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.

white-rabbit

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?

58 Comments

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58 Responses to The Oxford Pension

  1. Simin

    Funny, was telling my daughter a story of long ago at the Oxford, climbing Cheops etc and a white rabbit, drugs etc! So googled your story! Great to have some proof, thanks

    • David Rowinski

      what year were you there? I was teaching and lived there on and off in 89-90

      • AndrewH

        I was around the Oxford in late 1988-early 1989, not living there but meeting people and sharing a beer in the lobby. The guy with the white rabbit was called Randy, I think.

        • David Rowinski

          I was 1st there summer of 89 into 90. You probably met Simon who was in Cairo buying vintage motorcycles. I recall the rickety lift bearing graffiti ‘Charleton Heston put his vest on’ and the scandal when someone left a turd in the tub.

  2. Tina

    … and the toilets didn’t work (in the morning you just ran to the falafel restaurant a hundred yards down the road , for breakfast), sheets got changed once a week regardless of how many had crashed on the mattress, but there was room service in the shape of two young boys who ran a tea and coffee business in there. Was there in 1983 and loved every minute of it.

  3. David Rowinski

    I was there in 89 the same time the guys who did a charity tour through Africa were ending their trek so the Goodies three man tandem was in the hall. I was teaching English at IBI and am writing an essay on Dahab even as I took a break and saw this. If anyone was there at that tine please message. me some wonderful people. One night over beer I helped a man edit his story of travels. Another time I got into a profanity laden rant about religion with Angus who also taught (wondering if he was the rabbit owner)

  4. David Rowinski

    I just realized that I might have been with Ms Blanchet There were several of us who took a taxi from the Oxford to a film site.As I recall it might have been on Zamelek I do remember the front of the hotel was marble and think it was raining. We sat around before being told it was not going to happen and my memory of it was we might not have even been given cab fare to get back

    • David Rowinski

      Now that I think about it we left the hotel when we realized the film was a bust and went for dinner at an Italian restaurant.This wa almost 30 years ago but the timeline and details match up

    • AndrewH

      The Oxford was a major recruiting ground for Western extras for local filming. There were travellers being taken off to hang around on film sets all the time.

      • Eliot

        I was recruited as a khawadja crusader in an Egyptian historical soap opera from the Oxford back in ’84 – wooden swords and wooden movements, run by a fellow in mirrored shades who called himself mister Perfection, overseen by a gaggle of directors shouting commands over each other and shouting ‘don’t listen to heem – listen to me – I am in charge !

  5. David Rowinski

    Back then I did share an apartment with a fellow teacher from Sudanese elite During Ramadan knock came on door and flatmate Mat introduced me to the former Sudanese President. We forget it now but before 1st Iraq War so much seemed to be moving in a progressive direction as Soviet empire crumbled though ex-wife’s mother was from Tanzania and said for Africa it was seen as problematic as they relied on playing US against USSR

  6. Eliot

    Has nobody recalled Mustafa – the chai-server of deep soul, and infinite gravitas: ‘yaaaaaah, Habiiiibiiiii…’ ?

    • Nic L

      I remember Mustafa very well, very tall, thin and nubian dark skin. “Chai…Aswani karkade…”. A very good man.

      Stayed at the Oxford many times between ’85-’87. Magical place. Great sudanese weed.

  7. Jim Bannister

    I was beginning to think I had imagined the Oxford as there was nothing on the Internet. I stayed there on a few occasions, the longest being for about a month in 1996. Dirty, roach ridden but cheap cheap cheap. Plenty of wheeling and dealing in the reception area but the fridge for the beer (0.5% ‘Stella’) would give you an electric shock when you opened it! Very fond memories. Anyone got any photos?

  8. Mats Henricson

    I stayed a few days, probably March or April 1984. I also remember that elevator as a death trap, the toilet that didn’t flush, which didn’t stop people from using it anyway, and that someone had written “Bug run” with big letters on the wall above my bed.

    The second worst hotel in my life.

  9. Tina

    Maybe one of the worst, but definitely one of the most interesting. And hey, what can you expect for 25 cent per night????? And there was excellent roomservice!

