Groppi’s cafe and patisserie on Midan Talaat Harb in Cairo is currently shrouded in scaffolding and dustsheets as it undergoes extensive renovation (and boy did it need it). While we wait to see what the contractors deliver, here’s reminder of how classy the joint once was courtesy of a beautifully designed promotional map of the kind the business used to give away in its heyday.
Many years ago an elderly friend of mine presented me with a faded photocopy of a typewritten article entitled ‘A beer drinker’s guide to Alexandria’. She’d been about to go to Egypt and somebody had given the article to her but, in the event, she never went and the article was filed away for possible future use. I got to know this lady because we both drank in the same pub in Soho, London, and when she learned of my interest in Egypt she dug out the article and gave it to me. She couldn’t tell me anything about where it came from but it is signed ‘Ian Simm’ and dated July 1983. My friend worked at the British Council so she wonders if Ian Simm was perhaps someone who worked at the Council too. Rereading his article recently it struck me how different the Alexandria he describes is to the city of 2018. Much of what he describes has disappeared and the character of the city has changed irrevocably. At the time he wrote, family institutions like the café-patisserie Delices served beer – that is inconceivable now. The Alexandria he walks around is far closer to the city of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet than it is to the Alexandria of today. But then, of course it is – Simms wrote his piece only 23 years after the publication of the Quartet and it’s now 35 years since he typed up his beer-drinking itinerary.
Anyway, here is the piece in full with my notes in square brackets. (Many thanks to my friend and long-time resident of Alexandria Colin Clement for his expert input.) The beer memorabilia images come courtesy of the website Photorientalist, maintained by photographer and former Cairo resident Norbert Schiller.
“Conventional guidebook wisdom has it that there is nothing to see in central Alexandria; and then exhorts the serious tourist to conjure up visions of past glory. Standing on the humdrum intersection where Horreya Avenue meets the Rue Nebi Daniel it is difficult to see yourself at the hub of a Greco-Roman universe, and I have always preferred to seek out remnants of Alexandria’s more recent past – the background to the writings of Lawrence Durrell, Evelyn Waugh and Naguib Mahfouz.
Since soon after I arrived in Cairo I have been traveling to Alexandria regularly for periods of two or three days. Often at a loose end in the late afternoon or evening, I began wandering round the city, observing buildings, shops and people. In the process I happened a number of more or lass pleasant places to drink beer. Subsequently, I discovered that I had been following the advice of EM Forster: in his Alexandria: A History and a Guide, recently reissued, he says ‘the best way to see a city is to walk about quite aimlessly’. He doesn’t actually add ‘stopping for the occasional Stella’ but I am sure it is in the correct spirit that I offer this brief itinerary.
We start at the Cecil Hotel – where else? It is still the landmark of the city centre which all taxi drivers know, and there are still remnants of the atmosphere in which Durrell’s Nessim met Justine in the lounge. The bar, though still a social institution, has been ‘improved’ and its kitsch is now that of the late 70s [it is now the charmless and often empty Monty Bar – ED]; but the tea lounge is pure 1930s, with its friezes of nymphs, enormous mirrors, potted plants and faded pictures. For those with patience and tolerance of idiosyncracy, the Cecil is still a pleasant place to stay. [I would say this holds true in 2018 – ED]
Turn left along the Corniche out of the Cecil, past the Windsor Palace Hotel – another 1930s remnant with a huge an faded lounge, but alas, no bar. The Corniche was built up only in the early ’30s and its neo-troisieme empire style of architecture is an Alexandrian trademark: Louis Farouk in concrete.
There are from this point a number of variants on the walk. Those with exercise in mind should continue along the Corniche to the huge and ornate 18th-century mosque of Abu el Abbas. Go round the back of the mosque and return almost the way you came but inland. Walking as nearly as possible in a straight line will take you through the city centre’s main market, a fascinating mélange of sight, sound and smell. You will eventually emerge into a square containing a number of incongruous glass and concrete piles, among them the new Hotel Alex. This has two bars, but is recommended only to those dying of thirst.
A left turn here will bring you in a short distance to the centerpiece of Mohamed Ali’s ‘new’ Alexandria, now called Midan el Tahrir. The less energetic may reach this point by turning off the Corniche at the massive war memorial. The building on this corner is a fine example of the architectural confectioner’s art.
In Midan el Tahrir are an equestrian statue of Mohamed Ali, admired by Forster, and St Mark’s Anglican Church, a real oddity in neo-Moorish Gothic. A little past St Mark’s on the left is the Rue de l’Ancienne Bourse.
