The Nile Hilton Incident

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Cairo’s Zawya Cinema announced this week that Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident, which was set to screen as part of a festival programme, is not going to be shown after all. The cinema cited ‘involuntary circumstances’. In other words, state censorship. Shame. It’s a very good film. I saw it in Paris over summer – appropriately enough at the gorgeous Louxor cinema – where, as Le Caire confidentiel, it seemed to be doing well, enjoying extended runs all over town. The screening I attended was a sell-out.

The issue is almost certainly the film’s head-on depiction of police corruption. At the crime scene that gives the film its English title, the investigating officers sit around a hotel room with a young woman lying in a pool of blood at their feet, while they blithely use the toilet and have room service deliver food. It’s comical but also chilling – they aren’t just trashing a crime scene, they’re blatant in their disinterest in investigating this violent death. Somehow, it feels wholly believable.

Also believable is the film’s portrayal of an incendiary Cairo, immediately prior to the January 2011 Revolution, this even though Saleh shot most of the film in Casablanca, after he failed to secure a permit to shoot in Egypt. (Although the real Cairo features in some guerilla film-making, shot stealthily from a moving car.)

I’ve no idea where in Casablanca stands in for the Nile Hilton, location for the murder that kicks off the film, but, really, any anonymous interior would do. I have never been a fan of the hotel that was the Nile Hilton, and neither the passing of time (the building turned 58 this year) or the new love currently being shown for Brutalist architecture is likely to alter my view.

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The Hilton landed in Cairo in 1959, the first international hotel in the post-WWII Middle East and the second Hilton International after Istanbul’s (1955). It was a new form of sleek, all-mod-cons hotel for the nascent jet age. As the ad put it, ‘Modern as a TWA Jetstream’. The Hiltons were quite literally ‘little Americas’, constructed in key foreign cities, in Conrad Hilton’s own words, ‘to show the countries most exposed to Communism the other side of the coin’. With lawns, swimming pools, tennis courts, cocktail lounges, air-conditioning, international phone lines, iced water, cheeseburgers and soda fountains, they were adverts for a bountiful American way of life.

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If the Nile Hilton wasn’t the first modernist structure in Cairo, it was certainly one of the first. It was one of three adjacent structures erected by Nasser’s government on the site of the former British Army barracks: the Arab League building, the hotel and the Cairo Municipality, which later became the NDP headquarters until it was set ablaze during the Revolution and subsequently demolished. In line with Hilton International policy, the hotel was constructed with Egyptian state funds and operated on a lease by the American hotel chain. Which is all well and good: why shouldn’t the new Egyptian government have a new shiny modern international hotel?

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My issue is that these hotels were deliberately designed to dominate the city – the Nile Hilton was Cairo’s tallest building on its completion – yet at the same time they stood in deliberation isolation. Earlier hotels, like the Continental-Savoy, Semiramis and Shepheard’s, may have been ‘grand’ but they were very much a part of the city, and they engaged with it. Their outdoor terraces provided a space from which hotel guests not only observed but interacted with life on the street. By contrast, the new Hilton was intended as a sealed bubble, protecting guests from the volatile and possibly hostile environment outside. Most of the 400 rooms on the 14 or so floors turned their backs on central Cairo and faced toward the distant Pyramids and desert. Visitors were encouraged to literally overlook modern Cairo in favour of its antique past. Helpfully, the Egyptian Museum was right next door. This was the start of a shift that now sees many new hotels now being built out near the Pyramids, with the Egyptian government obliging by siting the new Grand Egyptian Museum at the Giza Plateau. In the very near future no tourist will have any reason to visit central Cairo.

The Nile Hilton closed in 2009. Following extensive renovations it reopened in 2015 under new management as the Nile Ritz-Carlton. The rebranded hotel is even more remote from the city than it ever was. The semi-public shopping plaza that used to connect the Nile Hilton to Tahrir Square is gone. Now, once you pass through the security block there is just an empty expanse, devoid of people and life, to cross in order to reach the lobby. Few guests, you imagine, enter or leave this hotel on foot. Inside, the hotel has undergone a massive upgrade – the Ritz-Carlton is a far more upmarket proposition than a Hilton. With its marble and carpets, faux Oriental trimmings, chintzy art and OTT floral displays, it is less ‘little America’ than ‘wannabe Dubai’.

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Dubai is, of course, where the real-life case that inspired The Nile Hilton Incident occurred – the 2008 murder of Lebanese diva Suzanne Tamim by former police officer, Mohsen al-Sukkari, who was hired by Egyptian tycoon Hisham Talaat Moustafa for the sum of two million Egyptian pounds. Al-Sukkari was sentenced to 25 years in jail, Talaat Moustafa to 15. After serving just nine years of his sentence, Talaat Moustafa was released this June, pardoned by President Sisi.

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