Saddened to read this week of the death of Lucette Lagnado, senior investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal and chronicler of a lost cosmopolitan age of Cairo. Her The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is one of the most wonderful of memoirs. It is largely the biography of her father, Leon Lagnado, a Syrian Jew relocated to Cairo, where he ran an import-export business of indeterminate nature. He was a pious Jew by day and playboy by night, gadding about town in his trademark suit, frequenting the city’s hotels and nightclubs.
The family home was on Sharia Malaka Nazli, now Sharia Ramses, just north of Midan Ramses. This was the world inhabited by Leon’s much-younger, bookish wife Edith, and daughter Lucette (Loulou) and her cat PousPous. Lagnado’s book mixes accounts of home life – the daily routines, the neighbours, the world seen from her balcony – with the dashing, glamorous, almost fantasy life of her father.
It all comes to an end in 1962 when almost overnight the family are compelled to leave, with just $212 to their name, moving first to Paris and then on to Brooklyn. Lucette was only six at the time of this upheaval but her memories of early life in Cairo are so vivid and poignant. The book is suffused with a longing to return, to reverse the exodus, and she does eventually go back in 2005, but only to visit.
Lucette Lagnado on a return visit to her old apartment on Malaka Nazli
She went back to Egypt on a number of occasions after that, and a few years ago we exchanged a few emails and said that we must meet up next time we were both in Egypt. Sadly, it never happened.
Lucette Lagnado once wrote that she left Cairo an Egyptian and returned an American. That was Egypt’s loss. She died on 10 July in New York. She was 62.
I never liked The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning’s series of three novels about Guy and Harriet Pringle, who fled the fall of Greece to land up in Cairo during World War II. I found her characters thoroughly irritating and self-absorbed. Given that one of the two main characters was based on herself, I’m sure this isn’t how Manning intended them to come across. But then Manning was described by her biographer as holding an “uncontainable grudge against the world” and seems like a particularly unattractive character, too.
Despite my dislike, I recently bought the three books that make up the trilogy again when I saw them in a secondhand bookshop, not because I want to read them again but because of the beautiful covers that marry sphinxes, pyramids and temples with barrage balloons, search lights and tanks in an almost art deco fashion.
The Levant Trilogy is preceded by The Balkan Trilogy, which covers the Pringles’ time in Greece. I also love the covers that Penguin gave its paperback editions of these books and the way they join together to form a whole image.
Marleen de Meyer of the University of Leuven and the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo emailed this week to draw my attention to a bit of graffiti she’d found in a Giza tomb. It reads ‘1860 S. Shepheard Eathorpe’. This has to be the work of the Samuel Shepheard, founder of Shepheard’s hotel, Cairo. Eathorpe is the address of his home in England, which he departed Egypt for in 1860. This defacing of a monument must have been one of Shepheard’s last (and least welcome) contributions to Egypt before retiring.
The tomb, says Marleen, is G6020 and belongs to a man named Iymery; it’s located in the cemetery field to the west of Khufu’s pyramid. It is published in Kent Weeks’ Mastabas of Cemetery G6000 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1994). The photos here are courtesy of Marleen.
No, not the British fashion designer, the other one, the archivist at Thomas Cook. He’s just been in touch with the sad news that after 23 years he has been made redundant. With his departure the archive will likely be much less accessible than before, not least because Paul is the only person who knows what’s in it. The Thomas Cook Archive is a wonderful thing, an extensive repository of the history of tourism, the equal of which I doubt exists anywhere in the world. At the company headquarters in Peterborough, north of London, from his desk just off a corridor (itself an indication of the way things were going), Paul has presided over a storeroom absolutely stuffed with journals, letters, diaries, contracts, posters, tickets, plans and schedules, not to mention crockery and cutlery, uniforms, an ancient Egyptian statuette (once used as a doorstop) and much, much more. Paul made sure all this was accessible to historians, researchers and authors from around the world, myself included. There is a lot of material in the archive that relates to Egypt and my two books, Grand Hotels of Egypt and On the Nile, would not have been written without Paul’s help.
The archive is currently closed and while it will re-open at the beginning of July, after Paul’s departure in June, there are no plans to appoint a professional archivist as Paul’s successor. The archives will be managed for the foreseeable future by internal marketing staff, which means it can only be a matter of time before the whole lot is sold off.
In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty-nine.
Thursday, 4 March
Landed at 2 p.m., drove to Shepherds Hotel – not a bed to be had in the place. All the hotels full; a great ball taking place that night intended for the Prince and Princess of Wales; parties came from Suez, Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said, paid for by the Viceroy. So all Mr. Cook could do was to obtain leave for us to sleep on the steamers another night … Capt. Reis came on board next morning but all the officials had been discharged. Louis the steward who was so attentive was present; he received £3 from us, Hassan £1. At Thebes we gave the sailors a Napoleon – they bought a sheep. Mr. Cook quite well now; he was nearly drowned on the Nile one Sunday when bathing with several of our party.
After three weeks onboard, sleeping in cupboard-sized cabins, Thomas Cook’s must have been desperate for a decent bed on dry land. How disappointed they must have been to find not a single hotel room vacant and to have to return to sleeping on the boat. This would be a recurring problem in the history of tourism to Egypt – at various times well into the 20th century Nile steamers were pressed into service providing for visitors who couldn’t get a hotel room.
In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty-eight.
