THE DINNER PARTY
A feeling of uneasiness came over Jane as she sat at breakfast thinking about the dinner party that evening, the kind of malaise which assails all hostesses when they begin to ask themselves whether some important detail has not been overlooked in the final preparations.
She could not pinpoint any tangible reason for her misgivings. It was not as if she lacked experience, and her household was by now as well organised as any in Alexandria: Ahmed her gifted cook, who could make the best Yorkshire pudding in the Arab world, the devoted Nubian Fahmy, and Walid the houseboy, who was reputed to be Ahmed’s nephew, but who never seemed to be spared the heaviest donkey-work on that account. Of course they had their upheavals. Peter had once more had to rebuke Fahmy, once more as a final warning, for taking his siesta in nanny’s bed while they were out at the beach, and for stealing the sugar, which at that time was rationed. But this was an old saga dating back to the time when nanny had found sand from Fahmy’s unwashed feet at the bottom of her bed, and had vowed to watch him even more closely since, as regards both her bed and the rations cupboard. Ahmed had been smoking hashish as usual. His bulging, blood-shot eyes and vacant expression gave him away, and even as she sat sipping her coffee on the balcony, she could see his bare feet sticking out beyond the corner of the terrace. He would be sleeping off his drugged stupor in the warm morning sun just round the corner, and would be too far gone to realise that his feet were sticking out beyond the wall. She would not disturb him just now, but would let him slumber on, in the hope of his being sober enough in an hour or two’s time to discuss the dinner menu.
The weather should surely cause her no qualms. It was already warm although it was October, and by 7.00 p.m. there should still be enough warmth left on the front balcony to make for a cosy pre-dinner drinks session. If later it turned cooler as the sharp sea breezes got up, it would not matter greatly, for by then the guests would be moving indoors for dinner.
It was to be an informal Saturday evening get-together followed by dancing at the Union Club’s weekend hop, and they had invited friends from the British Community together with H.M. Minister and three Secretaries from the Embassy who had stayed behind as duty officers for the summer (it was the regular annual routine in those days for a rump of diplomats to stay for the summer, and to transfer to Alexandria when the King took up residence at Ras el Tin Palace, while their wives and remaining Embassy staff left for extended holidays in Europe). The diplomats, and especially the genial good-natured Minister, would mix well with their friends from the business world of cotton and shipping, and should ensure that the party went at a lively, exhilarating pace.
They were taking it easy over the coffee, probably their last chance to relax before the end of the day, when a phone call from the Minister shattered their peace and galvanised them into action. “Good morning, old boy”, he said, “I’m ringing because I clean forgot I had invited Omar Pasha and his wife to dinner this evening”. Not a word more, certainly no excusing himself from the party, just an awkward pause. Peter had not time to consult Jane, but reacted quickly and instinctively. “Why not bring them along with you? They would be very welcome, and we would all be delighted”. “Are you sure, old boy? That’s marvellous! See you at 7 o’clock then”. He rang off, leaving Peter to explain to Jane, and to sort out with her what was to be done about their table arrangements. She was very practical about it. “We could extend the table, darling, but the dining room is just not big enough to take it. We will have to set it out on the back balcony, where there’s plenty of room. But it might be too chilly for the ladies there at this time of year, and there just isn’t enough lighting”. There was no doubt about it, the back balcony, a fine lofty trellised bower decked with vines, jasmine and plumbago, would have to be converted into the most comfortable venue possible, if it were to be honoured by the presence of so high-ranking a personality as Omar Pasha and his beautiful young wife. They decided to make it impervious to the chilly night breezes by hanging up oriental carpets, the best they could find, as tapestries all round the trellising, very much in the style of a desert caravanserie. Any electrician would soon be able to rig up an extra flex for a couple of table lamps, if only they could find good ones on a Saturday morning.
They had to move quickly if they were to get it all done in time. Finding an electrician was easy enough, but the lamps and carpets entailed much journeying up and down the long, narrow tongue of land sandwiched between the sea and Lake Mariut which is Alexandria.
The shops in Rue Sherif were still open when they arrived, and they had no difficulty in choosing two tall, well-balanced table lamps, with lampshades decorated in rich red and orange tints, to impart a mellow glow to the table while giving enough light for the guests to see what they were eating. But the tapestries they had in mind eluded them; they just did not seem to exist anywhere. They must have ransacked a dozen shops before a helpful Egyptian merchant suggested that they might try Murai Mohammed in Bacos Market, an entrepreneur well known for putting up just such damask and tapestry awnings at big Arab banquets – at a price. As luck would have it, they found him at home, a jovial, portly and plainly opulent businessman, who delighted in rolling out at the feet of his clients his most expensive Persian and Turkish carpets, then sitting over a sickly-sweet Turkish coffee to haggle about the fee. Shortage of time curtailed this essential part of the ritual, but, though deprived of his fun, he did give his customer a bargain price because Peter had quoted the Arabs’ favourite bargaining gambit; “Niqsim el balad fee nussayn”, or in plain English, “Let’s divide the terrain in two”, meaning to cut the difference between the two ideas of price by half. With his help they made a wonderful choice, and at once he rustled up a handful of craftsmen and despatched them to the Consular Residence. The tapestries were up by the time Peter and Jane had had lunch. They were a wonderful sight, the finest Bokhara, Shiraz and Isfahani carpets, in radiant hues and ingenious designs, with a silken sheen on their nap, completely enclosing the balcony on all sides and effectively shutting out the sharp sea air. The deep richness of their colour stood out even more in the glow of the lamps, making a vivid contrast to the resplendent crockery, sparkling glasses, and glittering silver.
