Gezira Island from the north. Sharia Abou el Feda runs along the shore from the tip of the island (bottom left) to the bridge (mid right).
|Address||Sharia Abou el Feda
|Town or city||Cairo|
Tara was the name given to a villa in Gezira Island, Cairo, made famous by its inhabitants during World War II. The group of Special Operations Executive agents who lived there, together with Countess Zofia (Sophie) Tarnowska, turned the villa into a centre of high spirited living.
First found in 1943 by Captain W. Stanley Moss, a British officer in the Special Operations Executive, it was a spacious villa, with a great ballroom with parquet floors, which four or five people might share. Moss chose the villa rather than live in the SOE hostel, "Hangover Hall". He moved in alone at first, then bought his Alsatian puppy, Pixie; Xan Fielding, who had worked in Crete, joined him. Next was Countess Zofia (Sophie) Tarnowska, forced to leave Poland in 1939 by the German invasion, followed by Arnold Breene of SOE HQ. Finally Patrick Leigh Fermor, an SOE officer who had spent the previous nine months in Crete, joined the household.
Sophie Tarnowska and two other women had been asked to share the house with the SOE agents, but only she went through with it, after the men pleaded with her not to let them down. She moved in with her few possessions (a bathing costume, an evening gown, a uniform and two pet mongooses), and had her reputation in the all-male household protected by an entirely fictitious chaperone, "Madame Khayatt", who suffered from "distressingly poor health" and was always indisposed when visitors asked after her.
They were later joined by SOE agents "Billy" McLean, David Smiley returning from Albania ("David deciding that it would be cheaper to live in Tara than to come in every day and be tapped by the cook or Abdul for money to pay for meals"), and Rowland Winn, also active in Albania.
Tara became the most exciting place in the city, the centre of high-spirited entertaining of diplomats, officers, writers, lecturers, war correspondents and Coptic and Levantine party-goers. The residents adopted nicknames: "Princess Dneiper-Petrovsk" (Sophie Tarnowska) and the young buccaneers, "Sir Eustace Rapier" (Billy McLean), "the Marquis of Whipstock" (David Smiley), "the Hon. Rupert Sabretache" (Rowland Winn), "Lord Hughe Devildrive" (Xan Fielding), "Lord Pintpot" (Arnold Breene), "Lord Rakehell" (Patrick Leigh Fermor) and "Mr Jack Jargon" (W. Stanley Moss).
There followed lots of parties – the night we had the bullfight, the night we let some other people throw a party in Tara and we locked ourselves up in Kitten's (Tarnowska's) bedroom – the night we broke 19 windows and Andrew Tarnowski picked up the biggest bowl of flowers and threw it through the biggest window – Peter Wilkinson moving in, Paddy's return from Haifa, Billy arriving to take the spare room – house full of Abyssinian and Albanian and every other kind of loot – continuous round of gaiety – this was Tara at its happiest and most popular – everyone seemed to love us and not one, but all of us, were asked everywhere and did everything. Paddy setting things on fire with incredible regularity – and never let me forget Arnold, on the night of the windows, sitting on the roof hurling things at the neighbour – or Kitten breaking her finger doing a tummy-dance!
Tarnowska drew on memories of liqueur-making on her father's estates to produce the party drinks, adding plums, apricots and peaches to raw alcohol (as a substitute for vodka) purchased from the local garage, in the bath. The results were disappointing as, rather than being left to mature for three weeks, the mixture was drunk after three days.
At the end of their first ball, Leigh Fermor fell asleep on a sofa which ignited, before it was thrown burning into the garden below. Over the course of the winter of 1943, a piano was borrowed from the Egyptian Officers' Club, light bulbs were shot out. On one occasion, King Farouk arrived at the villa with a crate of champagne.
By the winter of 1944, the Tara household had to leave their rather battered villa and move into a flat. Their landlord secured their eviction on the grounds that the villa had not been let to "Princess Dneiper-Petrovsk" et al., as stated on the villa's name plate.
- Cooper, Artemis, Cairo in the War 1939-1945, Hamish Hamilton 1989
- "Leigh Fermor obituary". The Daily Telegraph. 11 June 2011.
- "Sophie Moss, Obituaries, Daily Telegraph 3 December 2009". The Daily Telegraph. London. 3 December 2009.
- "Lives Remembered: Sophie Moss, Obituaries, The Independent 22 February 2010". London. 22 February 2010.
- Moss, W. Stanley, Diary, 1944
- Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto The Thirteenth, LXXXVIII, "There was Jack Jargon, the gigantic guardsman"