There's a saying in Egypt that ‘if you drink from the Nile you will always return’ - it’s true in my experience. So I thought I’d share with you today why my books are set in Egypt and how I came to be so influenced by this mysterious gem of the East.
Once Upon a Time
When I was just a little girl, sucking my thumb and hugging my teddy my mother read stories to me, much as most mothers do to their children, except I remember little of those stories. I was a tomboy, and I didn’t find stories of Princesses searching for the handsome Princes interesting. It seemed to me waiting around for some man to find you wasn’t a proactive approach to life. But what I remember, the stories I’ve never forgotten, are the mythology stories of Egypt, Rome and Greece. I loved those stories of Gods and Goddesses, of battles and wars, of mythical creatures. These were the stories that unlocked my imagination. Most children want to visit Santa Claus or Disneyland but not me, no. I wanted to visit mountain sides of Machu Picchu, the statues of Easter Island, the Colosseum in Rome and most of all the Pyramids and Temples of Egypt.
I set my mind on travelling and seeing these imperial seats of my heroes. I was determined to find my way to them. These were the day dreams of my youth in rural Wiltshire. I don’t think I realised what a large ambition that was at the time but it lit a fire in belly that still burns to this day.
Meeting Egypt For The First Time
I’d worked hard, I’d saved harder and here was the day I’d get to see Egypt. I was booked on a cruise down the Nile. I read every thing I could get my hands on about the mythology of Egypt before leaving England. All the Gods and their stories were buzzing around my head. I’d rebuffed my family’s entreaties to cancel the trip - a minor inconvenience like a Gulf War over a 1,000 miles away would not stop me.
I don’t know what I expected to feel but I remember the shock of feeling I’d come home. I’d found my spiritual home - my funny old-fashioned personality fitted somewhere. Egypt had wrapped her hands around my heart and she’s never let go since. I did the normal touristy things - saw the temples, dressed up as a Pharaoh (by the way any strawberry blondes out there - take note from my experience black wigs are not our thing!), but it was the people and the bustle and the smells that enchanted me. Time mattered little (I love that as time has never been my friend), family was everything and chaos ruled - it was fantastic.
But I Want to Live There….
I returned to England determined to find a way to return and live in Egypt. This wasn’t a whim soon forgotten upon returning to everyday life in the UK. This was a driving need, a passion to return. I was working in Marketing for a mobile wing of Cable and Wireless and I looked into the possibility of moving to one of their international companies based in Egypt. They had companies all over the world but not in Egypt…. yet. A mobile license was being issued and Cable and Wireless were considering bidding for the license. I was beyond excited - I was perfectly positioned to go out as part of a start-up team if they won. They didn’t, and life moved on, I still explored avenues to get back to Egypt but got distracted by love and life.
Do You Believe in Destiny?
About 3 years later I’d joined a Business Consultancy that specialised in Telecommunications. I’d just returned from nearly a year in Bolivia and was between assignments so they sent me to run our stand at an Exhibition in Cannes, France. It was the final day and all my friends had left to celebrate the end of the exhibition in a manner suitable to our illustrious surroundings. Nearly every stand was empty, there were almost no visitors but my conscience wouldn’t let me leave before the organisers shut the doors.
A shabby little man in a travel worn suit came onto the stand and looked at our display. I gave him sometime to absorb the material before approaching him - more to entertain myself than in any belief he would provide business. He was delightful, and we were soon sat on some loungers chewing the cud about life and our travels. Eventually the lights were turned off, and we had to go - he passed me his business card. He was the Vice President of France Telecom and he’d come straight to the exhibition from a week-long trip around some of their more remote companies. They’d won a mobile license in Egypt and needed consultants to get it running. Destiny had just granted me my wish. Just a few weeks later I was heading a consulting team that eventually numbered over 16 people in Cairo for a start-up called MobiNil that would literally change my life forever.
I’m Back Baby!
