‘We couldn’t stomach the pork sausages’

Finding herself during Lockdown with time on her hands, Viviane Bowell (née Chouchan) decided to write a memoir. To Egypt with love is the result, a nostalgic look at the country of her birth. She left Egypt aged 14, her family a victim of Nasser’s post-Suez expulsion of Jews. Here is an extract from a longer piece on the website of the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, describing the experience of the family’s uprooting to a hostel in Gloucestershire: 

Viviane Bowell, who left Egypt aged 14

Life as we knew it came to a sudden and abrupt end in November 1956, following the Suez crisis. Nasser had declared all Jews enemies of the State and, as such, they were subject to expulsion from Egypt, along with British and French citizens. Soldiers with rifles knocked on our door one evening and delivered the fateful order. It was very frightening and a shock, even though we had been expecting this. I think my father had always hoped against hope that things would get better. How do you suddenly leave the country you were born in, everything you know and own, wondering if you will ever see your family again?

Although stateless, my father was allowed to travel with us. My parents were forced to sign a supposedly ‘voluntary’ form renouncing all claims, property and citizenship in Egypt. The declaration stated that they were ‘donating’ all their property to the Egyptian government. Upon leaving, my mother’s passport and my father’s laissez-passer were stamped with the words ‘ONE WAY NO RETURN’. My father’s ‘laissez-passer’ had the words ‘Apatride’ (stateless) stamped in large letters across one of the pages. I came across this document while I was clearing up his things after he had passed away. It was a stark reminder of my father’s status, or lack of it.

We were given two weeks to leave and only allowed to take clothes with us – a suitcase of maximum 20 kilos for each of us and twenty Egyptian pounds in total for the whole family, worth just under twenty British pounds at the time. No other money, jewellery or anything of value. If we were searched at the airport, these would have been confiscated or worse. Thankfully, we left Egypt unharmed. We had eyed the servants nervously, wondering whether they would turn on us. They and all the local people around us remained very courteous and loyal to the end. They seemed sympathetic to our plight and were upset that we were leaving. On the morning of our departure, they all lined up to say goodbye. Everyone was crying and it was very emotional.

 

The ride to the airport was sad and even the children understood the sheer magnitude of the moment. At the airport, we had to open all our suitcases for inspection. We knew there was nothing valuable inside them, but it was still a tense moment. Finally, we boarded and the plane took off. My parents must have felt overwhelmed or perhaps it was difficult to take in what was happening. There must have been so many mixed emotions – relief that we had left unharmed and were safe, anxiety about the future and sadness at being uprooted.

We left on 10 December 1956 on a KLM flight which stopped to refuel in Athens. We then flew to Sofia in Bulgaria and then on to Amsterdam, where we spent the night. The next morning we took a plane bound for England and landed in Heathrow on a cold and grey December morning. We were met by a government official, put on a bus and taken straightaway to what was to be our home for the next three months. We had no idea where we were going, but found out later it was Bridgend hostel in Stonehouse in Gloucestershire. It had been previously used during World War II, but not since then. The hostel consisted of pre-fabricated rows of pavilions and each family had their own accommodation. Our rooms were in blocks of eight with two toilets, a bathroom and a kitchenette where you could make yourself a coffee or tea. We had one room for my parents and one room for us girls, with a wardrobe.

There was a big building at the end of the compound, where the dining room was situated. It was more like a canteen and this is where we had our breakfast, lunch and dinner. The meals were adequate, but we found it difficult, as it was food we did not know and were not used to. There was also a TV room with a television set – something we had never seen before – and a games room with table tennis. We did not mix with the other children in the hostel and rarely went to the main building. I think they mixed more; perhaps they had belonged to the same community in Egypt, but for some reason we stayed apart from all the activities.

Breakfast consisted of cornflakes or a cooked one. We had never had cereal before and it tasted strange, more like cardboard. The thought of having something cooked for breakfast was totally alien to us, so we didn’t eat much. It was the same for lunch and dinner, the food was there but it was nothing like what we were used to. We couldn’t stomach the pork sausages, baked beans or boiled cabbage that were on offer on a daily basis and we were hungry most of the time. Nor were we used to drinking tea or instant coffee – in Egypt, tea would have been for medicinal purposes like chamomile and the coffee had been cafe au lait, with lots of milk. In the end, my mother bought some dried pasta and a tube of tomato purée from a local shop, which she managed to prepare on a tiny cooker we had in the room.

We were sent to school, my younger sisters to the local primary and me to the secondary school. To get there, we had to go through muddy fields in the middle of winter. My younger sisters walked together, always hand in hand and I had to walk on my own, as my school was on a separate site. I hated my school and felt completely lost. Cairo had been familiar and safe, and I had been used to the busy streets, the noise and the traffic. The hostel in Bridgend was not far from the school in nearby Stonehouse but, like my sisters, I had to walk through quiet fields and small lanes to get there. What’s more, it was the middle of winter and I was not used to the freezing cold. Once at school, it was another struggle as I didn’t understand a word of what was being said.

The hostel was full of refugees from Egypt like us. There were many Maltese families and other people we had never come across in Cairo. Under normal circumstances, we would not have had much in common with them, but these were different times. We had all experienced the trauma of having to leave Egypt very suddenly and the future was uncertain. We were also trying to cope with the cold weather and a different culture and language. My parents must have been scared and worried, but they never showed it in front of us.

As my father had worked for a British company in Cairo, he was offered a job in their Head Office in London, albeit a much lower position. We left the hostel in spring 1957 to start our new life in London.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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