The dedicated drinker will reach this street at the other end as it is the second one after that on which the Windsor Palace stands. The dedicated walker enters it from Midan el Tahrir. Either will wish to leave it in the middle. From the Corniche, we reach first the Cafeteria Nationale Grande, a cavernous baladi café which also sells beer. [It stopped selling beer a long time ago – ED] It is one of the few establishments in this guide in which a reasonably adventurous and accompanied female might still feel uncomfortable. Continue across the tramlines and a little further on the Liverpool Bar is on your right.
The Liverpool Bar must have made its fortune in the Second World War; certainly it isn’t making one now as customers seem few and far between. There is a slightly alarming case of stuffed tropical fish and coral near the door, but the proprietors are friendly and speak quite good English. This bar is keeping rather unpredictable hours and never seems to be open in the early evening. [The Liverpool closed its doors for the last time back in the 1980s – ED]
Further inland on the other side of the street is the Spitfire Bar, obviously another Word War Two creation. It is now often frequented by expansive Germans, which is reflected in the décor. If you can stand the rather garish environment the Spitfire is a pleasant enough place, although it has gone somewhat to seed, particularly in the back room. [Still going, still appealingly seedy – ED]
Continue inland across the small square where the Ancienne Bourse once stood. It has been replaced by one of those unpleasant modern buildings which one is forbidden to photograph, and sees no reason to ever want to. A little further up the street to the left is the Union Restaurant. This is another of Alexandria’s classic institutions: Waugh’s Guy Crouchback would dine here on quails and Forster, writing in 1919, says it is ‘frequented by the British’. Now it seems to be scarcely frequented by anybody, but it is a large restaurant with an ancient and dignified maitre, and a long and very acceptable cooked menu. The walls are covered in Churchillesque paintings. [The Union closed a long time ago – ED]
Return to the square and turn right, back towards the main shopping centre along the road which becomes the main Avenue Saad Zaghloul. Immediately on the right is Frigieri’s, possibly the best general hardware store in Egypt. Then comes Sofianopoulo’s coffee emporium: look inside at the flamboyant torch-bearing statues and the fine coffee-grinding machinery. [Still going strong – ED]
Sofianopoulo’s is on the corner of the Rue Adib, along which turn right. Walk nearly to the top of the narrow street, trying not to be overborne by the architecture on the left, and you will find the Cap d’Or bar on your right. The Cap d’Or must have a strong claim to be the finest drinking place in Egypt. It is reminiscent of a Brussels’ café, and a most relaxing place to sit, particularly in the early evening. Later it sometimes gets crowded. If you arrive at the right time, your beer will be accompanied by a fine assortment of mezze at no extra charge. Look around at the glass-fronted cupboard displaying a wide range of wines and spirits, the advertisements for beers never sold here, and the photograph of Um Kalthum. The food is recommended too. [Still in business – ED]
When you can tear yourself away from the Cap d’Or, continue to the end of the Rue Adib, and turn left into the Rue Salah Salem (formerly, and still commonly, called Rue Sherif Pasha). Some 150 metres on the right is the sadly diminished but still fine frontage of Youssouffian’s jewellers. Further on to the left are two buildings belonging to the National bank of Egypt. The second, formerly the Banco di Roma, is a remarkable pastiche of Florentine Renaissance.
At the end of the street, turn left into Horreya Avenue. [Had the author turned right he would have found the Havana, easily Alexandria’s best bar until it closed in the early 2000s – ED] Opposite is the former Mohamed Ali club. Soon we come to that hub of the universe where Alexander’s tomb once stood – now the intersection with the Rue Nebi Daniel. At this point, provided it is daylight, the best plan is to turn right, not along the Rue Nebi Daniel itself, but on the slip road beyond which climbs parallel with it for a short distance and then veers left. At night, better to continue along Horreya until you reach Pastroudis. On the back road there is a good view of the excavations of Kom el Dik behind the Roman Theatre. Among other ruins, an extensive baths complex can be seen, and the area is the only place where some real impression of the splendour of Roman Alexandria is visible.
This road emerges into a parking area opposite Pastroudis (if you want to see more of the excavations, turn right and look through the gate further up the hill). Pastroudis is our third Alexandria institution, the place where Durrell’s characters come to converse over their arak. A genuine Greek café, where you can sit on the pavement and watch the world go by, it also has an interior saloon and bar, a restaurant and a cake shop. Gateaux are recommended according to the time of the day, but I advise against asking for ‘cake’. Even unaccompanied females can feel at home in Pastroudis. [It is now the restaurant Abu el Sid – ED]
From here there are two possible routes to the last group of drinking emporia, and to the Cecil. The obvious way is to turn right along Horreya and left at the first traffic lights. Immediately you pass on your left the Alexandria (formerly Syrian) Club, which is worth a visit if you know a member. [It still exists and is still strictly members and guests – ED] Unlike those of Cairo, the clubs of Alexandria, or some of them at least, still serve alcohol. Next comes the Santa Lucia restaurant, an establishment of mixed standards with a bar open only to diners. [Still around but no bar – ED] Opposite is the Elite, which doesn’t encourage the non-eating drinker. [Recently refurbished and reopened, not sure if sells beer or not – ED] Further down past the crossroads and on the left is the Billiards Palace which is said to have the eponymous tables in a back room but which does not serve beer. [Disappeared in the late 1980s – ED] At the next crossroads you emerge opposite the Trianon.
