Tag Archives: Nile Hilton

Tahrir as it might have been

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I’ve recently being doing some work in the American University in Cairo archives, which is where I found the above drawing (click to enlarge). It was in a folder of miscellaneous documents relating to the AUC buildings on Tahrir Square. It shows an alternative reality for a Tahrir Square that might have been. On it are some recognizable landmarks, notably the Egyptian Museum, and the blocks labeled Semiramis Hotel and AUC, while the block labeled ‘Municipality’ corresponds to the Mugamma, Cairo’s hated administrative fortress. What is labeled ‘Parliament’ was at the time the plan was made (it is dated 14 June 1950) the Qasr el-Nil barracks, evacuated by the British Army in 1947 and torn down in 1951–52 to be replaced by the Nile Hilton. (Another document in the AUC archive, dated 1948, refers to a plan to replace the barracks with Cairo’s answer to New York’s Central Park.) None of the other structures shown on the plan – the Arab Museum, Broadcasting House, National Library, Cultural Museum, Premier’s House – were ever built. The drawing is titled ‘View of Proposed Development’ and it is signed JS Badeau – John Badeau was then president of AUC. Why would the president of the American University be replanning Cairo’s central square? Was this ever a serious plan or was it just a bit of presidential doodling? There is nothing else in the archive’s folder relating to the plan and it is a mystery. I’d love to know more.

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Holiday at the Nile Hilton

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Toward the end of last year I posted some thoughts on revisiting the old Nile Hilton on Tahrir Square, now the Ritz-Carlton (here). I wrote a little about the hotel’s heritage as the first modern international hotel in Cairo. Well, just recently I came across a fascinating piece written by someone who was at the hotel’s launch back in early 1959. He was part of a press junket organised by the Hilton group composed of prominent columnists, journalists, and famous actors and actresses, all flown out from New York to Cairo for the big glitzy opening bash. Also in attendance was President Nasser and his special guest Marshal Josip Broz Tito, president of what was then Yugoslavia.

The piece, which I include in full below (it’s long but it’s an interesting read), originally ran in the July 1959 issue of Holiday. This was a sumptuous and glamorous magazine that in the immediate post-World War II-era did for travel what Vogue did for fashion. It was big, glossy, packed with gorgeous photography and noted for using serious literary talent, names like Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac, packing them off on all-expenses vacation with a brief to file a lengthy report to the editors. You can read more about the background to the magazine in this 2013 Vanity Fair piece.

Anyway, here’s the Nile Hilton story, which was written by Ted Patrick, the editor of Holiday. Incidentally, the photos do not come from the magazine – the clipping I saw was text only, no images – but were found tucked away in dusty corners of the internet. The pic at the top of the post is supposedly taken from the balcony of the Nile Hilton but do the Pyramids really loom that large seen from the east bank of the Nile?

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The cover of the July 1959 issue of Holiday

ONE AFTERNOON SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, a group of writers, columnists, editors, actors, actresses, society people, celebrity and celebrity-fringe characters gathered in the Sert Room of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. We were lavishly entertained at a buffet luncheon by a tall, broad, handsome, Texas-type gentleman who was singled out for very special attention by Sert Room captains and guests. The Texas-like gentleman happened to own the hotel. He was Conrad N. Hilton. He had invited us to take part in the opening ceremonies and festivities for the newest hotel in his rapidly growing empire, the Nile Hilton in Cairo, and the luncheon was our send-off party. The group was cleverly chosen to give a nice balance of glamour, substance, beauty, gaiety and dignity to the affair, and included such prominent names as Hedda Hopper [Hollywood gossip columnist], Mrs. Earl Warren and her daughter Virginia [wife and daughter of the Chief Justice of the United States]; Jane Russell [Hollywood royalty], Cobina Wright [former model and actress], Van Johnson [film and TV actor], Earl Wilson [gossip columnist], Jeanne Crain [actress], Leonard Lyons [newspaper columnist], Hugh O’Brian [actor], Leo Carrillo [actor], Martha Hyer [actress], Robert Cummings [actor], Robert Sterling [actor] and his wife Anne Jeffreys, and Diahann Carroll [actress].

At four o’clock the show was ready and put on the road. To the popping of flash bulbs and scratching of pens signing autographs, we piled on buses and were driven to Idlewild. Every last shred of responsibility—baggage, passports, tickets—was daintily removed from our shoulders. I was given seat 15B. Next to me, in 15A, sat Hedda Hopper who, hats and all, was to be my seat companion for the trip. It turned out to be a most happy arrangement, and even gave me a conversational ploy for future cocktail or dinner parties. If Miss Hopper’s name should come up, I can say, offhandedly, “Interesting thing—Hedda never snores or mumbles in her sleep, and she never sleeps with her mouth open. Very attractive qualities.”

The atmosphere on the plane was nice and relaxed. Everyone knew everyone else, and everyone had something to contribute. Rarely has such beauty been assembled on a plane, and those air travelers of us who had been accustomed to a pulchritude ration of exactly two stewardesses beamed, and sighed, and dreamed.

The plane put down at Madrid late next morning, and again magic, unseen and efficient hands protected us from all the bedevilments customs and immigration officials can dream up. At the hotel there was a large crowd of autograph seekers and gapers in the lobby, friendly and well-behaved. Here, too, the tall, broad, handsome, Texas-type gentleman was singled out for very special attention, for here, too, he owned the hotel, which happened to be the plush Castellana Hilton.

We went to our rooms to freshen up, then were escorted to a Castilian luncheon outside Madrid. Here Leo Carillo appeared for the first time in his Spanish cowboy outfit. He was well accepted by the crowd as obviously his costume groped toward the Spanish.