  10. For a while in the 1980’s I lived in the legendary Pension Oxford in Cairo. The longer you stayed the better the room you could score. The wire semi-see-through elevator was touch and go. Sometimes clean-cut American girls would show up at the reception desk and pretty much do a U-turn as the Pension Oxford was a strictly a 40-watt bulb place. One day I bought a heavyweight Remington typewriter off two Greek brothers working in their underpants in ankle-deep water in their nearby basement stationery supply store. They told me their basement flooded regularly and they were quite cheerful, sloshing around in their underpants, filling orders. With the typewriter I wrote out fake letters attesting to the student status of incoming and outgoing Pension Oxford guests in the (vain) hope such a letter would get them a student discount flight out of Cairo to Europe etc. My very brief scheme failed as the typewriter had a couple of visibly misaligned keys hardly making my student status documents looking like official university verified letters.
    The Pension Oxford tea boy, Mustafa, was about 70 and he would shuffle along the dimly-lit corridors bringing glasses of tea on a hardly-sparkling silver tray to the mostly stoned guests, prostrate in their rooms. I sometimes cooked on a petrol stove in my corner room (which had two big windows) – I seem to remember “perfecting” an eggplant and milk stew dish – anyway it was eaten with no complaints by various London-to-India-overland hippies. I particularly remember one long-haired guy from Switzerland or Austria who was on a years long trip to first-hand see every sacred/holy place in the world in Iran, India, Cambodia, Indonesia etc. He didn’t come across as zealously religious but he impressed me as a free, unworried, non-material traveller. In one of the other rooms there was a German girl waiting for her Israeli boyfriend to come out of an Egyptian prison (!) To pass the time she’d built a mezzanine level in her room.
    The manager of the Pension Oxford had really thick-lensed spectacles, that were held together by a bandage. He called me “The Professor”. Whenever he saw me he’d rasp/intone in a ten thousand Egyptian cigarettes voice, “AH, The Professor!” The Pension Oxford was my Beat Hotel. I heard it got closed down by the authorities. pbakowski54@gmail.com

    • Andrew Forster

      Hi Peter, I’m Andy, I lived with Lisa in room 42, opposite the kitchen, a mate had built a sleeping platform in it and I painted it pink and black. I remember you writing a book, Thunder Road.

  11. patricio

    I do, with his white long egyptian vest, sometimes he went in the rooms asking if there were any spoons. I was there in the summer of 1989, and the person in charge was a French woman called Madam. So, one night we were in a room from a Belgium guy who was living there for 2 years, actually his occupation was, to beg, and we got a bit enthusiastic, and I being a painter, and having art material with me, did a painting on the room’s wall. Quite nice, actually. Mine wasn’t the only one. So Mustafa saw and tells Madam. Next day she calls me and told me I had to leave. I wanted to go somewhere anyway, then I took a short trip to Luxor. I had long hair, in Luxor I cut it short, went back to Cairo, to the Oxford Hotel, checked in again, Madame didn’t recognize me. It was true that it was filled with cockroaches, but I also remember the great view from the balconies, good conversations in the lobby, over a beer, day or night, really special guests, also walking at night in this long corridors, and from some open doors you hear music, see and talk to people. One early morning, my the room had so much cockroaches, that i went walking in the long corridors, so, then i saw a door in a corner, and it was open, I came in and was this very clean room, with a nice clean bed, all white Egyptian linen, small verandah and little spotless bathroom, I even remember the sink and toilet, they were old French made. In that place, it was a small miracle, like a lotus flower. It became my secret room to the rest of my stay there, I would wait for people to go to sleep and kind of hidden went there, for a some reading and nice sleep.

  12. Robert Halliday

    Wow! I stayed in the Oxford Pension for several months in 1987 (and I returned for a short time in 1991 after a three-year stint in Japan). I actually knew and met some of the people mentioned above – Randy the guy with the rabbit, Mustafa the tea man who sadly passed away while I was in Japan (though I kept in touch for a time with his son), the manager with thick rimmed glasses Mr. Bendali (I believe), and Angus was my friend. I also used to sit in the reception talking to Musa the receptionist from Sudan and later to Ahmed and Mohammed, Egyptians that replaced him) drinking Stella. I also recall the dodgy elevator which would not return to the ground floor if the door was not shut properly and how annoying it was to have to walk up the 6 flights of stairs whenever that happened. The Oxford Pension was for me a magical place, and I will always remember it through the smoky drug-filled haze that seemed to permeate its rooms and corridors. I remember Talaat Harb, the Metro Cinema where everyone smoked during the film, the Cafe Americane just down the street. I think I might have even met some of you above who posted comments.

    • Alan

      Hiya Rob!

      How are you keeping? Must be a quarter of a century since Cairo and the Oxford scene. Bengali, Hamad, Hassan (Angus), Ted, Itchem, Andy and Lisa, Simon Harvey, Tara, Paul, and me.

      Remember playing Risk in your flat as you kept watch for stooges in the street below? I kept a diary of those years, of the fights, police raids, drug deals, scams and the great fire of the Oxford. Still have it. :)

      • David Rowinski

        I mention in ensuing post that Simon passed this year Do not know if you met Lianne who often visited with him. Wonder if any of you recall playing video games on one of the residents laptops which was pretty rudimentary but state of the art then We used to be up in his room til wee hours of the morning

      • Andrew Forster

        Hiya Rob! I’m Andy, formerly of Andy & Lisa. I lived at the Oxford from ’84 til I got arrested in that lift and deported in early ’87.

