Writers' Circle
Psum!

Patsy Cunningham writes about the evacuation of faculty and families from the American University in Cairo in 1942


Philippe in Khartoum; c. August, 1942

Philippe (Phil Nichols) in Khartoum; c. August, 1942

“Wake up, honey!” Louise’s voice, hard to locate in the velvety darkness, “There’s something you’ve got to see.”

Disoriented, I felt for the edge of my bunk. The stern-wheeler’s engine still throbbed, a sign of life and movement, but the blacked-out portholes were invisible. The only light in the cabin was the blue-masked flashlight in my mother’s hand. She helped me into my bathrobe and slippers and drew me out onto the deck. As it happened, the blackout efforts were wasted that night, for the deck, with light-skinned passengers in pale clothing draped all along the starboard railing, the vessel’s own white-painted surfaces, the strip of wet mud at the river’s edge, the bellying sand dunes beyond, and the broad Nile itself, all glowed and glittered under a moon just past full and a skyful of stars dominated by Orion’s Rigel and Betelgeuse and his dog Sirius, the brightest star of all.

“What is it?” I whispered, awed by the subdued mood of the people leaning on the railing, mostly silent or speaking in whispers. I was familiar enough with the night sky, for back home in Cairo I went up to bed every night in the open air on the roof of our wing of the American University, but this was something different, full of unnamable mystery.

“You’ll see in a minute,” my mother said, maneuvering me to a spot where I could stand on a stanchion next to the rail. Then “Here it comes. It’s Abu Simbel.”

I gasped and clapped a hand over my mouth. Abu Simbel!

As one of the few American children remaining in Cairo in 1942, I was being schooled at home by my mother; lacking companions, I had become a bookish child, with a particular hunger for folk tales and myths. One of my very favorite books in my grandfather’s study was J. H. Breasted’s fat volume about Ancient Egypt, full of black and white photographs and drawings. Pictures and snapshots were virtually all that was available to me, for the Sphinx was buried in sand up to its chin, and the Cairo Museum was largely boarded up and sandbagged for the duration of the war. Yet now I was made to understand that one of the most wonderful photographs of all was materializing somewhere up ahead, across the shimmering bow wave of the Nile boat.

The yearly flooding of the Nile was still in its initial stage on that June 30th and there was still a sliver of shore along the water’s edge. From it, a steep bank rose higher and higher, the granite cliff from which the monument had been carved. A kind of moan came from the folk along the railing, a sound of awe and anticipation as the boat neared the temple of Ramses II. As we came slowly abreast, even that sound subsided, as if our eyes could not adequately absorb the sight if our ears were occupied with sounds. Across 300 feet of water, modeled in broad black shadows, silvery half-tones, and highlights barely tinted with the granite’s rusty native colour, the four seated colossi stared through us, grave, detached, eternal….

In the hubbub that arose after we had passed the monument, my mother leaned down to whisper in my ear, “Don’t ever forget that, Patsy.”

***

Tobruk had fallen to Rommel in a surprise attack on the 21st of June, 1942, signaling the beginning of his sweep toward Cairo. As the populace prepared to receive yet another invader, and the British navy steamed out of Alexandria, the American Embassy advised all Americans to leave Egypt immediately. The administration of the American University in Cairo arranged hastily for the evacuation of some dozen American staff, their dependents, and a handful of other foreigners, to an empty mission school near Khartoum in the Sudan. Among them were my grandfather, Charles C. Adams, and his wife Nellie, my mother Louise Adams Rice, and me, aged nine. There were three other children: Kathie Howard, who was four or five, the daughter of Professor Worth Howard and his wife Muriel, and the two very young children of a “short-termer,” Leslie Nichols, who taught journalism. Nichols was not evacuated, perhaps already functioning as the war correspondent he later became. His French wife, Claude, however, joined the university group with her baby daughter of 10 months, Karen, and the two-year-old son she called Philippe.

Louise, recently married for the second time, was a couple of months pregnant. She was not much older than Claude, spoke fluent French, and was surely, all things considered, a natural companion for Claude. Yet I don’t recall any significant daytime interaction between the two women. Indeed, the American evacuees, most of whom were missionaries as well as academics, seemed to me to be intimidated by Claude, who did not suffer fools, or any other inconvenience, gladly. It is likely that Louise was needed to assist Nellie Adams, to whom fell the task of organizing the kitchen and housekeeping arrangements of the school, and that Claude was herself at the end of her tether, concerned for her husband’s safety and coping alone with two small children in an environment that was beyond primitive.

The school’s enormous compound was enclosed by a 10 foot mud-brick wall. Two one-story mud-brick dormitories and a low structure enclosing the imponderable “facilities” stood along one wall; housing for the school’s local staff and the kitchen lay at right angles along another. Between these stood a large, open-sided, tin-roofed dining area and, in the open, a stand pipe with a tub where many of the evacuees preferred to wash. The rest was a vast expanse of what was undoubtedly used as a playing field, the size of a couple of soccer pitches. It had a rough, cratered surface of dust and pebbles, tufted here and there with hardy clumps of short grey grass.

The dormitories were furnished with angareebs, locally made cots of rough-hewn wood with a lattice of hemp. These were surprisingly comfortable and mercifully light-weight. Khartoum was in the grip of its annual combination dust-storm/rainy season. Daytime temperatures soared over 100°F. When it rained, the compound was transformed into an ocean first of mud, then of open water. When the rain stopped, the water level sank quickly, leaving scattered ponds of muddy water that would dry up suddenly as the hot khamsin wind rose, laden with desert sand and dust that would slash around the compound, through locked windows and into every crevice of every animate or inanimate object.

