By Devon Murray
Step back in time to 1973, when, in the midst of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Egypt and Syria launched an attack on Israel on October 6, catching the world off guard. Known as the October War, this conflict and its results signaled a major shift across the region’s political landscape and United States foreign policy in the Middle East.
Today, on the war’s 50th anniversary, we look back not on the battlefield, but on Cairo — and AUC — to understand what life was like for AUCians in wartime. Drawing from a series of oral histories and clippings from The Caravan found in the University Archives, we explore the varied experiences of students, faculty and staff in October 1973.
Whispers of War
What are the signs a country is headed toward war? Tim Sullivan, provost emeritus and former professor of political science, who landed in Cairo just before October 1973, sets the scene.
We arrived on September 16, 1973, which is obviously 20 days before the war. So we didn’t have much time to get adjusted to Egypt before that. Most places had windows painted blue. That would mean you could have the light on at night, and it couldn’t be seen by a plane that might drop a bomb on you. There were sandbags everywhere. … The Sheikh Rihan entrance to AUC had a barricade in front of it..
Of course, we didn’t plan to arrive in a war zone. You know, obviously, the Arab-Israeli conflict had been going on since the establishment of Israel. And one knew you were going into a place where conflict was, in a sense, endemic. But there was no inkling that war was imminent. It looked like something of a stalemate, actually.
For Jayme Spencer, librarian emerita who served as the director of public services at the AUC Library for more than 43 years, October 6, 1973 began as any other day.
It’s a Sunday. And we are invited out. In those days, we did not work on Sunday.
She recalls going to a barbecue at the home of a colleague who lived by the Pyramids.
And at some point toward the evening, we got … a knock on the door. The sun had already pretty much gone down. And some army people came in, and all started talking. … Apparently, as it was translated to us, you know, “How can you be doing this? A day that you, your country is at war! And you have foreigners with you!” … And they said, “Pack everything up and get out of here immediately. Go to your home.”
I think they painted the headlights of the cars blue so that they wouldn’t show … because all of a sudden we were of course in curfew and darkness.
According to Spencer, the University remained open the following day, though not everyone showed up.
People were waiting for the University to make an official announcement. And we didn’t know how long [this was] going to happen. Were we going to, you know, be defeated immediately, and that would be the end of it? But as it turned out of course, it lasted much longer.
Walid Kazziha, political science professor who has been with AUC since 1972, describes the community’s initial reaction to the war.
In 1973, when the war broke out, students were up in arms, faculty were very much fired up with what was happening. And then we get this statement from the Vice President… [Ahmed Abdel Ghaffar] Saleh or something, who says, “Classes will be held as usual.”
The faculty called for a meeting, and we met. [President] Thoron came personally to that meeting.
Thoron laid it out and said, “We’re fully in support of Egyptian efforts to regain its land in Sinai, and the University cannot be opened as usual, you know. Now we will have to think of a way to support Egypt in its war effort. And the students are proposing [to] do some medical service … and support here.
Of course we didn’t have classes. We were listening to what was on the radio, and no one at that point could go and give a lecture. Let’s face it. And then after the war, we came back and that was it.
Spencer recalls students immediately organizing to support the war.
[The students] quickly mobilized themselves, the ones who could, to support the war. I know I went in two or three days and rolled bandages.
Farkhonda Hassan (MSc ’67), professor emerita in the School of Sciences and Engineering, took her students to Kasr El Aini Hospital to help with cleaning and gathering supplies.
We took four big wards in Kasr El Aini. … The students were running around bringing sheets from the factories — clean ones, clean sheets, pillowcases.
While at the hospital, Hassan ran into a number of celebrities, including Tahiya Carioca, an Egyptian belly dancer and film actress, whom she asked to bring a food processor to prepare meals for patients who were having difficulty eating.
I used to put the rice and the vegetables and the meat and have [the patients] drink it. … This made them more healthy. And [the hospital] used to have visitors coming to us and reporters from all over the world to see. This [is] where AUC is. And [these were] the students, girls and boys. And teachers. So I was very happy. We stayed there for about two months.
Sullivan describes how Cairenes got their news about the battlefront during the war.
[At AUC], we had meetings during the war, no classes, and [I would] come in on the train. And people are excited, they’re talking. I didn’t know what the heck they’re saying, but they’ve all got newspapers and they’re pointing to stories and there are pictures. I can’t read Arabic at the time, but they’ve got pictures of stuff that’s going on in the war.
During the war, something happened [that] I was immediately made aware was unusual. … Egyptians were getting news from Egyptian news sources. Now, let me explain what I mean by that. Up to that time, if, you know, the Egyptian, I will have to call it upper middle class or even elite — they would have access to what was going on in the world and in Egypt by listening to the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] or the VOA [Voice of America] or Radio Monte Carlo. Radio Monte Carlo was a big hit, and the reason was simple: It was news that was actually news. It wasn’t censored. It wasn’t interpreted through some political screen. So if they want to know how their troops were doing, how the war was going, they would listen to Monte Carlo, they would listen to the BBC. They would also listen to or watch television news, what little there was. And if they found the BBC and Egyptian news were saying the same thing, they were thrilled. Because it [means] the government is telling us the truth.
Life Goes On
Despite the war, many living in Cairo in October 1973 were able to enjoy hobbies and make connections with others. Spencer reflects on social life during this time.
We didn’t have a curfew during the day, so if I didn’t go roll bandages or do whatever else it was I was doing with the students and other faculty members, I had a group of people that I went out horseback riding [with].
And then as it started to get toward dark, we’d always make [our way] back home. However, within every quarter, I would say, Zamalek, Garden City, Maadi, people violated the curfew as they wished. Some of my closest friends happened to live just a block and a half away from me on Tolombat [Street]. We spent many a night till about 9:00 or 10:00, playing cards and just sitting around talking.
While out and about, Spencer and a friend discovered a group of stranded American tourists who were meeting at the Hilton in Zamalek every night. Most of them had been vacationing in Cairo when the war broke out and were now waiting to be evacuated safely from Egypt.
Because of course the embassy was trying to get them out. And I think they ended up going out through … a boat from Libya. And they had to pay for it.
Spencer and her friend were invited for breakfast with a Catholic family one morning.
They noticed that we were taking the sugar out of the container at the table and they said “Why is that?” And I said, “Well, sugar is being rationed right now, and we don’t have any.” And so they started saving their sugar. I think it was about three, four days before they actually got away. So we had a huge stash of sugar from them, from the Hilton.
And for about the next two years, this family used to send like a little care package back to
Cairo. It would take months, several months to get here, and be full of sugar and just, candy, and well wishes, and maybe a book or two. I lost track of ’em many, many years ago, but it was just one of those kinds of things — you bond with people in a certain way, you know, in a catastrophe, where you’re swept up by the circumstances. But what was important for me was the fact that they were so positive about Egypt. And they had enjoyed their time here. They really didn’t have an agenda … They were curious to see how it was going to turn out.
For Sullivan, adjusting to life in Cairo during this tense period was a great way to get to know Egyptians.
It was actually a good introduction to the country and the people. A better introduction than AUC could have possibly organized because … you could see people under stress. My father always said there are a couple of ways to really understand what people are like. … So one test is what happens when you get in the wilderness? It’s a Hobbesian test. What do you do when there is no law, when there is no order, when there is no government? How do people behave? And another one is when you’re under great stress. Well, the whole country was under great stress. And they behaved well.