Dad’s Coffee Cups in Cairo

In the Cairo bazaar Dad watched an Armenian man making coffee cups.

He worked on a wooden lathe that his father had hand-made, he said. He was spinning silver – thin sheets of silver – a wheel presses the silver onto a wooden cup-shaped form as it rotates, spreading and shaping the metal.

wooden lathe_2.jpg
I’ll check with the ole man what the lathe looked like – maybe like this?

He said he imported his porcelain inserts or inlays from Czechoslovakia and added them to his silver tea and coffee cups for his signature look.

Dad bought two sets from him, and paid him 5 Egyptian pounds, “worth way less than English pounds” he says.**

That was back in 1943. Nowadays Saad of Egypt are Cairo’s best-known silversmiths. Saad was born in 1939. He says he still forges his own silver “in the tradition of Zorayan the Armenian, which his children unfortunately discontinued”. You won’t watch his skilled craftsmen spinning silver on a wooden lathe, though. He regards them as a rare commodity and takes precautions against losing them, concealing them, as he explains, “in our workshop away from the Khan, in the Cairene district of Ghamra. After all, a competitor could come in and lure them away”.

Saad’s advice on the best way to polish silver is a combination of “soap, warm water and a toothbrush — forget all the polishes promoted on the market; they just aim at making money . . .”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

So where does this story suddenly come from? It started on LindiLou’s rose farm this weekend. She had her big annual Tarr Roses Open Day, selling roses and teas and all sorts on the farm, but especially roses.

Tarr Roses Open Day2.jpg
A previous Tarr Roses Open Day. There’s the old thorn among the roses.

An old Harrismith friend was there and she said Dad had sold her mother his Egyptian (Armenian) coffee cups! This brought back memories of buying them in a market in Cairo 74 years ago!

Now he wants to buy them back from her! He’ll pay ‘any price’ he says.


Later: Yesterday I heard more from Dad. The lady does not want to sell her coffee set as they were a gift from her late mother, who got them from her late father, who bought them from Dad for two heifers. They thus have sentimental value to her. Dad is indignant: “They have no sentimental value to her, they have sentimental value to ME!” he huffs self-centredly. She had them valued at R3500 each (apparently there are two sets) and Dad says no way he can afford R7000 but its not right! He now wants to ask her to put a note on them: In case of her death they must be sold to one of his three children. None of whom want them!

The kicker: He actually has no recollection of buying four sets. The two he remembers he gave to his daughters Barbara and Sheila, who still have them. He remembers nothing about the sale nor anything about two heifers. The bloody things PROBABLY AREN’T EVEN HIS! The ‘sale’ probably never happened. But he has his piddle in a froth about them.

Bloody hell!


Sheila tells me what she has is a tea set in a wooden box the old man made for her to display them in. Here it is with ancient pics of Dad and us:


At an antique fair in Umhlanga years ago she was told by the evaluator that they were not worth very much, as ‘every second soldier brought one home’.


The thlot pickens. Another of Dad’s stories Sheila remembers from the past, is that he did indeed buy those coffee cups he now can’t remember, but he couldn’t bring them home from Italy, he simply had too much loot to carry. So he gave them to a comrade to bring home for him. Once back in SA he lost touch with the man. He enlisted the help of his brother-in-law Solly Solomon, a colonel in the police, who did find the man, but advised Dad to forget about getting his stuff back. The man was a down-and-out on the bones of his arse, and had long since sold anything he possessed.


Note: **The official rate at the time though, was £1 = E£0.975 – ‘from 1885 to 1949’ according to my source – so maybe Dad got a special soldier’s rate? Maybe the English pound was strong in wartime? Maybe – *gasp!* – he was mistaken!?

Moral of the story? Try not to be dogmatic about your memory. Take it with a pinch of salt. It flatters to deceive, and it deceives to flatter.


World War 2 – 94yr-old Dad reminisces


Dad was in the SA Signal Corps in the South Africa Defence Force (or the “Union Army”?). They fought in Egypt and Italy (in the 8th army – British). My military terminology will be found amateur and dodgy, but I’ll fix where I’m told to! Yes SIR!


SA played the Kiwis at rugby – “Springboks against the All Blacks” on Gazeera Island in Cairo.