An alternative route to this point is to cross Horreya outside Pastroudis, turn left and take the second road on the right. This street contains the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which bears a celebratory plaque in three languages marking an act of architectural vandalism in the 1970s. Near here is said to be a place identifying the building where the poet Constantine Cavafy lived, but I have never been able to find it. Continue down the road to its end, turn left and first right past Mohamed Ahmed’s celebrated ful restaurant [still going, alhamdulillah – ED], and you will eventually come out across the road from the Trianon.
The Trianon is primarily a tearoom of epic proportions, formerly a place of high fashion, but from the cake shop area at the inshore end of the building one enters a fine and unexpected bar. Unfortunately, it closes rather early in the evenings, but its oriental art deco murals deserve detailed attention at an earlier hour. [The Trianon survives but the bar hasn’t been open since the 1980s – ED]
Left from there is the Metropole Hotel, another ’30s foundation, but its ground floor is rather ruined by restoration. It has a small, quiet bar with some fine wooden paneling. The staircase and first floor better recall past glories, and the first floor loos are about the most sanitary of the whole tour. Further on is Delices, another teashop with a bar, but this one rather lacks character. [Delices survives, but the bar is long gone – ED]
Turning in the other direction – east from the Triannon, you are swiftly into the seething mass of humanity which is Ramleh train station. On the right hand side of the street is the Taverna Dhiamandakis (in English it says only ‘Taverna Greek Restaurant’), which is a good place for cheap light means – and, of course, a beer. The qualification for being a waiter here is to be Greek and less than five feet tall. [Now a pizza/fiteer joint, not Greek and no beer – ED]
Opposite, beyond the trams, there are some remarkable mosaics at the top story of the building which houses Olympic Airways. In the narrow street leading to the sea beside the new Omar el Khayyam restaurant is Denis seafood restaurant) for ‘Fishes and Crevettes’) which is highly recommended. Indeed, there is a school of thought with which I have much sympathy which holds that the only real reason to visit Alexandria at all is to eat half a kilo of shrimp at Denis. [Now closed – ED]
Returning along the tramlines across Midan Saad Zaghloul towards the Cecil, those with stamina will wish to seek out our last watering hole: George’s Bar. George’s is not easy to find. It is located in the back street immediately inland of the trams about 100 metres beyond the Cecil side of the Midan Saad Zaghloul, just behind the Restaurant Ramses. George’s achieves the curious feat of looking much seedier than it actually is – part of the difficulty of finding it is that you can hardly read the sign any more. In fact, the proprietor is friendly, the mezze are wholesome, and the beer is cheap. For those who like that sort of thing, George’s is decorated with a remarkable collection of heart-shaped mirrors. Nearby is a building whose architecture is startling even in these surroundings; it bears the legend ‘Bombay Castle’ which I suppose explains everything. [George’s, needless to say, is no more – ED]
From here it is only a short stagger back to the Cecil. I should regard it was unwise to attempt to do justice to all the establishments in this guide in a single outing; better to split the route into two or three parts. Doubtless this is not by any means a complete guide to the places of interest in central Alexandria, and I should be delighted to hear of any places omitted that deserve investigation for a future edition.”
Toward the end of last year I posted some thoughts on revisiting the old Nile Hilton on Tahrir Square, now the Ritz-Carlton (here). I wrote a little about the hotel’s heritage as the first modern international hotel in Cairo. Well, just recently I came across a fascinating piece written by someone who was at the hotel’s launch back in early 1959. He was part of a press junket organised by the Hilton group composed of prominent columnists, journalists, and famous actors and actresses, all flown out from New York to Cairo for the big glitzy opening bash. Also in attendance was President Nasser and his special guest Marshal Josip Broz Tito, president of what was then Yugoslavia.
The piece, which I include in full below (it’s long but it’s an interesting read), originally ran in the July 1959 issue of Holiday. This was a sumptuous and glamorous magazine that in the immediate post-World War II-era did for travel what Vogue did for fashion. It was big, glossy, packed with gorgeous photography and noted for using serious literary talent, names like Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac, packing them off on all-expenses vacation with a brief to file a lengthy report to the editors. You can read more about the background to the magazine in this 2013 Vanity Fair piece.
