This is a story I have been wanting to tell for years. It is so fantastic that it is hard to believe that it is true. Be assured that this is not a fabrication.
It happened in Cairo Egypt, my first posting and one I enjoyed very much.
It is somewhat of a shock for a young man from the prairies to arrive in such a place. teeming with wall to wall people and a strange stench in the air. As the old saying goes, "First impressions are not always lasting impressions" You get somewhat accustomed to the hoards of people and the stench seems to vanish in a few days. Cairo in my time still had a European atmosphere. The influence of the Greeks, Italians and the French was all around you. French was the predominant language after Arabic. The accommodation was super because it was not expensive. What more could a young bachelor ask for. I lived in a 2 story pent-house, had a servant (suffrage) who waited on me hand and foot. Our work day ended at 2 o’clock because of the heat. It gave me time to play tennis and swim every day at a country club. I found it difficult to believe that some complained of such a hard life. If any of you reading this did a tour in Cairo you may remember that they made very good beer there.. Stella!!..do you recall.?
I didn’t mean to digress, however, it is hard to forget the good times in ones life.
It all started one day in 1961 when it was announced in the papers that Patrice Lumumba, president of the Congo was assassinated. Patrice Lumumba at the beginning of his political career was pro Western in his outlook, however, his resentment of Belgian authority was unyielding. Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt was not pro Western nor did he have any love for Belgium. Nasser and the press that he controlled made a big thing out of it and blamed the Belgians for Lumumba’s demise. Needless to say things were tense in Cairo and the following morning my servant, who did not like Nasser, told me that there would be rioting at the Belgian Embassy. My servant’s concern was because he knew that our Embassy’s back fence abutted the Belgian Embassy’s. I called the Head of Chancery because the Ambassador was away and relayed the news to him, which he had not been aware of. He decided that we should go to the Embassy and deal with emergency procedures. I parked my car a couple of blocks away from the Chancery. It seemed I was more worried about my car than myself. Not because I was brave but because the car was a profit making deal, a legal perk. It’s one of those psychological things I guess.
On arrival at the Embassy things appeared normal. The Embassy at that time was going through a complete remodeling and a third floor had been added. Our new com-center was there and I proceeded to my new office. My office being at the back of the building overlooked the back yard of the Belgian Embassy. The communicator and I looked back at the Embassy but we could not see the front of the building, however we could hear the noise, LOTS OF It! They were in the process of ramming the front door with a huge log and a few cars had been destroyed beyond recognition.
They eventually made a real mess of the inside of the Belgian Embassy. There were no bombs thrown as would likely have happened to-day, but the Chancery was almost completely gutted inside, but with no loss of life..
Meanwhile the Admin Officer’s assistant, a local staff member by the name of George Hakim, a Lebanese Christian, told the Admin Officer that it would be wise to remove our flag from the front of the Chancery. She said "No way, that flag is going to remain." George Hakim being local staff did not question her decision. The first boo-boo. One must remember that our flag was then called, I believe "The ensign" and it had the British Union Jack on the upper corner next to the mast. To an Arab and especially rioters, that meant ‘British’ and the fact that Egypt had severed relations with the UK at that time made it rather ominous flying in front of our building. .
The Head of Chancery meanwhile sent all the Canadian staff home with the exception of the Communicator and myself. He instructed the Head Security Guard to chain lock the front door and he forgot. Boo-boo number 2. The door was left UNLOCKED.
At that time the communicator and I were beginning procedures to destroy documents in the files and the tapes. We did not worry about equipment because the Rockex like a computer was a dumb machine without the tapes. I would have destroyed that too but documents were far more important and there was very little time. Can you imagine trying to destroy all the classified documents if you did it by the book. Also lets remember that you are going through procedures that will burn down the building. By the way we had a way out the back door and there was no one but a few Arabs working on the remodeling.
While we were beginning our unenviable task I suddenly heard a commotion downstairs. I quickly went to the top landing of the second floor and could see a hoard of rioters in our front lobby. This is when reality sunk in and I must admit there was a moment of fear which I have never since experienced. Surprisingly though they were not bashing things up and the atmosphere was relatively quiet. George Hakim had confronted them and was speaking to them in Arabic. I will never forget the bravery that George Hakim had demonstrated that day. He said to them "What are you doing here? This is not the Belgian Embassy." They said "We were told that the Belgian Ambassador had jumped the fence and is here in your Embassy and that you are helping him to escape." George replied, at the top of his voice, "The Belgian Ambassador is not here and also Do you realize that there are fellow Arabs working here on this building, if you destroy it you will be putting them out of work, permanently. " They murmured and grumbled a bit and promptly walked out of the Chancery. I stood there in disbelief. It seemed like an hour before I walked back to the office, although it was only a minute or so. One for Ripley, isn’t it?
© OFARTS Canada 2006 Old Foreign Affairs Retired Technicians, Canada The opinions expressed here are those of the contributors. Accuracy of facts has not been verified in all cases.