The stadium was full so the latecomers climbed up lampposts to see. British MP’s tut-tutted and ordered them down “This is just not on, chaps. Decorum and all that” but they refused to budge: “This is important, don’t you understand? It’s the Springboks against the All Blacks!” So the Pom cops waited till the end of the game then hauled the Saffers off to gaol for the night. A civvie Egyptian gaol!

(After that whenever they met Kiwis in pubs a scrum would form as soon as the blood/alcohol levels reached an appropriate level. In Venice they scrummed each other right into a canal!)

Abdin Palace, Cairo, the palace of King Farouk. Dad drove (Major?) ____ there in a ___.

Polish troops in charge of grub. Carcasses hanging in a tree. The Poles had chickens and ducks for themselves. Where from? the SA troops wondered.

Always tea and sugar, even if nothing else. A Pom must always have ‘is tea (or char? Years later ex-serviceman Cappie Joubert used to call out “Coop a char ‘na boon!” – cup of tea and a bun – at our Sunday school picnics).

In the desert kites would swoop down on your plate as you walked. They also saw vultures & crows.



He went up the east (Adriatic) coast while the other ‘prong’ went up the west coast and some went up the middle in the mountains (“they had the hardest time’).


Cassino on the West coast. Monte Cassino the monastery on the hill.

Monte Cassino

‘It was still intact and should have remained so but the Yanks could not leave well enough alone and bombed it to smithereens’.

Monte Cassino bombed

Dad salvaged a piece of mosaic from the ruins, but isn’t sure where it is now.

The nearby Pontine Marshes hosted mozzies, and malaria struck down many Yanks and Poms maybe because of their lower immunity?

Making their way up the east coast (Adriatic Coast) of Italy in 1944 they got to the village of Lanciano where they bedded down in an orange orchard. On the way to the temporary mess in a cowshed, they had to cross an earth road which had a ditch running on either side. A landmine exploded in the ditch, killing seven of their men and badly wounding one Anderson, leaving his limbs barely dangling and his ribs exposed, but somehow the wiry trooper survived.

Went to Rimini

Lake Como pictures by V Paggiola salvaged somewhere. Two paintings about a metre wide and 900mm high.

Lake Como, by V Paggiola

Up North to Fano, where a Spitfire came back from a bombing raid with a partially-released bomb dangling below it. It was told to push off and go drop the bloody bomb in the ocean. It flew off and waggled its wings to dislodge the bomb over the ocean, thought it had got rid of it but returned too soon and dropped the bomb on the camp kitchen, killing five men and badly injuring a bolshy new kid fresh out of SA, Ginger Tidkin, whose legs got burnt in the petrol fire stoves used to cook the big pots of food.

Found a small forward-cab (cab over engine) Ford truck with a very short wheelbase which became Sergeant Dad’s favourite vehicle of the whole war.

Dad's Ford Truck2 Italy 1945.jpg

It could go anywhere and cross the steepest ditches thanks to its high ground clearance and very short length.

In Venice. In the pubs. Drunk. Couldn’t find Ken Morrison when it was time to go, but knew he was probably off with some of his girlfriends. Weaved their way back down rough roads and mountain passes in a 3-ton Ford truck with hooped rings holding up a big dark green tarpaulin cover over the back. When they stopped a comatose Ken dropped down from above ! He had been sleeping up on the tarpaulin all along!

They took the Ford off on an unofficial jaunt to Austria once they knew they were due to be sent back to SA any day soon! At Klagenfurt they were stopped and told “No Further!” “No papers, no go”. Dad approached a Pommy Brigadier who listened to his sad tale of woe and said to the border guards “Why are you giving these Springboks a hard time? Let them through! Here, I’ll sign the papers for them.”

On they went to Graz and Wiener Nieustadt. Ken Morrison and Jimmy Jardine went along for the ride.


Their time was ending, the war was over and they were due to be sent back home. But they were having too much fun! They had all the money they needed and much freedom to do as they liked. They approached Bullshit Bill Hearn, a Pommy (?major), gave him a very sad story which tugged at his heart strings and asked him to keep them on. He signed them on to stay a while longer and bought them eight more months in Italy!