MobiNil was an initiation of fire, it provided the best days of my life, the worst days of my life, gave me some of the best friends a girl could ever want, brought people into my life that I will love until my dying days, introduced me to my future husband, and showed me I had more strength and resilience than I ever believed possible. I loved every second. I was back in Egypt and I loved it every bit as much as I remembered. Eventually MobiNil stole me away from my Consultancy and I became head of Market Development and Marketing Communication - I had a massive team of some of the most talented people I have ever worked with anywhere in the world. Life was as good as it could be. As is prone to happen when things are good an axe can fall and destroy everything. Tragedy struck, and it forced me to leave and return to the UK.
I remember little about those 6 months except one day two of my best friends sat me down and staged an intervention. I was depressed and lost and as they pointed out I needed to go back. My business with Egypt wasn’t over. I fought the idea a little but on the day I decided to return I got a call from an ex-colleague looking for consultants for a project he’d won. I tried to tell him no but neither of us were listening to each other - that’s the consultants ego for you! I eventually spat out that I couldn’t take his job because I’d decided to return to Egypt just as he said, “Look Hazel I need someone with Egyptian experience”. Destiny had delivered again - I was going back to Egypt.
Days of Adjustment
Having worked for a private company I wasn’t prepared for the bureaucratic intensity of a government run organisation. They'd asked me to work on the re-branding of the national and only fixed line telephone company in Egypt - Telecom Egypt. It was run by committees, held hostage by unions, it was chaotic and very political but the people I met there were amazing. They differed to the high society I’d worked with in MobiNil but were every bit as dedicated and smart.
Egyptians are smart people. I’m talking kick the world onto its butt smart. They are held back by culture and society but their street smarts are amazing. Create the most airtight promotion and within a couple of hours they will have worked the system to their advantage. Telecom Egypt had the largest number of woman in senior positions that I had every come across anywhere in the world. They were tough, fierce and took no enemies but they were amazing women and taught me a lot.
During this time, to my amazement, I married a man that had been one of my best friends for over 6 years. I’d first met him at MobiNil and, as things can, our friendship changed into something else and he’d whisked me off my feet and had me married within 6 months. Now I had an Egyptian family.
One thing I admire about Egypt beyond anything else is that family comes first. Your family name means everything. Boy did I land on my feet. I got the best family in the world. My new mother and father, my new sister and nieces and nephew were amazing. Funny, open minded, devout, loving, welcoming and kind. I’m certain having your son marry a foreigner wasn’t their dream, but they welcomed me and have supported me ever since despite my fussy palate and terrible time keeping. I got the gold when it came to my husband’s family. On a side note I also married into the only Egyptian family I know that value punctuality as much as the Brits - I blame it on their German education.
Urban to Rural
Until this point I’d lived in the heaving capital of Cairo, in the city centre and the suburban green districts, nothing had prepared me for the move into my husband’s country house. He lived only about 20 minutes away from Cairo but the change was as absolute as a journey in a time machine. From the modern bustle of a sophisticated city to the rural farming community of 100 years before, one driven by Oxen and donkeys, where watering the crops was done by digging ditches from canals by hand. Where harvesting the crops meant picking up a scythe and using the power of your muscles. They call these people the Felahin, roughly translated as peasants. These people are as far removed from the modern Cairenes as you can get. They live by tougher, more rigid rules. They are poorly educated and speak a language of such florid expressionism as to seem almost grovelling to modern ears. I draw my character Mama Aida from the felahin mothers I came to know - particularly one, after whom I name her.
During all this time I have travelled the country widely and have so many stories to share about my favourite places, great places to visit, brilliant restaurants. In fact I could probably write a guide to Egypt but that’s not the purpose of this post. Today I wanted to share my love for the country in all its shades, the good and the bad. For it’s this 26 year love affair that inspired my book. It’s my love and knowledge of the country that flavour the pages. I can’t say every book I ever write will be set in Egypt but Egypt will certainly help form them for she is as much a part of me as England and I hope one day, if you haven’t already, you too get to meet her.
Until next time...
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