  13. David Rowinski

    Just saw previous post and realize I should mention that Simon Harvey passed away last month. He was a regular at the Oxford during its heyday and anyone who went through in the 80s and 90s probably crossed paths with him at some point. We met at the cafe in Tahrir Sq and he showed me the workings of Cairo. His businesses partner got me work teaching where i met my now ex. Simon knew the least expensive places to get the best meal, told me the tap water was fine to drink and 100 other things that helped me thrive in the year I spent in Cairo. He was there when I arrived and when I departed and came to the US every year for last decade. If anyone remembers him please message me. The phone will never again ring late Sunday morning without me thinking it is him on he other end.

    • Alan

      Hi David

      I knew Simon from his Oxford days, a man of great ingenuity and character who looked like a bearded Biker, but was a kind and gentle soul. Great West Country accent I recall. So sorry to hear of his passing. We shared many a Stella.

      • David Rowinski

        Alan,
        Sorry but missed your reply until now We also must have crssed paths as I woukd stay at Oxford in between times when school i was working at IBI woukd not have a pkace for me to live I was also there in 1990 just before heading to Greece I had an open ended ticket Simon tried to sell for return to US Eventually he just gave it to someone whomwent to airport and did not return so it may have worked I recall many days sitting in the lounge-one long argument about religion with Angus. We are still dealing with Simon’s loss as we remined good friends and he came to the US every summer

  14. Julie

    So funny to read about Pension Oxford! I was there With my friend Robin from UK. (I’m Danish) from February-May 89. I remember a quite tough young woman named Sandy, Think she was from Australia. She knew everybody and everything… I remember a grafitti at the entrance “don’t let the bedbugs bite” (they did!) but most of all I remember a young blonde guy from US or Canada called David. He was stuck, had a bad relation to family back home, and tried to sell his passport to be able to go back to his kibbutz family in Israel. Somehow normal borders and fine lines got crossed over so easy at that place. David and I kept two lost kittens at the pension. Anyway, he got caught by the police when he tried to sell the passport, and send to prison. The embassy could do nothing, and we had to leave Egypt. Small chance but does anyone remember him?

    • David Rowinski

      I may actually have a picture of David if it is sane person We went to the camel market along with Johan and Fionna who were traveling on to Europe My email is bolejaja@gmail.com If you message me I shall try and find it and email copy. I do not know what happened to him after I left Cairo. I did connect with Johan and Fiona in Athens after Egypt

  15. Alan

    Hello Julie

    Yes I remember him (and I think you). I remember the kittens being carried in a hat!

  16. Alan

    Just to explain to anybody reading this, I spent two periods at the Oxford, first during 1987, and later 1989- 1993 ( yup, several years!) Wild times.

  17. This is strange. I am writing a book at the moment and I was mentioning something about Cairo in it and remembered the Oxford. I was there for several months in around 1986 with a guy called Tim. We were making a documentary about the Moulids and staying at the place coz cheap, even though we had sponsorship from BBC. Yeh I remember the bathroom filthy shit everywhere. We got ill bad runs and sickness, also ringworm, I think caught from the cats in our room. I was mixing with the Sufi people to make the documentary. I remember an American woman who was living there for years and had become sufi. I can’t remember her name. I remember the hotel boy called Khalled. He became a good friend of mine. I had a row with Tim and moved into another room with a guy called Simon. Khalled got arrested and wrongly accused of something and I went to the police station and persuaded them to let him out. He was Syrian. His only ambition in life was to get a passport and get to America. I would love to know what happened to him. Does anybody remember him? He worked in the hotel. He was about 20 years old then. He and I travelled around Sinai together and got regularly stopped by police because he was Syrian without passport, but because I had British passport they woulld let us go. I was eating opium at the Oxford. We used to put it in yogurt to hide taste. I remember people living there that forged letters to do with air tickets of something. Made a living like that. The film we made went on to be used in British universities for oriental studies.

    • Alan

      Hiya Kathy

      yeah I recall Tim the film maker. I can’t remember his second name off the Top of my head , but can remember him really well. He told me about the Moulids thing, and a couple of years later I took him around the City of the Dead and translated for him on a subsequent project he was doing there. Through that project I met some really nice people and actually moved out of the Oxford for a while to join them.

      I think you’re refering to Tara (the American woman at the Oxford).

    • Alan

      Last I saw of Khaled was about 1989. he stopped working at the Oxford and no idea where he went. Can’t remember asking Bendali about him, but probably must have.