Wednesday, 3 March
On the 3rd March we had a narrow channel to make and alternately our steamers grounded for ten hours. Once our captain had taken the rope from the Beniswaif and in a passion he let it into the water – a quarrel on both sides and the Beniswaif steamed off and left us in the lurch. Very passionate captains – danced about in rage – Arabic most vociferous. In the evening they would make it up and play chess, smoke pipes and sip coffee. We had 3 or 4 pilots and if we had not threatened to go ashore and take the train, or telegraph, we should not have been off even next morning … So much for Nile travelling where nothing can be believed or depended upon.
After Thursday 25 February Miss Riggs did not make another diary entry for a full five days. During this time she and her fellow members of Cook’s party were onboard their two hired steamers making their way down the Nile from Luxor back to Cairo. We can only assume they made no stops and Miss Riggs found nothing about life onboard of sufficient interest to bother recording it.
In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty-two.
Thursday, 25 February
Rose at 2 in the morning to see the Southern Cross and called others – moonlight night and stars brilliant. To bed again and at 6 heard the paddle were started – being now on our return journey – stopped at Esné a little – at Luxor Mr. Cook went on shore for letters. Our return journey was quicker on account of the tide but slow in another way; we grounded so often every day and then our steamers had to assist each other. Hours would be wasted in that manner with ropes and sinking anchors – the Nile considered very low.
In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty-one.
Wednesday, 24 February
Walked to bazaar in the village at 8 o’clock and took camel to Philae (7 miles the land route to Philae). Some had donkeys but they fell down very much. Rode several miles on camel, most pleasant movement when it goes for a quick walk. When all collected at the river we took a dahabeah to the Sacred Island of Philae – so hot – sat inside from the sun; some sat outside on top of saloon. Several oars men very slightly dressed – they sang to their strokes – great many hands but not much work. Walked down to the edge of the cataract, foaming and rapid but not nearly so deep a fall as I expected. 9 or 10 naked arab men there ready to plunge in and float upon logs down the rapids for backsheesh. Philae ruins very pretty; a great many pillars inside the ruins.
Our other party arrived while we were there; several had decided upon doing the falls – 15 fr. each for going down rapids. I returned back on a donkey – visited some marble quarries en route – donkey fell right down in a moment very disagreeable. Rode through lovely palm groves, splendid green. Crossing sand, donkey down again so walked the rest.
Many other travelers beside Miss Riggs mention the local boys who would dive into the torrents at the First Cataract and ride the rapids on logs for baksheesh. This evidently wasn’t as easy as the locals made it seem: in 1861 a young Englishman attempted to copy them and it was ten days before his lifeless body resurfaced. Because of the cataract, Aswan was as far as the steamers went – the river here was impassable for large boats. Travellers with their own dahabiyyas could opt to have them carried overland and put back into the Nile south of the rapids so that they could sail on up to Abu Simbel.
In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day thirty.
Tuesday, 23 February
Left Edfou at 5 in the morning for Assouan, there by 4. Saw the Prince of Wales steamers and the one the Viceroy had conveyed the Prince in. He and his party had left that morning in dahabeahs for the 2nd Cataract, so we have missed them again – count Bismark was there – we started off at once across the deep sand for the bazaars; hardly repaid one. On the return most gorgeous sunset – sands deep gold and mountain deep violet-red – a colouring I had not seen before – suppose tropical in tint. Dinner at 7.
Egyptian boat above the First Cataract by Oswald Walters Brierly, 24th February 1869
Miss Riggs may have missed the Prince but some of his party remained in Aswan, including the scathing journalist William Howard Russell. “Cook’s tourists have also arrived!” he wrote. “Their steamers are just below us in the stream. The tourists are all over the place. Some are bathing off the banks; others, with eccentric head-dresses, are toiling through the deep sand. They are just beaten by a head in the race! Another day, and the Prince and Princess would have been at their mercy.”
The real issue here was not concern for the privacy of the Prince and Princess, but snobbery. Russell could not bear the thought that the Nile had to be shared with fellow countrymen (and women) of a lower status. “It is a nuisance to the ordinary traveller to have his peace broken,” he wrote, although by “ordinary” he clearly meant upper class. Cook aimed to democratize Nile tourism and in years to come, among a certain class of people, he would be despised for it.
In January 1869, exactly 150 years ago, Miss Riggs joined Thomas Cook’s very first tour to Egypt and the Holy Land. Travelling overland, the journey would take three months, there and back. Miss Riggs kept a diary of her adventure and I am going to be posting from it over the coming weeks. This is day twenty-nine.
Monday, 22 February
Left Luxor at 6 a.m. for Esné. (Esné pretty minarets – Esné temple of Knuph). Saw the bazaars and ruins and then on again by dinner time to Edfou. Decided to see the ruins by moonlight so after took torches and lanterns and walked a mile and ½ to Edfou. Used 14 magnesium lights for interior which lighted up splendidly, showing the walls and characters well. A sort of square building with outer court round and then a high wall finishing off with a pylon. Ascended pylon and lighted some more magnesium lights which threw the Arab village below in a blaze of light – all the poor people rushing out of their mud homes. On our return to the boat numbers of the villages accompanied us with large huge clubs and lanterns – very picturesque – and an adventure and a charming evening.
View of Edfu by Edward Lear, 1854
The next time you’re at Edfu and wondering at the blackened state of the temple ceilings, you know who to blame. Those magnesium flares waved around by Miss Riggs and colleagues gave off soot.