By Nehad Salem, a novelist and freelance interpreter (THE GUARDIAN, 20/10/06):
Egypt in the 50s was a time of elation born of hope in the future and pride in the distant past. The country was young again, emerging from a long period of lethargy. With Nasser, our new charismatic leader, anything seemed possible. A whole generation was fired with enthusiasm. On October 29 1956 the Israelis attacked. What happened to the army is well documented. That Nasser gave orders to distribute weapons to the inhabitants of Port Said and Suez is less common knowledge. Cases of brand new guns still covered in grease were handed to crowds eager to fight for their country.
When the French and British bombed Port Said and sent their troops in, the Communist party called on its members to volunteer for military training. That night my husband and I decided to go. We asked a close comrade if he would take care of our children until we returned – or for good if we did not.
In one of three makeshift training camps in the province of Sharqiya, two weeks of intensive training in guerrilla warfare flew by while we waited for our chance to join the resistance in the now-occupied city of Port Said. My nights were restless. I found it hard to imagine myself killing people, even those who had bombed and killed my people.
My husband and I were summoned to meet our two commanding officers. They asked if I would be willing to enter the besieged city to deliver grenades and ammunition to a group of officers who were organising sabotage operations. My husband suggested he could go instead but was told that a woman was less easily noticed. They gave us two hours to think it over. I pleaded with my reluctant husband, but he only agreed after they assured him they would sneak him into the city a few days later.
I was to walk into the city with another woman, each carrying cases of grenades in baskets, hidden under straw and live poultry supposedly destined for the market. My destination was a bookshop where, on mentioning a codeword, I would be taken with my consignment to those who were waiting for it.
The bookshop was closed. We sat on the pavement with our squawking chickens and waited. I watched the passers by, yet my eyes were glued on the closed door. At last, a man came and opened it. After greeting him, I uttered the code. He looked at me blankly and asked what I meant. Shocked, I repeated the words, stressing each syllable. He stepped out, looked both ways, came back and said: “The bookshop was searched two days ago. I have to be careful. Bring in what you have.”
I took the baskets in and he called for a horsedrawn carriage that drove us off through streets patrolled by British and French soldiers, followed by crowds of jeering children, the boldest of whom were throwing stones. After delivering my consignment I was taken to a house where a friend received me warmly.
A few days later my husband joined me and together we participated in writing and distributing the newsletter entitled al-Muqawma (Resistance) in addition to carrying out other orders. We only left Port Said after the withdrawal of the last British soldier and after we had watched the citizens pull down the statue of de Lesseps, symbolic of all that their ancestors had suffered while digging the Suez canal. We left proud to have been involved in the resistance operations carried out in that courageous city.
Later years witnessed the waning of the elation and enthusiasm that had prevailed in the 50s and early 60s. Much of what had seemed possible did not materialise – external forces and internal blunders combined to make it impossible. Following the defeat of 1967 came the massacre of the Palestinians in 1970, and when Nasser died, Egypt mourned its shattered dream.