate a city of coin-fed gas meters, evil landladies, cambric bedspreads, and Dixon of Dock Green on the TV.

I’m fascinated with Zouzou – her volatility, her odd wisdom, the depth of her loyalty, her resignation to fate. I purposely didn’t give her a point of view; rather than writing from inside her head, I allowed the layers of her character to build through Pierre’s observations. My aim here -and I think it worked – was for Zouzou to be enigmatic and unpredictable.

A final word on her name: Zouzou is an affectionate version of her real name Aziza. But there’s a connection with a a film that was showing in Cairo around the time the novel is set: Khalli baalak min Zouzou, or ‘watch out for Zouzou’. In the movie, Zouzou is a college student who has to work secretly as a belly dancer to make ends meet – the nice girl with a shameful secret. How could I resist calling my femme fatale anything else? And of course, my Zouzou claims to be half-French, although nobody believes it. The surname Paris is her clumsy attempt at European sophistication, and it’s not so distant from her real family name Faris.

OK, I confess: I’m smitten.