Anyway, here’s the Nile Hilton story, which was written by Ted Patrick, the editor of Holiday. Incidentally, the photos do not come from the magazine – the clipping I saw was text only, no images – but were found tucked away in dusty corners of the internet. The pic at the top of the post is supposedly taken from the balcony of the Nile Hilton but do the Pyramids really loom that large seen from the east bank of the Nile?
ONE AFTERNOON SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, a group of writers, columnists, editors, actors, actresses, society people, celebrity and celebrity-fringe characters gathered in the Sert Room of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. We were lavishly entertained at a buffet luncheon by a tall, broad, handsome, Texas-type gentleman who was singled out for very special attention by Sert Room captains and guests. The Texas-like gentleman happened to own the hotel. He was Conrad N. Hilton. He had invited us to take part in the opening ceremonies and festivities for the newest hotel in his rapidly growing empire, the Nile Hilton in Cairo, and the luncheon was our send-off party. The group was cleverly chosen to give a nice balance of glamour, substance, beauty, gaiety and dignity to the affair, and included such prominent names as Hedda Hopper [Hollywood gossip columnist], Mrs. Earl Warren and her daughter Virginia [wife and daughter of the Chief Justice of the United States]; Jane Russell [Hollywood royalty], Cobina Wright [former model and actress], Van Johnson [film and TV actor], Earl Wilson [gossip columnist], Jeanne Crain [actress], Leonard Lyons [newspaper columnist], Hugh O’Brian [actor], Leo Carrillo [actor], Martha Hyer [actress], Robert Cummings [actor], Robert Sterling [actor] and his wife Anne Jeffreys, and Diahann Carroll [actress].
At four o’clock the show was ready and put on the road. To the popping of flash bulbs and scratching of pens signing autographs, we piled on buses and were driven to Idlewild. Every last shred of responsibility—baggage, passports, tickets—was daintily removed from our shoulders. I was given seat 15B. Next to me, in 15A, sat Hedda Hopper who, hats and all, was to be my seat companion for the trip. It turned out to be a most happy arrangement, and even gave me a conversational ploy for future cocktail or dinner parties. If Miss Hopper’s name should come up, I can say, offhandedly, “Interesting thing—Hedda never snores or mumbles in her sleep, and she never sleeps with her mouth open. Very attractive qualities.”
The atmosphere on the plane was nice and relaxed. Everyone knew everyone else, and everyone had something to contribute. Rarely has such beauty been assembled on a plane, and those air travelers of us who had been accustomed to a pulchritude ration of exactly two stewardesses beamed, and sighed, and dreamed.
The plane put down at Madrid late next morning, and again magic, unseen and efficient hands protected us from all the bedevilments customs and immigration officials can dream up. At the hotel there was a large crowd of autograph seekers and gapers in the lobby, friendly and well-behaved. Here, too, the tall, broad, handsome, Texas-type gentleman was singled out for very special attention, for here, too, he owned the hotel, which happened to be the plush Castellana Hilton.
We went to our rooms to freshen up, then were escorted to a Castilian luncheon outside Madrid. Here Leo Carillo appeared for the first time in his Spanish cowboy outfit. He was well accepted by the crowd as obviously his costume groped toward the Spanish.
The lunch was very fine indeed and we were suitably lulled into a siesta mood by an orchestra which played appropriate Spanish songs from an overhanging balcony. That evening our group took over, or more accurately, had given over to us, the entire Rendez Vous, the night club of the Hotel Castellana Hilton.
A flawless dinner was followed by night-club entertainment of rare quality. The flamenco singing and dancing were as good as you’d hear and see anywhere, the orchestra was first-rate, the Spanish dancers were seductive in the Spanish tradition, and the whole was one big, happy, family party. And there was no check.
Our next stop was Cairo, the principal destination of the trip. On approaching Cairo, Tex Butler, the very special pilot, received permission to circle the Pyramids and Sphinx, and the city before landing. The usual mob at the airport enthusiastically greeted the members of the group as they descended the stairs. Leo Carillo had on his third Spanish cowboy outfit (he had worn a white one in the daytime in Madrid, and a black one in the evening) but the Arabs, whose superb horsemen have probably the most dazzling riding costumes in the world, were not impressed. Having invented geometry, they have, I am sure, a word for square. Jane Russell, who is known to have an effect on even sluggish western blood, was just too overwhelming for the fiery Arab blood. They mobbed her, enveloped her, and it took a squad of cops to get her to the bus, where she landed shaken and ashen but still fully robed.