The lunch was very fine indeed and we were suitably lulled into a siesta mood by an orchestra which played appropriate Spanish songs from an overhanging balcony. That evening our group took over, or more accurately, had given over to us, the entire Rendez Vous, the night club of the Hotel Castellana Hilton.

A flawless dinner was followed by night-club entertainment of rare quality. The flamenco singing and dancing were as good as you’d hear and see anywhere, the orchestra was first-rate, the Spanish dancers were seductive in the Spanish tradition, and the whole was one big, happy, family party. And there was no check.

Our next stop was Cairo, the principal destination of the trip. On approaching Cairo, Tex Butler, the very special pilot, received permission to circle the Pyramids and Sphinx, and the city before landing. The usual mob at the airport enthusiastically greeted the members of the group as they descended the stairs. Leo Carillo had on his third Spanish cowboy outfit (he had worn a white one in the daytime in Madrid, and a black one in the evening) but the Arabs, whose superb horsemen have probably the most dazzling riding costumes in the world, were not impressed. Having invented geometry, they have, I am sure, a word for square. Jane Russell, who is known to have an effect on even sluggish western blood, was just too overwhelming for the fiery Arab blood. They mobbed her, enveloped her, and it took a squad of cops to get her to the bus, where she landed shaken and ashen but still fully robed.

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Jane Russell arriving at Cairo Airport, 28 Feb 1959

The approach to the Nile Hilton through the main square of Cairo was spectacular. The hotel is an outstanding example of modern architecture but designed to blend beautifully with the part of the city which surrounds it. The first sight was something of a shock as the hotel definitely was still in the process of being built. Workmen were all over the lobby, plaster and plaster dust all over the floor, and the song of hammers, planes and riveting machines filled the air. But the elevators worked and each guest was ushered into a completely finished, attractive room.

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Jane Russell signing autographs at the Nile Hilton

The official opening of the hotel took place on a Sunday. At 11:00 A.M. there were ceremonies in the hotel plaza facing the huge square, ribbons were cut and speeches were made, movie and TV cameras ground and flash bulbs popped, a crowd surged and cheered and Colonel Nasser, with his guest. Marshal Tito, appeared to add an official note to the event.

Lunch was stag, attended by the masculine members of the junket group, hotel officials, Cairo business leaders and members of the press. Speeches followed luncheon as inexorably as the main course followed soup. The head man of the Misr Hotels Company of Egypt, which is deeply involved in the Nile Hilton, spoke eloquently and inspiringly in Egyptian. At least, I assume it was eloquent and inspiring. Two other Egyptian gentlemen followed suit—so did the translations. The preliminaries were finished and the time came for the main event, Conrad Hilton.

Mr. Hilton, having the size, presence, voice, and writer for it, gave forth in true oratorical style. It being George Washington’s Birthday, he and his writer naturally felt they should play with the-father-of-his-country theme. They did. And whom does this indicate, or what juxtaposition does it indicate, February twenty-second and Cairo? Exactly. George Washington and Colonel Nasser. In Mr. Hilton’s speech the two were made as one. George Washington, the liberator of his country. Colonel Nasser, the liberator of his country. George Washington, the father of his people. Colonel Nasser, the father of his people. Some Americans shuddered visibly. Most Egyptians cheered lustily. Oratorically, it was a good ploy. Historically, it might even turn out to be moderately true.

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Nasser and Tito in the lobby of the Nile Hilton – the frieze is still there

That night there was an informal dinner in the Belvedere Room, high up in the hotel, its huge windowed front looking out on the silver-flowing Nile. There was an incomparable buffet. There was also a Cuban orchestra with a jumping-jack leader, raised strictly on corn in his native land, and if by now he isn’t right back there I’m a poor reader of yawns and Conrad Hilton’s facial expressions.

On Tuesday night was the Grand Ball, formal, attended by the Hilton guests and the social elite of Cairo. The social elite of Cairo is a most remarkable assemblage. The men were magnificent. The women, with their Mideast sultry complexion and beauty, held their own superbly with the lovelies of Hollywood. They were exquisitely gowned, maybe with oil money, maybe with dough from trinkets they’d got from Tutankhamen’s tomb, maybe from just Cairo-earned gold.

Lining the majestic grand stairway to the Jewel of the Nile Room were early-teenage girls with torches exuding light and incense. Special costumes had been designed for them—long black stockings, black wigs, bright orange short shorts and tight bodices. Both girls and costumes were extremely well chosen; and walking up between them and their lighted torches I could understand the aging Caesar’s infatuation for the child Cleopatra, as well as the thesis dwelt on in Lolita. There was a lovely buffet, there was dancing to good music, and there was the inescapable belly dancing, in solo and in multiple. You probably have heard a lot about the entrancing and aphrodisiacal quality of belly dancing. I’ll tell you the truth about it. It’s a bore. You can get a bellyful of belly dancing very early and easily—I’d say twenty-four hours’ normal exposure would do it nicely. Along about 2:30 a.m., as the last strains of music faded, and the last beautiful gown trailed down the stairs, the Nile Hilton was officially open.

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Nasser and Tito on the roof of the Nile Hilton, between them, Leo ‘Cowboy’ Carillo

The Nile Hilton is an ingenious international setup. Although American knowledge put it up, the hotel is actually owned by the Egyptians. The Americans get a comfortable chunk for running it, and the Egyptians take the lion’s share of the profits. Consequently, everybody is happy.

Art Buchwald summed it up pretty well in a talk he was asked to give to the Arab students at the American University of Cairo. Art explained the setup, and why we were there. Then he said, “Look, the next time you feel the urge to do a little rioting, and to bust out with a bit of anti-American feeling, don’t smash up the Nile Hilton, because it’s yours!” They loved it.

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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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