Tick-Tock to Apocalypse: May 22 1967


A Traffic Jam

Peter M., then a young attache at the US Embassy in Cairo, woke up early on Monday May 22 1967 to head to work expecting a flurry of instructions from a Washington DC returning from the weekend. He recalled the events of the day more than a decade later. His normal drive from his house in Ma’adi to work was less than 20 minutes. On that day, however, the roads were clogged and it took him the better part of 2 hours. The traffic jam was caused by the “whole bloody Egyptian Army traveling across Cairo”. The next morning he read about the events as reported by a number of Western journalists. He recalled the reporting of the highly regarded Eric Pace of the New York Times. Mr Pace asserted that the five Egyptian divisions deployed in the Sinai would “prevent any sudden humiliating defeat, like that of the offensive of 1956“. Pace also noted how the official press promoted the image of Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, a “mainstay of the regime“. In Pace’s considered judgement “In short, by his belligerence, Mr. Nasser has created an atmosphere in which military dictatorship thrives best“.

Later that evening at the Heliopolis Sporting Club, members gathered at their usual spots on tables below Sycamore trees ordering rounds of Stella beer and Termis (pickled Lupini beans). The adult conversation centered on quotidian subjects, especially the upcoming Thanawya examinations for college entrance. At one point a man pointed out the radio announcement of the calling of the reserves. Few took much heed, or give any insights on an impending war. Nor did anyone notice the absence of a sometime guest, General Medhat Fahmy. He had been ordered to speed to the Sinai at the head of his tank division. His mission was to wait near Gaza, and when ordered to make a dash north toward Haifa. Three weeks later he was indeed in Haifa, as a prisoner of war. In an interview he gave to French reporters he spoke admiringly of the skill of both his soldiers and their Israeli opponents. He said he harbored no hate toward Israel, and that he was treated with respect since his capture. More noted was the absence of Ahmed, the young roustabout who did a variety of tasks around the club. He had received a notice of mobilization at the tiny basement apartment he shared with his father, a doorman, his mother and a brother and a sister. Ahmed was never seen again at the club. More than two months later his name appeared on a list of those presumed dead. A fellow private in his unit insisted that he was taken prisoner, and that the “the Jews shot him”. It is certainly possible that this was his fate. It is also possible that the charge stemmed from anger and humiliation. The world may never know the truth. What some know for certain is that on a hot day in August 1967 a piercing shriek issued from a tiny basement window in Heliopolis. For a long time after, whenever Um Ahmed appeared in public she was clad in black and wordless, and occasionally in tears.

— Maged Atiya

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