The Oxford Pension

1990-Kaboria-Full

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.

CTIXN9iWsAAfG0F

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?

31 Comments

Filed under Travellers' tales

31 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…’ ?

  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

  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

  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.

Leave a Reply to Mats Henricson Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>