      Yeah, opium was cheap and good. Airline tickets was one line of business , some people worked on travellers checks, but what I did for a while was bank currency exchange receipts (to enable people to extend their tourist visas , you had to change $150 a month to renew).

  18. David Rowinski

    Not sure about Tim but Simon was probably Simon Harvey who passed away unexpectedly this year. We met in Talaat Harb in 198 and remained friends all these years. His Facebook page still should be up. The pics of Kenya were from trip he took to see my wife and I some years ago.

  19. Chris

    Hi David,

    I stayed in Oktober/November 1990 with my brother Alex in the Oxford. I left in middle of November back to Munich/ Germany, my brother stays a little bit longer. My brother was then arrested in Cairo in the jail, and send back to Germany. With us stayed also Jens, a other German guy. At this time there live, maybe it was Simon and a other English teacher (I think he was Scottish) in the Oxford. Sorry, I can’t remember the names. Sad to hear, that Simon passed away.

    Maybe we meet us in the Oxford.

    Best wishes and Greets from munich
    Christian,
    at this time all called me chris
    Sry for my bad english

  20. David Rowinski

    Hello Chris,
    Your English is far superior to my German despite 4 years of class in High School. We would not have crossed paths as I left I think in August 1990. Simon was still there, though and the Scottish teacher was probably Angus. I believe there was a German woman there who was an artist but cannot recall her name though we went to lunch a few times. Thanks for response.

  21. And the cats were something special too, I remember. They had folded tails. A lodger whispered to me that the proprietor was a gangster and I do remember the services of Aida, who one day showed up with a black eye.

  22. Richard Humphries

    Stayed there in 1983 while waiting for a Sudan visa. Dripping with atmosphere and much else. Mustafa was one cool dude saying aiiiwaaa in his low voice. Does anyone who stayed there in the 1980s remember a British fellow who smuggled Bedford trucks down to Uganda and points south (trying to think of the guy’s first name for some writing I’m doing). He didn’t want to wait a month for the visa so he got someone in Cairo to make him one. Then he’d just stamp himself rather than wait a month like the rest of us. I remember the bathtub the smells and the bugs. But I still smile anytime I think of that place. Does anyone know what year the place closed? I see now there’s something called the Gardenia which may occupy the same place.

    • PETER PAUL BAKOWSKI

      Dear Richard, I enjoyed your post as a fellow Oxford pension alumni. I went to Sudan three times. I found getting the Sudan visa in Cairo pretty easy. One time I travelled by “public” lorries from Bangui, Central African Republic through Sudan to Egypt. The Sudanese people were wonderful to me a lone traveller. I live in Melbourne, Australia and am a poet. Every good wish in your life. pbakowski54@gmail.com You’ll find me on Facebook also. Stay safe.

      • cally starforth

        hi pete, i am an author and poet too. Check me out on Amazon (Cally Starforth Hill) Have written tons of poetry and quite a few songs over the years. Live in Devon now, South West of England.

  23. cally starforth hill

    Yeh , thanks Alan I remember Tara now. She was a Sufi. I loved the way of life of the Sufi people. Khaled surname was Solleh. The Simon I was referring to I am pretty sure was never involved in motorbikes. He had ginger hair. I had a massive row with Tim and moved into his room next door. He, Khallled and I left for the Sinaii together after Khaled got released. Tim went down separately. We had a break from filming. Too stoned on opium most of time and I got crushed outside a mosque and the camera lens got smashed, I got taken to the police station for my own protection but thought I had been arrested. It took weeks to get a new lens coz we had to wait for it to come from Japan. Yeh I remember going to the City of the Dead and interviewing people there.

  24. Mark Jones

    I just came across this thread and it brings back a lot of memories.
    I stayed in the Oxford in the latter part of 1988, I remember the dodgy lift and sometimes racing it from the ground floor to the lobby for no particular reason. Bendali? and Mustafa making cups of tea. I fondly remember Simon, and I remember him telling me about a new invention that could send pictures down a phone line (fax machine) and I thought he was pulling my leg. I remember him setting out to find old British bike to send back to the UK, and his (empty) cans of brown ale that one of his UK friends had sent him (when they were full)
    I watched the 1988 Olympics in the lobby, on a black and white tv with a broken horizontal hold. Drinking Stella which cost more per bottle than a nights accommodation.
    Shower ‘surfing’ – the showers were bath tubs on wooden slats not affixed to anything; when you moved in the shower, the whole thing rocked.
    Cats weeing on my mattress and then complaining to Mustafa, who either just turned it over or swapped it with another belonging to an another unsuspecting guest. The chicken bones in the corridor for the cats, the feeling of dread when you felt the need to pass wind – it was always safer in the bathroom :-)
    I was also an extra on a couple of movies in return for a KFC and a couple of Egyptian pounds, one by a swimming pool near Giza and another in a night club somewhere, along with a big blond Finnish woman who thought she was the bee’s knees. (nobody else shared the same opinion)
    I once read about the Oxford in the book “Lets Go Egypt & Israel” sometime around 1990, recommending a visit just for a beer and to watch the residents, which made me burst out laughing in the bookshop (Ironically in Oxford) as I membered all the visitors coming for a beer and then disappearing.