A stiff breeze was blowing off the sea when all the guests had foregathered, and observing that Madame Omar was dressed in a lovely turquoise lace gown which set off her dark beauty perfectly, but which was much too flimsy for the chilly evening, Jane decided to cut short the drinks session, and suggested to Madame Omar that they might go into dinner, led her guest through the house to their newly-created dining room. Gasps of amazement rose from their lips at the dazzling display which greeted them. Omar Pasha, visibly pleased with the tribute to Bedouin taste, was full of praise. “How splendid!” he cried. “You know, these carpets very often have a Koranic inscription in their centre-piece”. One of the most earnest Secretaries stepped smartly forward and volunteered, “I’ve been learning Arabic. Let me read it for you”. Unfortunately, Mursi Mohammed’s craftsmen had in their haste hung the carpets upside down, so to do so he had to turn his head a full 180 degrees. A moments’ hesitation, then “It says ‘This is the property of Mursi Mohammed of Bacos Market’!”. Omar Basha stared blankly at him. Peter could have punched him on the nose. Why had he not thought up a Koranic verse? After all, it did not require much inventive genius to repeat the Koran’s most famous surah of all, ‘Allah is great, there is no God but He, and Mohammed is His prophet”.
There was an embarrassed hush, as each guest struggled to supress his mirth and maintain a polite, diplomatic facade, and a heavy dampener threated to descend like a black cloud on the party. Luckily Omar Pasha burst into laughter, the others including the hapless Secretary gave vent to their pent-up amusement and joined in, and a jovial hilarity and warm intimacy took charge for the rest of the evening. Unfortunately, there were further trials to come.
Completely ignoring their presence and that of the chair and table legs, the landlady’s half-wild cats would persist in chasing each other across their favourite playground, much to the discomposure of the Minister who was allergic to cats, and it was only with difficulty and after much lunging at them with the carving knife that Peter persuaded them to go home. The lamp flex and servants disoriented by hashish also did not go well together, and only the deftest of guiding hands made sure that the bowls of hot vegetables and the steaming roast joint landed on the table, and not on the neat sharkskin jackets of the men or the décolleté necks of the ladies. Fahmy seemed to have forgotten all his well-rehearsed drill, and had not yet presented any wine as the fish course approached its end. Nettled at the omission, for he had dearly wanted to show off his fine Moselles, Peter brusquely prompted him. “Oh yea, the wine”, he replied, flaying his arms about in the air. He rushed to the bar, wrapped up the whisky bottle in his napkin, and was just about to pour Madame Omar a very stiff tot indeed, when the long arm of the ever-watchful nanny reached out for his collar from behind the tapestries and jerked him back to reality behind the scenes, where the wine for the next course was waiting at room temperature, a very old Aloxe-Corton presented to Peter some years before in the vineyard itself.
It must have been well after 10 when they had finished their coffee. The conversation was lively, the atmosphere warm, and no one made a move to go, although Omar Pasha was restive and showing signs of wanting to retire, no doubt as much from fatigue as from a desire to be alone at last with his loving wife. To forestall a premature exodus, Jane quickly proposed that they should now move to the Union Club. Omar looked glum, and was just about to excuse himself when he was interrupted by Madame Omar’s enthusiastic acceptance of the invitation, for she was a sprightly young thing loving nothing more passionately than a dance. As is the wont with older husbands wishing to please their younger wives, he gracefully capitulated, and they all made their way to the Club dance.
From the moment of their arrival the Omars were the objects of much admiration and attention. The Nubian guarding the door bowed low in deference, although it was unheard of at that time for an Egyptian to enter this British holy of holies. The more senior British guests felt proud and honoured by his presence, and it did not take long for the more astute businessmen among them, especially the Jewish element, to realize that Madame Omar was very fond of dancing. They came up in droves to pay homage and to beg her to dance, and she sportingly accepted them all. Omar Pasha became progressively more morose and ill at ease. The Jewish community in Egypt had for many years been completely integrated into the Egyptian society, and mostly taken out Egyptian nationality, and had been greatly respected for their substantial contribution to music and the arts and to the country’s financial and economic prosperity. But with a new Palestine war looming, it was not exactly a propitious time for his wife to be dancing with Jews, whose position must become more and more ambiguous as the hostility between Arab and Jew grew more intractable. He had to go, if only to keep his slate clean, and with a peremptory command to his wife, they took their leave and left.
And so it came about that the Egyptian Gazette’s social column on the Monday morning announced that, “Owing to indisposition, his Excellency Omar Hussein Pasha and Madame have cancelled all their engagements for the next two weeks”.
It is beyond the purview of this story to try and lift the veil of privacy from the laconic announcement, to unravel what lovers’ chidings, proud defiance, fond reconciliation and blissful surrender lay behind it. Our tale ends with Jane thankfully slipping of her tight shoes and heaving a tired sigh of relief that at last they could relax. In spite of the mishaps, her party had surely been a success. She was above all grateful to Mursi Mohammed for so promptly and so brilliantly coming to the rescue, and to her loyal and devoted servants, who had once again proved their worth, in spite of their pernicious addiction to hashish. But the nagging worry remained, and would no doubt surface at the next party, that however careful and detailed her planning, external forces over which she had no control were always liable to come in and temporarily take over – at least in that part of the world.