The approach to the Nile Hilton through the main square of Cairo was spectacular. The hotel is an outstanding example of modern architecture but designed to blend beautifully with the part of the city which surrounds it. The first sight was something of a shock as the hotel definitely was still in the process of being built. Workmen were all over the lobby, plaster and plaster dust all over the floor, and the song of hammers, planes and riveting machines filled the air. But the elevators worked and each guest was ushered into a completely finished, attractive room.
The official opening of the hotel took place on a Sunday. At 11:00 A.M. there were ceremonies in the hotel plaza facing the huge square, ribbons were cut and speeches were made, movie and TV cameras ground and flash bulbs popped, a crowd surged and cheered and Colonel Nasser, with his guest. Marshal Tito, appeared to add an official note to the event.
Lunch was stag, attended by the masculine members of the junket group, hotel officials, Cairo business leaders and members of the press. Speeches followed luncheon as inexorably as the main course followed soup. The head man of the Misr Hotels Company of Egypt, which is deeply involved in the Nile Hilton, spoke eloquently and inspiringly in Egyptian. At least, I assume it was eloquent and inspiring. Two other Egyptian gentlemen followed suit—so did the translations. The preliminaries were finished and the time came for the main event, Conrad Hilton.
Mr. Hilton, having the size, presence, voice, and writer for it, gave forth in true oratorical style. It being George Washington’s Birthday, he and his writer naturally felt they should play with the-father-of-his-country theme. They did. And whom does this indicate, or what juxtaposition does it indicate, February twenty-second and Cairo? Exactly. George Washington and Colonel Nasser. In Mr. Hilton’s speech the two were made as one. George Washington, the liberator of his country. Colonel Nasser, the liberator of his country. George Washington, the father of his people. Colonel Nasser, the father of his people. Some Americans shuddered visibly. Most Egyptians cheered lustily. Oratorically, it was a good ploy. Historically, it might even turn out to be moderately true.
That night there was an informal dinner in the Belvedere Room, high up in the hotel, its huge windowed front looking out on the silver-flowing Nile. There was an incomparable buffet. There was also a Cuban orchestra with a jumping-jack leader, raised strictly on corn in his native land, and if by now he isn’t right back there I’m a poor reader of yawns and Conrad Hilton’s facial expressions.
On Tuesday night was the Grand Ball, formal, attended by the Hilton guests and the social elite of Cairo. The social elite of Cairo is a most remarkable assemblage. The men were magnificent. The women, with their Mideast sultry complexion and beauty, held their own superbly with the lovelies of Hollywood. They were exquisitely gowned, maybe with oil money, maybe with dough from trinkets they’d got from Tutankhamen’s tomb, maybe from just Cairo-earned gold.
Lining the majestic grand stairway to the Jewel of the Nile Room were early-teenage girls with torches exuding light and incense. Special costumes had been designed for them—long black stockings, black wigs, bright orange short shorts and tight bodices. Both girls and costumes were extremely well chosen; and walking up between them and their lighted torches I could understand the aging Caesar’s infatuation for the child Cleopatra, as well as the thesis dwelt on in Lolita. There was a lovely buffet, there was dancing to good music, and there was the inescapable belly dancing, in solo and in multiple. You probably have heard a lot about the entrancing and aphrodisiacal quality of belly dancing. I’ll tell you the truth about it. It’s a bore. You can get a bellyful of belly dancing very early and easily—I’d say twenty-four hours’ normal exposure would do it nicely. Along about 2:30 a.m., as the last strains of music faded, and the last beautiful gown trailed down the stairs, the Nile Hilton was officially open.
The Nile Hilton is an ingenious international setup. Although American knowledge put it up, the hotel is actually owned by the Egyptians. The Americans get a comfortable chunk for running it, and the Egyptians take the lion’s share of the profits. Consequently, everybody is happy.
Art Buchwald summed it up pretty well in a talk he was asked to give to the Arab students at the American University of Cairo. Art explained the setup, and why we were there. Then he said, “Look, the next time you feel the urge to do a little rioting, and to bust out with a bit of anti-American feeling, don’t smash up the Nile Hilton, because it’s yours!” They loved it.
The versatile Gore Vidal wrote 25 novels, two volumes of memoirs, countless essays, plus numerous plays and screenplays, including for the films Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer. But he is probably best remembered for simply being Gore Vidal, originator of such fine aphorisms as ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’ and ‘The four most beautiful words in our common language: “I told you so”’. He also suggested that ‘Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so’ – an idea whose time came and went in 2016. What Gore Vidal certainly will never be remembered for is a book he wrote in 1952 called Thieves Fall Out.
