Dad's Memoirs of Cairo

Cairo 1923-1945

by Ran Hettena

The first thing I can remember is the birth of my sister, Diane. At the time, we lived in a big apartment in the suburbs of Cairo. My aunt, Tante Farida, the family midwife was attending to my mother. The birth must have gone fairly well. I don't remember hearing any screams or any great commotion as I waited outside with my relatives.

Ran Hettena
As was the custom in those days, the house was full of my uncles, aunts, and others, all awaiting word of the delivery. After the birth, I was led into my mother's room. Someone handed Diane to my father and he raised her up in his outstretched arms. She had a full head of hair and looked very pink and pretty. The year was 1927. I was four years old.

I was born into a family of Sephardic Jews living in Cairo. I was a British subject at birth in a country dominated politically and financially by Great Britain. My citizenship was a matter of convenience; Jews in Egypt had privileges if they had foreign citizenship. They could avoid the notoriously corrupt and inefficient courts, for instance, and take a grievance to a foreign tribunal. At home, we spoke French the language of the Jewish community in Egypt. We learned Arabic talking to the servants.

The British ran Egypt well. The telephones worked and the electricity supply was in good order. The streets were busy with horse-drawn carts but clean. In the evening, the radio filled our home with concerts from across Europe. We were able to pick up radio stations out of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. If you had shortwave, you could get Berlin.

Still, it was Africa. The maids swept scorpions off the back porch and ravages of locusts would descend upon Cairo every few years or so. You would get word via telephone and telegraph that a swarm was on its way. As soon as you heard, you closed all the shutters, shut every window tight and stuck rags to fill the gaps to prevent any bugs from entering. The sky would turn black with locusts, millions of them. You could hear them buzzing and hitting the windows. But they weren't interested in the city; they were looking for crops. And when they found crops; the buzzing cloud would descend and it would be complete devastation.

For my first eight years or so, we lived a rather carefree existence. Servants did all the cleaning and once a week a laundress would our dirty linens and wash them in a tub of boiling water on the roof. Food came fresh from the local market. Milk came from a man who brought his cow to our doorstep and filled a pail for us in the courtyard. The seamstress, Zina, brought her sewing machine to our home to mend our clothes. Another man brought round a block of ice wrapped in burlap that kept our icebox full and gave us cold water to drink in the torrid summers.

Dad and Diane with servant
In my early years, we lived in an apartment in a place called Shehamza. There I used to practice pelote-basque, known here as jai-alai. I used to fling the hard wicker ball down a long hallway against the wall so many times that the plaster eventually gave way. The wall was never fixed. When my family got their first radio, a big Atwater-Kent from America, my mother was delighted. She put it up against the wall to hide the broken plaster.

One day, I tried to hang something on the wall outside the balcony of our apartment. I drove a nail into the plaster, but the nail didn't hold and some of the plaster gave way. Then I drove another hole next to it and the plaster gave way again. To me the two holes in the plaster looked like eyes without a face. So I took a screwdriver and made the outlines of a head. And the head is still there. When my sister Diane visited Cairo recently, she said she could still see it on the wall of the building.

My father, Albert, was chief engineer at the Egyptian railways, a job that paid well. He attended college in France and wed my mother, Suzanne, when he returned home. It was an arranged marriage. Their life together was brief. My father was the youngest of nine brothers and sisters. Our family gatherings on Passover and the Jewish holidays were huge affairs and the dining room table would stretch on forever. There were dozens of children. My mother would reward us with 10-cent pieces if we were quiet for 15 minutes.

The family was my whole world. You never went to outsiders for anything. All our parties were almost all intra-family. My cousins were my best friends and we spent much of our free time together. The family would vacation together for a month or two in the summer at a big apartment house my aunt Adele and Uncle Jacques rented in Port Said on the Nile Delta. You would awaken there in the morning and go sit out on the verandah. A servant would bring a cup of coffee and a small delicacy and you gazed out on the deep blue, blue sea. We took long walks on the jetty with a sculpture at its tip of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who developed of the Suez Canal. Uncle Jacques helped us build a huge kite, the nicest on the beach.

Later, we vacationed in Alexandria and Ras El Bar. My Tante Marcelle and Uncle Emile lived in the Alexandria neighborhood of Sporting only a block away from the Mediterranean. The beaches were long stretches of white sand, the water clear and calm.  My cousins and I went to the beach every morning and got terribly sunburned. We took long walks in the cool evenings, talking and laughing. Those are perhaps the happiest memories I have from my childhood.

