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?

10 Comments

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10 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.

  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

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