In the early 1950s, the high-living Vidal found himself short of cash. Still only in his twenties, he had already written several serious novels but they had failed to provide any sort of decent income. So he turned to pulp fiction, knocking out a short novel of two-fisted adventure in the space of a few weeks for a $3,000 paycheque. This was Thieves Fall Out, which was published under the pseudonym of Cameron Kay and was all but ignored by the book-buying public and quickly forgotten until over 60 years later it was rediscovered and republished in the spring of 2015 by an imprint specialising in reviving lost works of pulp crime fiction. There’s good reason this book was out of print for so long: it’s bad. It’s a B-movie take on Casablanca, a tale of a young American drifter who finds himself broke in foreign lands and in order to earn some money becomes entangled with a femme fatale who entices him into a scheme to smuggle a valuable antique necklace out of the country. There’s a piano-playing, brothel-running hunchback named La Mouche and the beautiful daughter of a high-ranking Nazi as the love interest. What it doesn’t have is a topless dancer wielding a wickedly curving dagger as depicted on the cover of the 2015 reprint at the top of this post but, still, you are never quite sure whether it is meant to be a parody or not. But you will understand what makes the book fascinating to me when I tell you that the story’s setting is Egypt and, more specifically for large parts, Shepheard’s hotel.
Vidal spent two or three weeks in Egypt in spring 1948. According to his biographer, Fred Kaplan, the writer stayed at ‘El Mint Hotel’, a modest place out near the Pyramids but spent his days hanging out at Shepheard’s, where he wrote in one of the public rooms, and it shows:
Shepheard’s was a long building, several stories high, with big shuttered windows and a porch on the side street, where, at numerous tables, foreigners and rich Egyptians sat at the end of the day, watching the street and drinking aperitifs; but at this time of day the porch was deserted.
With a show of confidence, he walked up the steps to the main door, glad to be rid at last of the beggars, who now fell into position against the terrace wall, waiting for American and European victims.
The lobby of the hotel was blissfully cool after the heat outside. Negro servants in hotel livery moved silently about the great room, carrying bags, doing errands for the guests. Though it was out of season, there were still quite a few guests here, he saw to his relief. Help would come from them, though he was not sure how.
He sauntered from the main lobby into a vast room with a high domed ceiling, like the interior of a mosque, much decorated, ornate, Turkish in style. It was cool and mysterious with dark alcoves in which people sat doing business: fat stolid Europeans and lean, red-faced British, exchanging papers, peering at small type, murmuring their deals in low voices.
At the end of the room, to the left, was the famous bar, a wood-panelled room with an oval-shaped bar at which stood a dozen men in white suits, drinking, their feet resting on the shining brass rail.
It’s in Shepheard’s bar that the American Pete Wells encounters the shifty Brit who introduces him to the world of antiquities smuggling.
One evening at L’Auberge des Pyramides nightclub Vidal saw King Farouk with a blonde European girl on his arm: ‘Like a mafia don, with dark glasses, he was surrounded by plainclothesmen, also in dark glasses.’ This finds its way into Thieves Fall Out (where Vidal cattily remarks that Farouk ‘looks more like a dentist than a king’), as does Luxor, which Vidal visited, and where he must have stayed at the Karnak hotel on the Corniche because he makes it the setting for a series of encounters in the book.
Vidal was always interested in politics and maybe the most interesting thing about Thieves Fall Out is that it is set against the backdrop of the 1952 Revolution. Like the recently released film The Nile Hilton Incident (which I saw again last week and which is even better on second viewing) the chaos of the revolution swarms around the final scenes of the story.
If you can overlook the clichés – Arabs are reliably ‘swarthy’ and women are prostitutes, double-crossing sirens or nightclub singers in need of rescue – then Thieves Fall Out is a breezy time-travelling trip to a more innocent Cairo, in which waking up to find you’ve been drugged and robbed by the girl you met last night, and deciding to smuggle antiquities to raise money for a ticket home is just all part of the visitor experience.
Verdi’s opera Aida is being performed at the Pyramids next week, on Friday 9 March. There were originally to have been three performances on successive nights but, apparently, ticket sales were so poor that it has been cut back to just the one. It seems like Aida is always being performed at the Pyramids but actually this year’s production is the first at Giza since 2010. Before that, there were performances at the Pyramids in 1987, 1998, 1999 and 2000 (as well as at Luxor Temple in 1987, the Temple of Hatshepsut in 1994 and Deir al-Bahri in 1997). More shows at the Pyramids were planned but after the downturn in tourism following 911 and the subsequent war in Iraq, the annual stagings of the opera were moved to the less financially risky setting of the new Cairo Opera House.