These wet and dry extremes followed no predictable pattern. Consequently, the angareebs became highly mobile vehicles, lined up initially out of doors in the evenings in the hope of a few hours of sleep in the cool night air. At the first outsized drops of rain, the alarm would be raised: one of the clergymen would quip “Rise! Take up thy bed and walk!” and one of the academics would contribute a learned Arabic oath; the angareebs would be lifted and quickly carried back into the dormitories.

The rain clattered on the corrugated iron roofs, and rivulets soon found their way through the perished seams to the most vulnerable spots in the cow-dung and plaster ceilings. The first drips soon became thin cascades of polluted water, and the angareebs would once again be in motion. By first light, the dormitories would be archipelagos inhabited by stifling, exhausted evacuees.

To make matters worse, the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan began soon after their arrival. Under its tough rule, among the local servants, merchants and passers-by, tempers frayed easily but the mood was otherwise enervated and querulous. No work got done except by the conscientious university president and his senior staff, writing reports and discussing plans, and by Mrs Adams, Mrs. Howard, Louise and the short-termers, addressing the daily needs of the evacuees. A routine emerged, habits were formed. Someone had brought along two packs of cards and a Bridge score pad. Kathie Howard and I leaned on our mothers, but for the most part amused ourselves, playing with paper dolls, making up scurrilous verses to Arabic songs like Telmeez el ’a’abeet (the village idiot’s song), hiding and seeking in the unsavory nooks and crannies of the compound, dressing up, and generally functioning in the extraordinary surroundings like perfectly ordinary little girls.

The same cannot be said of Philippe. He could perhaps have been taken for a textbook “Terrible Two,” but this would be a mistake. The behaviour of the Terrible Twos is said to reflect their frustration as they attempt things they are not strong enough or big enough or adroit enough to carry off. Not so with Philippe. He viewed the world and its inhabitants as matters to be bent to his will, and for the most part succeeded in this endeavour. He was a boy of few words. In fact, he had only one word, and that one was of his own coinage: “Psum!” The word was delivered explosively and accompanied either by a pointed action, such as tossing his bowl of ful mademmas upside-down onto the table, or by a spirited fist salute. It often preceded or followed his mother’s exasperated cry of “Philippe! Tu veux pan-pan?”

Philippe was physically adorable. Tow-headed, pixie-faced, sturdily built, he invited overtures from all adults but responded to none. He rewarded no one with his trust. His nerve was unshakable, his timing impeccable: his bowl of beans landed on the tablecloth always at the psychological moment when some serious discussion monopolized the company’s attention, or someone’s funny story was provoking a general laugh. His most successful stroke was to escape into the yard after his bath, soaking wet and starkers, shrieking with laughter, colliding with scandalized elderly wives and choking the short-termers with guilty mirth. Pan-pan was certainly threatened on these occasions; we never saw it administered.

He did, however, know the limits of his power and the value of a strategic capitulation. Claude, maddened by the proliferation of soiled muslin diapers and the absence of a functioning laundryman, decreed potty training. A white enameled chamber pot with a handle was procured and Philippe was given to understand that he was not to rise from this conveyance until its primary function had been served. He accepted this rule and turned it to his own advantage. There had been no stricture against travel, and Philippe soon mastered the pot’s balance, slickness and maneuverability. Holding tight to its handle and using his heels to drag the pot along, he scooted across the compound’s potholed surface at what developed in a few days into a considerable rate of knots. Claude would install him on the pot after breakfast, then return indoors to bathe his sister. By the time she reached the door again with the towel-wrapped baby on her hip, Philippe would be a tiny bouncing white exclamation point, scudding along the farthest wall. He was invincible. After half an hour, the pot would often remain empty, Philippe’s bottom ringed with its own bright pink insignia, and his mother entrapped by her own decree.

***
In October/November, 1942, Rommel was halted by the British and their allies at El Alamein and beaten back to Tunisia. In small groups, the evacuees found their way back to Cairo, carrying with them indelible memories of their sojourn in Khartoum. I never did forget the sight of Abu Simbel’s colossi presiding in all their solemn beauty and majesty over the moonstruck Nile and the awe-struck humans chugging past in the aged stern-wheeler. But my mind’s eye was equally imprinted with the scene in the compound we had inhabited, the pitted expanse of dust and dried mud puddles and, in the farthest distance, tiny, blond, bare, and indomitable, Philippe aboard his chamber pot, bobbing along the far wall. Sounds also lingered. Years afterward, I confessed in my application to Middlebury’s French School that the first words of French I ever heard were Claude’s “Tu veux pan-pan?” I never saw Philippe again, but his single word entered our family’s lexicon. Even my grandfather found occasions for its use. Mechanical devices were the bane of his existence: he couldn’t change the blade in his razor without my grandmother’s aid. If he struggled with his top shirt button, my grandmother would move in to help with a quip about his 10 thumbs that would elicit a defiant – and not entirely facetious – “Psum!”

     

Patsy CunninghamPatricia “Patsy” Cunningham (AAM 1957) received a Diploma in Art as Applied to Medicine from the University of Toronto. For more than 20 years, she taught in what is now biomedical communications while serving as Chief Medical Artist at Sunnybrook Hospital.

     

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