Albert Hettena
My uncles ran the Hettena Brothers construction business. My father, however, wasn't a partner. He was somewhat different from his older brothers in that he was well educated. Learning was not a big priority in his family and my father was picked on as being the equivalent of what you would today call a nerd. My uncles spoke Arabic, a sign to me that they were less refined. Albert attended a top-notch Catholic school in Cairo, Ecole des Freres. Apparently, he must have done very well, although he never bragged about it, since he was admitted without any special preparation into Ecole Speciale des Travaux Publics, the best engineering school in France.

School in France was not cheap and my father had to pay his own way. He was a good violin player and earned money playing weddings, bar-mitzvahs, afternoon teas and the occasional hotel ensemble helped pay for school overseas. My mother was good musician too. She studied in a French convent and learned to play piano well, with the help of a musical nun. Together, my parents would play beautiful duets of Brahms, Chopin and Schubert. You always heard a piano in my house. After my father died, she never touched the piano again.

My father loved France. He played a great deal of soccer there and became a big fan of the sport. When he returned to Cairo, he always read Candide, one of the Paris newspapers and followed the teams. He was more European than Egyptian. Friends and family who were visiting France would consult with him before they left and he would draw up an itinerary for them of everything they should do and see.

But my father had a huge vice: gambling. The family was full of big card players who would gather almost every Friday night for big games of baccarat and poker in the large home of my uncle Elie. Huge sums were won and lost. My father was always there. Some days he would make money; more often than not, he lost. He had a weak heart and the doctors continually advised him that the stress was bad for him. But it didn't matter; he couldn't stay away. When he got paid, he would give my mother whatever money she needed and they the rest down on the card table. It was not unusual that he would lost his entire monthly salary. The gambling would spark big arguments between my parents.

"Apres moi," my mother would say, "le deluge." (Loosely translated as "I don't care what happens. I'll be gone")

The two years of my father's life were very difficult ones. I was very aware he was seriously ill. Every morning, my mother made sure my father left with his small aluminum canister of "trin-trin" or nitroglycerin. When he came back, she would always ask him how many tablets he had taken that day. If it was only a few, it was a celebration. If he had taken money, it was clear he wasn't feeling well. He had a lot of trouble climbing stairs to our apartment. he would stop to rest on a landing, breathing hard. When he caught his breath, he would take another flight and so on. His health got worse and worse.

By then we were living in a rather luxurious apartment on Al Manakh Street in Cairo near the Ottoman Bank. It was a huge open apartment in perhaps one of the nicest apartment buildings in Cairo. My uncle Benjamin lived across the hall. The only problem for me was the apartment was a long walk from school. I wore out my shoes walking back and forth to classes and home for lunch every day.

One night, when I was 9 years old, I was awoken by screams from the bedroom next door. It was mother. She was called for one of the servants, Hanein. My mother told her to open the window and for a second, I thought my father had fallen out of it. She told the maidservant to fetch uncle Benjamin. He came running in in his bathrobe as my sister who was then 4 and I went to see what was wrong. My father was gasping for breath and I noticed a little saliva had collected in the corner of his mouth. Benjamin slapped my father a couple of times to try and revive him. A doctor who lived in the building arrived, also in his bathrobe. The doctor listened to my father's failing heart with his stethoscope. My asking him, "What is it? What is it?" Benjamin must have known. He kissed my father once as his heart pounded out its last beats. Then he kissed him again and my father was dead. He was 37.

Then came a rough time -- the "deluge" my mother had predicted. My father's gambling left us with no savings, no insurance and no assets. We had to let go of our servants Mohamed and Zenab, a husband-and-wife team my sister and I had grown very fond of.

My mother was devastated. Back then, a widow's life was said to end with the death of her husband. For a long time, she dressed all in black: Black dress, black hat and black veil. Many years later, she would say that she mourned for eight years. She only spoke of household matters, essentials or financial worries. She always gave the impression that she feared for the future.

My sister often fell ill the year after my father's death. She cried all day during her first day of kindergarten. Before the class was dismissed the teacher walked around with a box of candies, offering one to each child. As she walked by Diane, she paused. "For you, there is no candy," the teacher said. "You were crying all morning." To this day, she almost never cries.

Uncle Elie
But my uncles, in particular my uncle Elie, took responsibility for us. They paid our rent, our groceries and the servants. We remained in the same fancy apartment for about a year and a half, until my mother decided it wasn't right to keep living off my uncles. We moved into a second floor apartment with a balcony in a brand new white building on Mohamed Haggag Street.

