Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
All ranks in Maadi Camp eagerly looked forward to their first leave in Cairo. The stories of members of the advanced party, and the attractions of that city as outlined by old soldiers of the First World War, had made the new army of New Zealanders anxious to see things for themselves. Most were given the opportunity on their first weekend at Maadi. Troops had already been lectured on the out-of-bounds areas, the dangers of venereal disease, the sanctity of the Egyptian tarbush, the need to watch for spurious money, and had also been issued with maps of Cairo.
The first leave parties were faced with a march of up to two miles to Maadi station, though unit transport was later provided. A quick journey in a fast diesel railcar took troops from Maadi to Bab-el-Louk station in Cairo for one piastre (twopence half-penny). Outside Bab-el-Louk station they were besieged by bootblack boys trying to earn a few piastres by applying doubtful boot-polish, by unprepossessing pedlars in nightgown-like galabiehs, page 32 by gharry drivers seeking a fare in their cabs drawn by feeble-looking horses. Guides would offer their services to show troops the sights of the city—the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the zoo, the innumerable mosques, the Citadel, the native bazaars in the Mousky, and the Birket area.
To most, the many wide streets and open midans of Cairo became familiar, streets thronged with a cosmopolitan crowd of colourful types and costumes, Eastern and Western or an incongruous mixture of both: the almost invariable red tarbush, the skull cap or cloth band headdress of the poor; the long full robes in white, dark colours, or stripes; the ragged, persistent, little bootblack boys vieing with one another for custom; the shrewd street-vendors of cheap junk and second-rate curios, exuding an odour of garlic and stale sweat. In open café bars around the city, at tables fronting on the pavement, sat portly Moslems sipping black coffee and reading the Arabic daily news-sheet or playing backgammon.
In spite of fine buildings, theatres, restaurants and shops on a lavish scale, and many evidences of wealth, there was an air of shoddiness about even the city area of Cairo. Spreading outwards in all directions were its many crowded slum areas. The native bazaars of closely packed little open stalls in a maze of narrow lanes and alleys, selling every imaginable type of curio, cheap jewellery, cloth and leatherwork, were a profitable source of souvenirs to send home, and the licensed Birket area, a novelty to the uninitiated, proved an unpleasant surprise even to the forewarned. Harsh music emanated into the semi-blackout of the night from tawdry café bars, where dancing partners of dubious attractions lured soldiers into paying high prices for their liquors.
Late at night an asthmatic and broken-down old bus would splutter up to the camp and empty out its overload of tired soldiers returning after a day in Cairo.