    But I mostly remember it being a meeting place for kindred spirits from many nations, sharing life stories.
    It’s a miracle any of us survived any length of time in there.

  25. James Nagy

    Wow!!! I’m wrapped to have come across this thread.
    I stayed there for a couple of months in 1981 waiting for my Sudan visa.
    I think – from vague memory – it was on the sixth Floor; can anyone tell me the actual street address; definitely remember the lift, it often would be stuck between floors and one had to climb up and out, a bit of a worry if it restarted at the same time!!
    I met some guys at the Oxford who had sussed out somehow where in the medina back streets a quasi illegal clandestine hash market operated. Remember going and scoring the choicest blocks of oozing Afgan and Lebanese.
    What was interesting at the Pension was how the people running it (were they the owners??) turned a blind eye to all the dope smoking.
    From memory they were a Greek family (one of the last in Cairo). One got the feeling that maybe the Pension had once been their private sumptious residence, and that they had somehow fallen on hard times and that the property was all they had left.
    I distinctly remember that they had a grandmother (or maybe even older ) skin and bones, whose ‘abode’ was in one of the corridors; a row of rickety wooden chairs, padded with bundles of old newspapers as a mattress – she would be sleeping most of the day in full view of the coming and goings of the residents.
    The pension was a great place to meet folks who were either starting or finishing their Africa trips. Most days I would be stoned, drinking some chai and waking to the calls to pray; which I found in my out of it state, so beautiful and poetic!!
    Recalling as if it was just yesterday, I met at the Oxford one of the most handsome guys I have ever come across, he was Jewish English early twenties, blue eyes and dark hair. Other than spending a whole day smoking joint after joint with him, nothing more eventuated as he was leaving that night to fly back to London.
    Eventually my visa came through and it was time to move on. Caught the train to Aswan and waited a couple of days for the ferry to Wadi Hafa. We had just passed the international border that cuts invisibly across the lake when the news came over the radio that President Sadat had been asassinated!!!

  26. James Nagy

    Can anyone please share as to when and why the Oxford closed? In a previous post a fire was mentioned????

    What replaced it; has anyone been to the address recently; I googled mention of the Gardenia . If it is the replacement, from the pics on the website it got renovated to death!!!

    Does anybody perchance have photos that they’d like to share?

    • cally starforth

      I have photos James but I will have to find and scan in. They are in old albums. However here is a link to clip of the film I helped Tim make at the time. Unfortunately I have lost all the video I had myself because during a clear out when I moved a few years ago I think I accidentally threw the video away thinking it was something else, so really pissed off about that. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ca9NU0jL5o

  27. Sicko

    I’ve left some here of the interior and the direct surroundings.

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/YMBggY3kR6CU4vNv6

  28. PETER PAUL BAKOWSKI

    Dear Andy, I remember you and Lisa distinctly. I was impressed by you learning Arabic and escaping Northern (?) England. As a fraternal gift I’d like to mail you a most recent book of my poems. I’ve now been writing poems for 38 years. My email is pbakowski54@gmail.com If you are comfortable with it, please send me an email with your relevant postal address. You and Lisa were a lovely couple. Every good wish. Stay safe. I’m also on Facebook. Peter Bakowski

  29. cally starforth

    Hi Peter, I stayed there a few months in mid 1980s while helping Tim Coleman make a film about moulids and Sufism. I remember buying one of your fake student passes and I am pretty sure it worked to get me a cheap flight but my memory is not that great. I ended up travelling round Sinai with Khaled, the guy who did odd jobs around the place. His uncle offered us a camel and a business to get married. I declined, but he was a great friend and I would love to find him.

  30. David Winterton

    Such a joy to find this post and the responses to it. I was there in the cold winter of ’91 and windstorms that stole the sky and blew debris of the rooftops occasionally killing people.

    I returned to the Cairo many times that year and the Pension Oxford was often where I ended up.. & yes I was an extra in a movie, used my passport to buy duty-free Johnny Walker – woke up to; people having sex in my room, sitting next to the toilet after drinking a bottle Smirboff.
    As I was 20/21 I was at home in the general filth but still have a visceral recall of the stench of the elevator shaft. I seem to recall being initially led there by a scouser after a night of drinking cheap Romanian vodke at the airport – don’t ask.. my cultural sensitivities were poorly developed. Walking through a market where the sweet meats were extracted from cow skulls a machete came down as I was walked past and a small part of brain landed just below my eye.. The Pension Oxford was a short walk ahead. In typing this, memories came flooding back of the smell of the streets and the 3rd city I was to know.