My uncle Elie, the head of the Hettena Brothers company, became a surrogate father for me. For some months after my father's death, my uncle Elie took me to live with him in his big villa in Giza on the way to the pyramids. I called him Papa. In the house in Giza, I shared a bedroom with my cousin Maurice who was my age. I was treated as an equal in that household.

"Tu vois celui la?" my uncle Elie told Maurice, motioning at me. "C'est ton frere." ("You see him there? That's your brother")

That was all he needed to say. If Maurice got a toy like a daisy gun, I got the exact same thing. We had our bar mitzvahs at the same time, and we often got to go to the movies together. My uncle would insist on buying the tickets for us, afraid that he would do God knows what with the money. I never minded this arrangement, but Maurice was always offended.

"Why can't I buy my own ticket?" he would demand.

Sometimes he wouldn't go to the movies because he insisted on buying his own ticket. I never understood this fit of pride from a little boy. Perhaps it has to do with his artistic temperament. He played violin very well, so well in fact that he settled in South Africa where he became the first violinist in the national symphony in Cape Town.

Later, when I was a teenager, we were able to help my uncle Elie when he fell ill. He came to stay with us in Cairo so he could be closer to his doctors. He also had a heart condition. I remember walking into his room and sitting down next to him. He was suffering tremendously.

"Ask God to cure Papa," he told me in Arabic. He died soon thereafter at age 60.

None of my uncles lived past the age of 60. My uncle Benjamin followed my father a few months later on the way back from a picnic. One afternoon, he and his wife Emma took my mother for a ride in their new car, a Studebaker. Barely two hours later, they returned with Benjamin dead in the arms of the chauffeur. It was one funeral after another, year after year. The black funerary carriage pulled by four horses became a familiar sight. Pallbearers carried the casket on their shoulders, followed by criers, professional women whose job it was to weep, lament and scream. Everybody kept dying. It was so bad that afternoon siestas during visits to my grandmother's house made me nervous. One time while my aunt Nina napped in the room with me, I would rush to her side to make sure she was still breathing.

While my father was alive, I was not a good student. The teachers used to say "intelligent mais etourdie." (Intelligent but careless.) I was more than distracted. My mistakes were enormous. When I entered high school at Lycee I enrolled in the advanced Section Egyptienne, where Arabic was one of the courses. That was a mistake. I spoke very little Arabic and did not like it. Pierre Ghali, who changed his name to Boutrous-Boutrous and became the United Nations secretary general., was a classmate. But the upheaval of my father's death the year before and my poor study habits was a bad combination. I failed the exam at the end of the year. The school made me do the year over. The future U.N. secretary general, who spoke better Arabic, passed.

A Lycee Report Card
After my father's death, things changed. Doing the year over gave me some confidence. I was a bit older, more mature, and something clicked. I got interested in school and I elevated my ranking in the class, which had been stuck in the middle of the pack. played with intensity and purpose. I had a good memory and that helped with the weekly assignment to memorize a poem in French. I would recite the great French poets: Moliere, Racine, Corneille, Baudelaire and Prudhomme while Diane followed along in the text, correcting here and there. I could remember a sonnet after reading it three or four times.

And so we settled in to our new life on Mohamed Haggag Street. Every morning at 7:30 my sister and I were on our way to Lycee. In the yard of the school was a huge mango tree and a flamboyant ponciana tree that shaded us from the broiling sun. "Liberte, egalite, fraternite" the motto of the French Revolution, was printed above the blackboard for us to see everyday.

The imposing stone stairs right of the center yard led to a terrace and closed doors. The doors were opened only once at the end of the year. Then the whole faculty took seats on the terrace, while students and families sat in the yard below. They read very formally the "palmar├Ęs" or prizes. After my father's death, my name began to be called each year as I rose into the No. 2 spot in the class, behind my good friend Ramon Arar. I never passed Ramon, except when he was sick for a couple of semesters. The competition was usually between myself and another boy named Pardo, who was usually in third place.

After school, we returned home in the late afternoon. Evenings were spent in the large family room seated around a square table, which served for meals and schoolwork. We did not have toys. I had a small chess set with some missing pieces for which I carved replacement. My sister invented games playing teacher, serving tea, and so on.

In the spring, all the Hettenas would gather at Uncle Elie's villa for Pesach. The house was filled with flowers and the huge table was set with a white embroidered cloth. All the silver was and flower arrangements ran down the length of the table. The seder was Iraqi style and lasted a long time.  The matzah in Egypt was very thin, very large, flat and round. There was an abundance of haroseth, a thick syrup made from dates and walnuts. A retinue of soufraguis or waiters in formal attire brought in mountains of lamb with rice and an Egyptian meat pie with pine nuts and pomegrante wrapped in a super-thin layer of matzah.

