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Traveling In Style : A Family Affair : In 1935, The Fowler Clan Set Off For The Middle East And One 13-year-old Member Recalls It--a Half-century Latter--as 'The Most Exciting Time Of My Life'

March 15, 1987|WILL FOWLER | Fowler is an ex-newspaperman and a biographer.

On the afternoon of April 2, 1935, my family boarded the ocean liner S.S. Exeter and embarked on an expanded grand tour of the Mediterranean Sea. To this day--a half-century later--I prize that Fowler invasion of Europe, Africa and the Middle East as the most exciting time of my life.

There were my father (Gene, Esq.), mother (Agnes), grandmother (Mumsie), brother (Gene Jr.), sister (Jane) and myself. I was 13. We visited Gibraltar, France, Spain and Majorca; we toured Italy from Naples north to Venice and Genoa. But the most eventful time of the trip was the month we caravanned into Egypt, Palestine and Syria. That was a dozen years before the birth of Israel--and a small collection of other Middle Eastern countries that have since popped up in the world atlases.

What excites the memory of this nostalgic traveler is an engraved single-sheet, fold-open, Luxor Hotel brochure depicting the heroic Egyptian monuments and edifices along the Nile between Alexandria and Wadi Halfa, just south of the Aswan Dam, still in the early stages of construction. It also displays printed, fanned-out lines emanating from the mouth of Egypt's port city, informing the reader how long it took to reach various destinations by sea. Instead of two hours via jet to London, it reads "five days" and instead of 90 minutes to Trieste, it reads "three days."

When one sailed from New York to Alexandria, it took about two weeks, rather than today's nine hours by air. And the passengers had the absolute feeling that they, indeed, had traveled around a good chunk of the globe. We disembarked in Alexandria, and because of the building facades, the minarets and the sight of exotic characters hurrying about in long gowns and truncated red fezzes, I felt for the first time that I had been drawn into a mysterious new world. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Rudolph Valentino, charging over a dune, astride a white Arabian horse.

Entraining for Cairo, we were introduced--in the dining car--to a constant bland diet of mutton and boiled chicken. When we arrived in the capital city, a handsome, mustachioed young man in flowing silken robe approached us. "Mr. Gene Fowler?" he inquired of my father. He was Asher Ben Garbi, our dragoman. Asher guided us to the Continental Hotel in two limousines. The royal suite contained four bedrooms facing a magnificent living room with a grand piano. Our air conditioning consisted of two slowly revolving fans. Of course, there was no television; therefore artistic building exteriors remained pure in line, untrammeled by unsightly antennas.

After we had a short rest, Asher guided us through the city's principal marketplace. There, our dragoman watched in wonder as my mother began to demonstrate her genius at bargaining. She was the quintessence and the sublimation of that great universal horror, the experienced tourist-shopper. Her equal was not known on land or sea . . . except for one person--Mumsie. It was all the rest of us could do to wrench these two women away from the Arab rug merchants, the silk peddlers and others. More important, though, Pop at last was in Egypt. The scholar in him emerged. He could not find enough hours in the day to prowl through museums and palaces and ruins, inspecting hieroglyphics and scrolls of papyrus.

The second day found the family inquisitively mounting a cordon of ill-mannered, spitting camels, to be directed to the Pyramid of Cheops near Giza.

"Good Lord!" Mumsie exclaimed after her camel settled in front of the Great Pyramids. "Did you ever see such a collection of rocks in your life?"

At week's end, before boating up the Nile to Luxor, we cameled three miles into the Sahara with Asher to spend the night in a collection of large tents. After dinner, as the sunset transformed the desert's hue to a fiery red, silhouetting the far-off Sphinx, a small orchestra played while a young, dark-haired belly dancer performed, rhythmically clapping her finger cymbals. As sister Jane joined in the dance, a sudden wind devil sprang up. In awe, the native servants and musicians swore on the spot that Jane's soul was the reincarnation of a 13th-dynasty goddess of the dance.

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