The Oxford Pension

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For a spell back at the end of the 80s/early 90s whenever I was walking around Downtown Cairo I used to have guys shout at me, “Hey! Kaboria!” The reference was to a hit film that was playing at the cinemas, staring Ahmed Zaki. In it, he sported a distinctive close-crop hair cut and, unasked for by me, my local barber had given me the same cut. Then the film finished its run and my hair grew out and that’s the last I heard of Kaboria, until last month.

It unexpectedly popped up again in British newspaper The Guardian in an interview with Cate Blanchett. Rehashing old history with the journalist, she explains how aged around 20, she was doing the Australian thing of travelling the world for a year. She was hanging out in Cairo when she was approached by some guy at her hostel and asked if she wanted to appear as an English-speaking extra in a local film. And so she went along and it turned out to be Kaboria. However, contrary to what sources on the internet say, Blanchett says it was so hot and boring she left and was never in the film.

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The hostel where the future Elizabeth I and Galadriel was staying in Cairo was the Oxford pension. A “fleapit” she calls it. A fleapit? That’s not half the story. It was cockroach central. A fetid lice incubator. A rodent ranch. It had a rickety lift with the greater part of its back kicked out that carried guest up to the sixth-floor reception and which felt uncomfortable like an ascending coffin. It had nicotine-hued walls, showers that spouted only rusty trickles and rooms that weren’t rooms at all, just widenings in the corridor with a mattress on the floor.

But it had a prime location midway up Talaat Harb and it was cheap, cheap enough that it was always full of long-term boarders, paying just a few pounds a week for a place to flop. It had the added attraction of a reception area that was the place to score drugs, pick up work, sell a Walkman or a passport, buy a false student ID, or just to share Stellas and stories with like-minded warriors on the overland trail.

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I never stayed there – I valued my health too much – but I knew plenty who did. These memorably included a guy from Manchester who had to be medivaced out after catching hepatitis and an American who taught English up the street at a cowboy school where the pay didn’t allow for anything more than a bed at the Oxford. To brighten up his room the American bought some red cloth from Khan al-Khalili and draped the ceilings and walls. For company he bought a white rabbit from the butchers and named her Miss Fifi. When he left a few months later, the management at the Oxford left his room as it was and certain guests got given a room that looked like a brothel, complete with white rabbit and droppings.

Who said the golden age of travel ended with World War II?

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