    I was hoping that somebody with a better memory of mine could recall the Sudanese “concierge” tall and thin who would greet me with kindness, share spliffs from his rooftop shack and refuse my money when we went to the cinema (a subtitled version of Predator). This in 1991 – I am thinking maybe it is Musa? I owe him debt of gratitude that as a young man I scarcely understood. If anybody has a way to contact him, please comment below. Thanks all for sharing your memories. I remember the filth, the poverty & characters that no longer seem possible – those times were golden.

  31. David Rowinski

    If I recall the name was Mustapha but i may be wrong. If you were there in 91 i missed you by a year. I am finishing short essay partially about time in the Oxford

  32. Christopher H DWYER

    This an excerpt from a story I am writing about traveling through Africa. The beginning of the story starts in the North and ends in the South Africa. !982 and 1983. I stayed at the Oxford Pension Hostal 4 times over two months. The cast of characters coming through there gave me many stories. I wrote some of them here. I hope you like this slice of Cairo life from those early years of golden adventure travel years in Africa. It would be very hard for anyone to retrace my steps there now because of the increased danger in some of the places I travelled through. Christopher Dwyer. 2021 Detroit.

    There was an “out of order” sign taped to the elevator, so we walked up six flights of steps with our backpacks to The Oxford Pension Hotel. Originally, it was a four star hotel built by the French circa 1910. More recently during WWII, it was a British officer’s club, with a restaurant and bar. In the busy reception room, the walls were stained yellow/grey from years of cigarette smoke and grime. High ceiling fans and peeling paint were illuminated by two bare light bulbs, hanging by their wires. Grey dust and cultivated decay confirmed the Oxford’s no frills reputation. It was perhaps the cheapest hotel in Cairo, attracting worldly characters, mainly backpackers heading to, or coming from Sudan. It was a natural choice for us at $1/night/bed. We put our packs down and got in line to meet the affable Mr. Pantelis. He was Greek and ran the Oxford with his two sisters.
    With his gaunt face and thinning grey hair, he examined my passport from behind the reception counter. Looking down over his glasses and with a cigarette in his lips, he exuberantly named me “Mr. Raaay-gan!” referring to the current U.S. President. He called my brother Mr. Bush and laughed at Ian when he didn’t know who the president of Australia was.
    We were in a large dormitory room, with10 foot ceilings and 12 single beds. A fine layer of dust covered everything. The walls were adorned with names and bits of graffiti. One message in English, warned of bedbugs. From our cement balcony oasis, we looked down on the street scenes of mid-day Cairo, drinking large bottles of Egyptian Stella Beer.
    The next day we applied for Sudanese visas. Many of our Oxford brethren were in some stage of that same process. With a twinge of envy, we watched the lucky few depart Cairo after receiving their visas, heading for the southern border. A common story among us detailed the painfully slow bureaucracy that had been refined by the Sudanese embassy staff in Cairo. We all agreed that the consular staff considered our visa applications unimportant. They were the masters of delay, and if you showed the slightest bit of anger or frustration during this process to any of the staff, your chances of being denied a visa increased exponentially. Three weeks seemed to be the average time that people waited. Many of the parties at the Oxford were to celebrate the day when people received their visas, and their departure from Cairo.
    We were tourists that first week, visiting The Egyptian Museum twice, exploring the Pyramids. Next to the three largest pyramids are three smaller pyramids. We waited until the guards were out of site and started to climb the largest of them. When we were near the top, one of the guards started yelling at us to come down. We cheerfully waved back as they beckoned to us. They were screaming and waving their arms for us to come down. We shook our heads and waved back at them to come up. We had a clear view of the Sahara to our west. The stand-off lasted twenty minutes, until we came down. At the bottom they all hand their hands out demanding baksheesh. We infuriated them by putting our hands out and demanding baksheesh from them. We walked away, they didn’t follow us.
    The Egyptian soldiers delighted in molesting female tourists inside the pyramids. Their game was to come down the long and narrow staircase inside the pyramid and cop a feel of western women as they ascended. We saw this happen in front of us. When a group of soldiers was coming down you heard the women yelling at these groups of soldiers that were grabbing their tits and ass, giggling at the thrill.
    The art of killing time became more desperate and the weeks passed slowly. Mentally, we were still on European time, having yet to learn that our ideas concerning schedules needed to adapt to our new latitudes and the vagaries of being on “Africa-time”. This wisdom eluded us in Cairo. The longer we stayed, the harder the waiting became, compounding our desire to leave.