We had few friends who weren't Jewish. One exception was Nachary Nasr, a good friend of mine who came from a very well to do Muslim family. He was a brilliant student, very sophisticated and well read. He visited our home often, playing chess, sometimes with his eyes closed. I rarely went to see him, but once he threw a party for us and invited all his cousins. His family received us very warmly. Servants brought out a big spread on huge copper trays.

Egyptians were as a rule extremely hospitable. They would greet you at the door with warm exclamations of "Ahlan," meaning welcome. In hot weather, guests were greeted with a tray of cold water and confiture (candied fruit). A crystal bowl sitting in a silver container held the candied fruit. You would spoon some dates, orange or quince, taste it and then discard the spoon in a glass of water. They often insisted you stay longer or have a second helping. It was not unusual to pour the contents of the candy dish into your bag as you left.

I used to get an allowance of six piasters a week, roughly the equivalent of a quarter. That was just enough for a matinee at the movie the movie theater. I loved the movies, especially the mysteries and thrillers from England and America, like False Faces, the Invisible Man, and Came by Night. I also enjoyed westerns, and comedies with William Powell and Myrna Loy. My sister always wanted to see Snow White and the other Disney movies, but I always chose what we saw. I felt a little guilty about this later on.

Groppi's was another indulgence. Giacomo Groppi was a superb Swiss chef whose chocolates and pastries were coveted by visiting heads of state who left with suitcases packed with goodies. Everyone knew Groppi's and his place on Adly Pasha Street had an outdoor garden that served dinner under the stars with music and dancing and tea "dansants" in the afternoon where pashas sipped coffee with their mistresses and rubbed shoulders with British officers on leave.

We moved again when I was 16 into our last home in Cairo. We rented a bright, six-room flat at 51 Falaki Street, not far from the Lycee. We kept earthenware jugs of water with shiny brash covers on the kitchen windowsill in the shade that anyone could drink from. We called them "gargoulettes" (water coolers) and they kept the water cool and fresh.  From time to time, the apartment filled with the smell of chestnuts and orange peels roasted over a kerosene stove to perfume the air.

The Falaki Street apartment overlooked a courtyard. From the second floor, we would watch the "menagued," a professional carder on his annual visit to restore our lumpy cotton mattresses. He removed the cotton from the mattress, and beat the lumps out of it with a mallet and a tool that resembled an archer's bow.  The rhythm of the blows created a twanging musical sound as he struck the cotton on the bow. We slept more comfortably when he was done.

The kitchen door of the Falaki Street flat opened on a landing, which was like a small balcony. This entrance was reserved for deliveries from the iceman, the Syrian baker with his fresh bread and the milkman. The milkman brought fresh cow's milk which he had to boil and skim cream from the top as it cooled. He also offered donkey's milk to those who wanted it. Tante Farida believed that I was so smart because I was given donkey's milk as a child.

The milkman was the suitor of our maid Hanem, which is Arabic for "noble lady." She had come to us as a young woman and it was her first job. She was decent, kind and hardworking, but she was unattractive, had buck teeth and hardly ate. She invested all her savings in gold jewelry, which she wore on her arms, ears and neck. Egyptians believed that wearing your savings was a safe and prestigious thing to do. She and the milkman married and had a beautiful daughter.

The rear bedroom at 51 Falaki Street had a balcony that overlooked an open-air movie theater. You could see the movies from our apartment, but you couldn't hear them. Luckily, we moved into the apartment after I had taken and passed the baccalaureat exam in 1940, the final exam at the Lycee. Otherwise, the movies could have proved a huge distraction.

To prepare for the baccalaureat, I came home from school and locked myself in my room for two solid months. I studied and studied and studied and was well prepared by the end of it. The subject that gave me the most trouble was history. There wasn't time to read the whole textbook and we hadn't covered it in school. I only got through the first section on the American Revolution. Luckily, when the exam came, the history question was on the causes of the War of Independence. I placed No. 400 out of 10,000 students. Not bad, given there was some Arabic on the exam.