The idea of putting on Aida every year dates back to the days of the old Opera House on Midan Opera, where Verdi’s grandest opera was staged every year until the building burned down in October 1971. This was the venue, of course, for Aida’s premiere, which took place exactly a century earlier in 1871. The popular belief that Aida was composed for the opening of the old Opera House and/or the opening of the Suez Canal is false. Cairo’s original Opera House opened on 1 November 1869 with Rigoletto and the Suez Canal opened 15 days later, both before Verdi had ever been agreed to compose an Egyptian opera. The opera that became Aida was commissioned by Khedive Ismail of Egypt but the commission was not accepted until some time in 1870. Verdi actually declined twice until a reading of the proposed scenario – attributed to Egyptologist Auguste Mariette – changed his mind. That and the Khedive threatening to go to Charles Gounod or Richard Wagner instead.
Mariette, who opened the first antiquities museum in Cairo, in 1863, and who was the country’s chief Inspector of Monuments, remained intimately involved with the opera. It was he, for example, who signed the contract with Verdi on behalf of Ismail. (The composer was paid 150,000 French francs and retained rights to the opera in all countries except Egypt.) And it was Mariette who supervised the designs for the opera’s scenery and costumes.
Aida was originally scheduled to premiere in January 1871 but it was delayed by the Prussian siege of Paris, which trapped Mariette in the city with all his designs. It wasn’t until 24 December that the curtain finally went up, eleven months later than planned. The opera, with its cast of 300, was a huge success but Verdi did not attend. He was, apparently, angered by the negative publicity that surrounded the Egyptian premiere and so instead he reserved his attendance for the first performance of Aida at La Scala in Milan (the model for the Cairo Opera House), the following February, which he considered the real premiere.
Anyway, in honour of next week’s performance, here’s a selection of Aida posters from performances around the world (with acknowledgement to CairoScene, who did this first).
I was in Cairo two weeks ago when the demolition crews were moving at uncommon speed, rapidly erasing the building that was the Continental-Savoy from its Downtown site of over 150 years. There has been a sizeable hotel here on Opera Square since 1865, when the foundation stone for the New Hotel was laid in anticipation of the hordes of international dignitaries and freeloaders who would be hitting Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal (read all about it here). That was demolished and replaced by the Grand in 1890, which then became the Grand Continental and eventually the Continental-Savoy. I’ve written on the history of the hotel elsewhere on this site (here) and there’s a meaty chapter on it in my book Grand Hotels of Egypt, so no need to repeat it here. Suffice to say that those rooms and corridors have witnessed a lot of history. I’m gratified to see that this has been acknowledged in the local media, where there has been a lot of fuss made about the building and its demolition. Typically, a lot of it is nonsense. An article in Egypt Today called it “one of the most beautiful buildings in Egypt,” which is just rubbish and Zahi Hawass has weighed in demanding the building must be preserved. He’s a little late. The building has been in a parlous state as long as I’ve known it – which goes back to the 1980s, when there was a clinic down one decrepit corridor where inoculations against yellow fever were issued to African travellers. The building was beyond saving even then. It had already ceased functioning as a hotel because who would want to stay on Opera Square? Back when the hotel was built this was the social hub of modern Cairo, with the opera house and the park-like Ezbekiyya Gardens, with actual trees, lawns and a lake. By the 1980s, the only park was the car park where the opera used to stand; half the Ezbekiyya had been concreted over and the rest was a dusty wasteland. Tourists now preferred to stay beside the Nile, where the river breezes made the air more breathable. The only surprise is that it has taken so long for the Continental-Savoy to go. While I’m sad to see it disappear, I completely understand that it had to go. It was a rotting carcass of something that had long-since died. The big fear, of course, is what replaces it. Cairo does not have a good track record when it comes to new architecture. Just take a drive around New Cairo. Or closer to home, take a look at what they have built on the former site of Shepheard’s or the National (here).
For now, let’s just remember it as it was:
I bought the wonderful poster that in a slightly Photoshopped form features on the cover of Grand Hotels of Egypt from an auction house in New York. I’ve been on its mailing list ever since. The latest online catalogue pinged into my inbox yesterday and one of the items in a forthcoming 25 February sale caught my eye (see above). According to the catalogue description it is a poster promoting the first aviation meet held in Africa, which was organized by Baron Édouard Empain and took place at Heliopolis. This poster doesn’t include the date, but it was 6–13 February 1910. In other words, just seven years after the historic Wright Brothers flight that marked the birth of powered aviation.