    Ian was not heading south. He was flying to New York. We gave him our home address and told him he could stay with our parents. My mother got a call from him in December and he took the bus down to Atlantic City and showed up in the middle of a blizzard and stayed for a few days at our house near the beach. We never heard from him again.
    A room-mate from the Oxford offered to take me with him to buy hash. He told that the two mile trip into the slums at night was risky. “Alright I’ll bring you, but I do all the talking when we get there.” he said with a British accent. Fulvio was from Italy and had made this hash-run before, always at night. My brother came along as well. Most of the way was on broad streets, and up-hill. At the Citadel of Salah el-Din, we turned right and followed the high fortress walls down a dark muddy street into the Bazar of Khan el Khalili. All of the stalls were closed and Fulvio silently guided us through the warren of side streets to an old three story wooden building.
    There was a cow’s scull with horns and blue lightbulbs in its eye sockets, hanging over the front door. Fulvio knocked and was greeted by a suspicious doorman, who looked us up and down for a long moment before letting us inside a small room with a balcony and upstairs rooms. Eight men were inside, some with turbans, all wearing sandals and Jellabiyas. The boss was blind in one eye and the left side of his face had a burn scar. A few minutes passed and Fulvio was summoned toward the counter. There were two types for sale and how much did he want? Fulvio chose the more expensive option and showed his money. All eyes were on us as the first transaction was made. I wanted to make my own deal, buying the same amount as Fulvio, but choosing the cheaper option. I paid him and we left. This is when I anticipated we might have problems. Fulvio took point again, leading us through the maze of dark alleys. “Wait a minute.” I said to Fulvio. I found a place to stop so we could sample the hash. I put a small amount on a pin and burned it and then put it under my nose. It didn’t smell like hash. It wasn’t real. “Let me see yours.”. Fulvio handed his chunk to me and I bit a small piece and chewed it. It tasted real. I burned a little on the pin. It was real. What had happened? I bought the cheap stuff. I needed to get my money back or exchange my chunk of shit for real hash. Fulvio looked worried. “Are you coming with me”? Fulvio reluctantly followed me, back through the muddy alleys. I put my knife up the sleeve of my jacket. Back at the blue eyed cow’s scull, I knocked and the door opened. The door-man welcomed us with the same doubting leer. We went back in and without waiting I held out my chunk of shit and said “This isn’t real, I want the other hash.”. Ali didn’t argue and said OK to an exchange but I would have to pay the extra money. I had bought the fake stuff they sell to the tourists. It looks like hash but is made of something else. That’s why it’s so much cheaper. We had not been ripped-off, I had just made the wrong choice. Exchange completed, we left. A block away I tested it again. The sweet smell of blond Lebanese hash was confirmed. I smiled at Fulvio, and he smiled back as I passed the burning chunk under his nose. “Let’s get out of here”.
    Back at the Citadel wall, we made a right and then a left, and headed down hill past the Alabaster Mosque. That evening at the Oxford, Fulvio told the story about how he thought we were in for a fight, only to discover that there was no problem, and that his connection sold me what he thought I wanted, and exchanged the fake stuff for real hash when we brought it back. Mustafa the night porter floated in and out of our room and sold many glasses of his sweet tea with milk for 30 piasters . He was happy and business was good.
    Fulvio was a charming character and he stood out in a crowd; full of information and ideas about scams to make money. He had lived in London for years and spoke cockney accented English, as well as Italian, Spanish and a little Arabic. He stood about 5’7”, slim, balding and 27 years old. He knew about Cairo’s secrets.
    That evening he detailed some of the shady deals that he had already done in London and Rome and Cairo. He was holding court with his tutorial in the art of money scams. The first lesson was so simple that it seemed obvious to all. Report your traveler’s checks stolen, and then cash them on the black market at an inflated exchange rate. Fulvio admitted to doing this three times in Cairo, to three different banks, for $2400 total.
    The second story detailed bringing a quantity of hash out to the southern tip of the Sinai, camping on the beach for free, and selling it by the gram for three or four times what he paid, to MFO soldiers stationed at Sharm el Shek. He traded for beer, food, booze, and a complete set of newly issued desert fatigues with insignias and corporal’s stripes. The beach parties at night on the shores of Naama Bay were fueled by soldiers supplying cases of beer and snacks to the few tourists camping there, in exchange for stuff the soldiers wanted. Fulvio became very popular during his short stay.
    Until recently, the beach area at Sharm el Shek was a popular Israeli tou up all the buildings and facilities lining the beach here, underscoring their resentment of giving up Sinai.