I went with my friend Ramon Arar the next day to the Lycee and asked for my certificate. My family owed the school money and I was afraid they would withhold my diploma until the account was settled. I was not exactly well regarded at the bursar's office. After Uncle Elie's death, my other uncles had stopped paying the Lycee and it was difficult to pry any money out of them. When the bill got too big and school officials threatened to toss me out, my uncles would pay for a couple of months. So when I asked for my certificate, a school official asked me if I was paid up with the bursar. He knew I wasn't, but he gave me the certificate anyway. And that's why I have remained very loyal to the Lycee all these years.

The next few months were perhaps the best period of my life. With the exam behind me, a big step had been completed. I was young, not even 17, and I began looking for my first job. World War II had begun and Britain was at war with Germany. It was called "drolle de guerre," the funny war. We viewed it as a distant conflict between Allies. The only thing that changed in Cairo was the influx of British GIs. The Hettena Brothers construction company made some money building housing for the troops. Otherwise, life went on as usual. It would be some time before Egypt awoke to the seriousness of the threat.

I had first heard of Adolf Hitler a few years earlier. There was an effort by the Jewish community in Cairo to boycott German products. This was not without irony because my Uncle Joseph represented several German companies in Egypt. He spoke and wrote German, visited Europe and understood better than anyone else in my family the ominous nature of events in Nazi Germany. For the most part, conversations about Hitler were intellectual ones. Absent was the fear that, in hindsight, should have been engendered.

I was too young to be drafted so I hunted for a job. Three months went by and I became desperate. Finally, my Uncle Jacques helped me land an interview at the Marconi Telegraph Co. I got hired. Completing Lycee had left me with an overinflated sense of superiority. I felt myself way superior to the other inductees, all of whom were Egyptian. My uncle was excited, thinking that I would make a career as a telegraph operator. I only lasted a year but the training was instrumental in my work for the Israeli underground in Cairo.

At Marconi
At Marconi, I underwent six months of rigorous training in Morse Code reception and transmission before moving up to the entry level position of checker. Much of the work consisted of relaying messages from British soldiers to families back home. During the Battle of Britain in 1940, the messages that came in from London were all in the same vein. "Bombed out darling, but safe. Don't worry." Or "Bombed out darling. Some damage. We'll take care of it." They would report that so-and-so was killed or grandma had a heart attack during the raids. The messages would close: "We're in very good spirits. Cherrio. Lift up." We also handled some coded military messages.

But I failed at the checker's job of routing outgoing messages to the correct station. I would send a message destined for Romania to Turkey. The company would launch an inquiry into what went wrong. The explanation was simple human error -- mine. "Error much regretted." The Egyptians, whom I considered beneath me in terms of education, culture, and the like, wouldn't make such silly mistakes.

As a Marconi employee, I could use the posh company club across the street. There was a big billiards table, but I preferred ping-pong. The British managers always hung around drinking and the club officials would come and watch me play ping-pong. It was hard to respect the British managerial class; they were second-rate people: lazy, cliquish big drinkers. I was in the club in the summer of 1941 when one of the senior Italian employees (who were made to administrative work because of Italy's alliance with Germany) walked in and said "Germany attacked Russia." We celebrated. There was a new ally on our side. I left Marconi after a year. The problem was the night work. One week you worked normal hours and then the next you worked the overnight shift. Working all night got me completely discombobulated and I had trouble sleeping.

I still had my overinflated sense of self. I considered a lot of things beneath me. I lasted one day at a job at the Army distribution center, in a position of a glorified grocer, apron and all. My mother told me to wait for a few days but I couldn't. Jobs like that in Egypt were done by servants, or so I thought. One of the people at the distribution center told me, "Don't think I come from the street. I also have a degree like you." The next job I landed was at the Gateno Brothers department store, which sold furniture and household goods. I also saw that as beneath me. I hated the job, kept it quiet and lasted only a short while. If you worked there, in my eyes, it meant you were nothing. And truth be told, I was nothing then.

Around this time, in 1941, the war turned much more serious. About the same time as Hitler's invasion of Russia, the British swept across the whole of Africa, then defended only by two Italian divisions. The British ran through the Italians like a knife through butter. But then the Germans reinforced the Italians with the Afrika Korps under the command of Erwin Rommel. Things changed overnight. Suddenly, there were big battles. Rommel pushed the British back across North Africa, back into Egypt. More tanks rolled through the streets of Cairo. Before I turned 18, I joined the British Civil Defense Force. I lied about my age and they never asked for proof.


  1. Thank you for these memories. I, too was born in Cairo, Egypt, a decade later, but also having the same experiences. Those times have passed with the wind. There wasn't a better time for Jews living in Egypt and for the Sephardim as a whole.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. All the best, Seth Hettena