For the purpose of the meet an Egyptian Aero Club was created, and the event was also supported by the Automobile Club of Egypt, the Egyptian Tourism Association and the French Ligue National Aérienne. The head of the organising committee was Prince Ahmed Fouad, who would in 1922 become King Fouad I. A five-kilometre course was laid out in the desert, overlooked by two grandstands, and 12 pilots and 18 planes were entered in the competition. The flyers arrived by ship from France. Several had their planes damaged en route. Among the pilots was the Baroness Raymonde de Laroche, real name Élise Deroche, and the first woman ever to enter an aviation meeting. A total prize fund of 212,000 francs was raised for what would be several days of competitions for distance, speed and altitude. One of the events was the Prix Boghos Pacha Nubar, offering 10,000 francs for a flight from Heliopolis around the Cheops pyramid and back.
The official opening day was Sunday 6 February, a perfect day for flying with a clear sky and no wind. Several pilots went up and made test hops. One landing caused a horse to take fright and it ran over a Mr Tarihaki, who had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. Flying was a new and enormous novelty and the first day of the event drew 40,000 people. The following days were a bit hit and miss: at this time the planes were little more than string and canvas, and any bad weather meant they stayed grounded. One day’s flying was cancelled because of a sandstorm, while heavy winds on another day caused the race to the Pyramids to be called off. Mechanical mishaps and crashes – one pilot crashed four times – kept other aircraft grounded but at least there were no deaths (death being a common occupational hazard for early aviators). You can find out more about the meet here.
As for the poster, it was painted by French artist Marguerite Montaut, who was the wife of a famous French automobile illustrator Ernest Montaut. She specialised in aviation subjects, which she sometimes painted under the pseudonym Gamy, an anagram of her nickname Magy. Here’s some more of her work:
The Heliopolis poster is being sold by Poster Auctions International of New York; the estimate is $1,200 to $1,500, which strikes me as very reasonable given its rarity and historical significance, not to mention its beauty.
I was doing an image search online recently for something or other when the cover above came up in the results. I had to have it. It turns out the book was published back in 1988 and is long out of print, but it was easy enough to find a copy on ebay. I did try reading it but I didn’t get very far because, well, sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Much more interesting is the story behind its author.
Ehren M Ehly was the pseudonym of Egyptian-American author Moreen Le Fleming Ehly. She was born in Heliopolis, Cairo in 1929, spent part of her youth in London, but then moved back to Heliopolis, where she attended St Clare’s College (it still exists). In her late teens she competed in track and field for various sporting clubs. According to her obituary, she was also ‘a noted beauty’ (that’s her, above) and won the Miss Egypt title in 1949 in the presence of King Farouk at the Auberge des Pyramides nightclub. Coincidentally, in the 10 April 1950 edition of Life magazine, in an article titled ‘The Problem King of Egypt’, there is mention of this very contest, in which it says, ‘No sooner had the judges announced their decision than a message was sent over from the king’s table indicating that His Majesty was displeased with the verdict. The judges hastily reversed themselves and awarded the cup to another girl.’ The obituary doesn’t mention whether Ms Ehly was the favoured or disfavoured girl.
She met her future husband Robert, a US marine stationed as an embassy guard, at a sporting club in Cairo (the US embassy in Cairo and its marine guards feature in the early pages of Obelisk), however, they were separated when Ehly and her mother fled Egypt during the Black Saturday riots in 1952. They were later reunited in London, where Ehly was working at the venerable Flemings Hotel on Half Moon Street. They married in London in December 1952 but, according to the obituary, encountered bureaucratic problems getting Ehly into the United States. The story goes that the way was smoothed with the help of Ralph Edwards, host of TV gameshow Truth or Consequences, who invited Robert onto the programme to judge a beauty contest and had Ehly surprise him by popping out of an oversized milk carton.
The couple settled in the US and lived for a brief time in Louisiana before settling in California. Ehly worked for many years at Sears & Roebuck, before she quit to take up writing classes. She intended writing romance but somehow wound up turning out horror, possibly influenced by some of the books she had read in her father’s library, notably H Rider Haggard’s She. Obelisk was her first novel, followed shortly by Totem.
She wrote four pulp horror novels in total in the space of around four years before coming to a sudden stop. I can’t help but wish she had written her memoirs instead. She died on 26 December 2012, survived by three children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
I know we are well past Christmas, but if there is anyone out there who feels they would like to buy me a late gift then I have just thing. Currently being offered on eBay by a seller in Australia is a set of seven solid silver forks bearing the stamp of the Anglo-American Nile Company (the actual wording is ‘ANGLO-AMERICAN LINE OF NILE STEAMERS’). They were likely deployed for dinners aboard the company’s steamers some time in the late 19th or early 20th century. The only trouble is my Ikea knives and spoons are going to look a little pathetic by comparison.