  33. Christopher H DWYER

    Part 2 of story

    Back at the Oxford, one of our room-mates, a Greek girl named Virgina, was acting strangely. It was noon and we were in the hallway outside our room, when we saw Virgina being restrained in a chair after having attempted to jump off our balcony. She was having a psychotic episode and needed to be restrained or she would try and jump again. The staff at the Oxford was in a panic. They had called the police, but no help had arrived. I knew Virgina as a room-mate, so I was asked to try and calm her down. She was delusional and didn’t respond to anything I said. She was talking to somebody that wasn’t there and had urinated in her seat. When the police arrived, they hand cuffed her. She was biting and screaming as they strapped her down on a gurney. Only one cop spoke English and he insisted that I help them deal with Virgina by coming with them to the hospital. It was more of a demand and I reluctantly agreed as they phoned HQ. A few minutes later the same cop told me that I will have to wait at the hospital with Virgina, until they figure out what is wrong with her. I was about to protest and instead I said I was going to get my coat. I grabbed Billy, and snuck out of the Oxford. We walked down the six flights of steps and past the waiting police cars and ambulance, and then disappeared. We passed a trolley station and saw a rare sight; a bar. We decided to hide here for the afternoon. It was a strange place and only served one thing, brandy. You couldn’t order a drink by the glass, you had to buy a bottle. The waiter brought a pint of Metaxa Greek brandy, two glasses of water and a small plate of olives and feta cheese. We celebrated our escape and wondered where Virgina was now. We laughed and toasted at how angry the police must be with us. The brandy went to our heads and soon we were drunk. The second bottle arrived with the same plate of food and an old drunk that wanted to share our bottle. “Hubba Hubba Hubba!’ he said as he pointed at the bottle. He was the first rummy we had seen in Egypt, so rather than shoo him off, we encouraged him to perform his trick that we had seen him do for the other patrons. He would balance a broomstick by the handle on his flattened nose and then dance around in a circle, repeating “Huba Hubba Hubba”. It looked like he had been punched in the face a few times and had no cartilage in his nose. We paid him with a small amount of brandy, and then had trouble getting rid of him.
    When we returned to the Oxford, drunk, Mr. Pandelis looked at us like we owed him money. He demanded to know where we went when he needed us. I didn’t try to explain and plainly told him I was not responsible for Virgina, and if he cared so much, why wasn’t he down at the hospital with her?
    It turns out she was American, not Greek and the Embassy had sent someone over to collect her things. They wanted to talk to me and left a phone number. I called the embassy the next day and we had a long chat. The American consular officer was polite and trying to be helpful. Virgina had been taken to a psychiatric hospital that he described as a mid-evil dungeon. He suggested that we come by and see him. We met the Counsel General, who appreciated us helping him understand more about Virgina. He told us about other Americans that had also been jerked around by the Sudanese Embassy and wished he had been able to warn us about them. After examining our passports he offered to replace them with new ones. We accepted his offer. He would give us back our old passports that now would only be valid for travel to Israel and South Africa. We would have two passports, but only one was good for the whole world.
    In the lobby of the Oxford, I bumped into an old friend from Margate, NJ. Chris Gilmore was working on his next book , THE BAD ROOM, and had picked the Oxford for the same reasons we did. He planned on staying for a few weeks to get some work done and then flying to Kenya for Christmas. I told him I had a surprise for him and fetched my brother. We had a grand reunion and planned to celebrate Thanksgiving (the next day) at the Nile Hilton. That night, Chris held court in our room where we had a small party. He pulled out his Tarot Cards and read everyone’s fortune. He was about ten years older than us, tall and thin and had long blonde/grey hair. He was a great story teller and an ex-Marine and Margate lifeguard. There was plenty to smoke and the old man Mustafa shuffled in and out, serving us hot sweet tea.
    We stayed up late and listened to the stories of travelers who had just returned from Sudan. Their tales about riding on the top of a train for days and the privations they had suffered, painted a bleak picture of traveling through Sudan. It was bitter-sweet to listen to them because I knew that I would be flying over those adventures, and that I would have to make do by listening to other people’s stories about the Wadi-Halfa ferry, and the Dinka tribesmen, and The Khartoum Express.

  34. Andrew Forster

    Hi Alan, yeah those were wild times indeed! I changed my name, got a new passport (legally!) and went back to Cairo in ’89. Couldn”t stay at the Oxford, obviously, so did at TEFL course at a language school in Mohandiseen and taught there for three years. I left Egypt in ’92 and have never been back. I teach now in the UK. Lisa’s in Germany, she lived in northern India in the 90s and had three kids with a Tibetan. We’ve remained good friends and I’ve visited them often, hope to go over there again as soon as covid allows!

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