Thieves Fall Out (in Cairo)


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.

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The Egyptian opera


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 greatest cultural event of the 20th century!

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.


The Opera House (left) seen from the roof of the Grand Continental

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.

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The above two images are Mariette’s original sketches for set designs

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).

















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So farewell then, Continental-Savoy


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:














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An early aviation meet


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 organising committee for the meet

One of the flyers and the Heliopolis meet

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:


Vedrines flying his 'Borel' monoplane, c 1911.



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.

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Egypt’s first lady of horror


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.

Bathing beauties at the Auberge des Pyramides, some time in the 1950s

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.

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Silver-service souvenirs

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.






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Belzoni, Soane and Seti I

The Sir John Soane Museum is one of the most extraordinary places in London. It is not really a museum, it is the former home of a great Georgian architect and collector extraordinaire. It is actually three houses knocked into one – that does it an injustice, the houses are intricately interlinked – and all are filled with a cornucopia of antiques, painting, sculpture and architectural bric-a-brac. Rather than me try to describe it any further, take a look at these photographs:



Basement Ante Room in the Soane Museum. Photo_ Gareth Gardner



Right now there is more reason than ever for anyone with an interest in Egypt to visit. Soane’s greatest acquisition was the sarcophagus of the pharaoh Seti I, which is on permanent display in the basement space. Running until April is a temporary exhibition on the background to the sarcophagus. It was removed by Belzoni from Seti I’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings and transported to England where it was first offered to the British Museum. When the museum declined to meet Belzoni’s asking price, Soane stepped forward. Getting the 3,000-year-old relic into the house involved knocking down a sizeable chunk of the back wall. When all was done, and the wall rebuilt, Soane then threw a three-day party to introduce London to his new prize possession.




This exhibition retells the story and also includes some of the wonderful watercolours made by Belzoni and his assistants in Seti’s tomb.


Even if you can’t make it for the exhibition, Sir John Soane’s home is worth a visit any time you are in London. And the sarcophagus will still be there.

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Edward Ardizzone in Cairo


So, more about that Parade cover I posted before Christmas. Or, more specifically, more about the person who drew it. Edward Ardizzone (1900–79) was once a hugely popular English artist and illustrator, revered in particular for his series of Little Tim children’s books. During World War II he worked as a war artist, documenting the experiences of soldiers and civilians in England and across Europe. While sketching the devastation caused by the ongoing Blitz in London he was arrested by the Home Guard as a spy. In 1942, the War Office sent Ardizzone to the Middle East. He arrived in Cairo in May during preparations for the Allied offensive at El Alamein. He was given lodgings in Garden City, in a room above the offices of the soldiers’ magazine Parade, for which he did illustrations and that special Christmas cover.

Even before I discovered his Cairo connection, I’d always been an Ardizzone fan. For me, it is his love of the intimate and ordinary, along with his humour. While in Egypt he went out into the desert, attached to the mechanized Second Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, and dutifully recorded scenes of warfare, but I suspect he was much more at home in Cairo. He followed the soldiers into the bazaars and drew them having their photographs taken or shopping for silks and other luxuries to send back home to England where such things were unavailable. In London he was an avid frequenter of pubs, which he celebrated in a wonderful little book called The Local, which is full of his drawings of humble public barrooms and their gossipy, boozy clientele. In Cairo he sought out similar places. He frequented places like Badia’s Casino, Groppi’s and the Gezira Club, which he drew, leaving us tantalizing sketches of the city’s wartime nightlife as experienced by off-duty British officers (all such places were off-limits to common soldiers, of course).

Badia’s Casino

The Bar at Badia’s Casino

The Gezira Club

Light Horse at Groppi’s

Ardizzone also drew a nightclub called Dolls. One of the posts on this site last year featured pages from Schindler’s Guide to Cairo, from 1942/43, and on one of those pages is an ad for ‘Dolls music hall and cabaret’. It’s not somewhere I know anything about but from the guide’s description it sounds quite a joint: on Sharia Malika Farida (these days Abdel Khalek Sarwat), it is described as one of Cairo’s leading cabarets, with a hundred tables and entertainment nightly by the “well-known” Black and White Band. When the cabaret began the dance floor was automatically raised to give everyone the best view.

Doll's Cabaret: the Girl in Black
Dolls Nightclub

Ardizzone was in Egypt for just a few months before moving on to Sicily, mainland Italy and Normandy before being discharged from the army in 1945. He lived until 1979 producing masses of work, mostly illustrations for books, but also pieces of commercial advertising and other odd commissions such as an altar piece. Sadly, he is very much out of fashion these days, although there was an excellent exhibition devoted to his work and life here in London last year and, to tie in with it, a superb book Edward Ardizzone: Artist and Illustrator by Alan Powers (Lund Humphries, £40).

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Compliments of the season, Mrs ‘Arris


The cover of Parade magazine, 19 December 1942, entitled “The Soldiers Dream” or “Christmas Eve at the Local” and drawn by Edward Ardizzone. Parade was published in Cairo and distributed to the Allied forces in Egypt and around the Mediterranean. More on Ardizzone and Egypt to come in the New Year. Meanwhile, my own compliments of the season to you.

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Christmas at Shepheard’s, 1898


George Warrington Steevens (1869–1900) was a British journalist, the most famous war correspondent of his time. He accompanied Kitchener to Khartoum and covered the Second Boer War in South Africa. En route to the latter he spent time enough in Egypt to toss off a state of the nation study, Egypt in 1898, published by Dodd, Mead & Co of New York, 1899. A veteran of the battlefield it was unlikely he was going to have much good to say about the lah-di-dah society of his fellow Englishmen in Cairo and, sure enough, he didn’t.

He certainly did not like the company at his hotel: “Inside Shepheard’s you will find just the Bel Alp in winter quarters. All the people who live in their boxes and grand hotels, who know all lands but no languages, who have been everywhere and done nothing, looked at everything and seen nothing, read everything and know nothing – who spoil the globe by trotting on it.”

He was in residence at Shepheard’s on 25 December: “I woke this morning in the usual cage of mosquito-gauze, rang the bell, and the usual brown face under a tarbush poked itself in at the door: ‘Good Christmas, sar,’ it said. By Jove! Yes, it was Christmas Day; and looking out of window I saw, for the first time in Egypt, a true English sky, heavy and yellow. It was chilly cold too; Egypt is not near so warm as it looks. Looking down from the window, I started. Was I still asleep, or did I really see that great white bird, stork-billed, duck-footed, waddling placidly up to the back-door of Shepheard’s? And then I remembered that a tame pelican of great dignity was wont to disport himself there; but that took all the Christmas out of my mouth.”

“When I got up I found the hotel full of bouquets of roses; a few people went out later, ostensibly to church; but otherwise the wandering English made Christmas Day much like any other day. No such luck for the British residents of Cairo. It seems that when they first came here, the society of Cairo was much concerned to find that they had no day for all going round calling on each other, as Continentals do on New Year’s Day, Levantine Christians on their New Year’s Day, and Mussulmans at Bairam. On consideration, the society of Cairo decided that the British ought to have such an anniversary, and fixed on Christmas Day as the most suitable. So the ladies sit at home all the afternoon dealing out tea, and the gentlemen go round, calling on everybody else, and Egyptian friends call on everybody after the same manner; so that the whole British colony, with native auxiliaries, rotates in a body round itself all Christmas afternoon. A stranger, I was called on for no such effort; so I went out peacefully to lunch.”

Portrait of George Warrington Steevens by John Maler Collier

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