I’ve posted before about the various Egypt-related street names and monuments scattered across Paris. If you get a kick out of discovering these sorts of things – and I do – then I have a hotel recommendation. The Hôtel du Sentier opened just this summer at the splendid address of 2 place du Caire. It’s housed in the block that also contains one of the entrances to the very fine Passage du Caire, which was built in 1798 to celebrate (a little prematurely) Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. (Neighbouring streets are called rue du Caire, rue d’Aboukir, rue du Nil and rue d’Alexandrie.) The façade is decorated with ancient Egypt references, notably some heads of Hathor, to which street artists have recently added touches of their own – see photo below.
Previously the area was shabby and rundown – the passage, which is the longest in Paris is still filled with a motley assortment of discount clothing stores, dry cleaners and wholesale mannequin outlets and is in bad repair – but the neighbourhood is definitely on the up. Sentier has become a hotspot for tech start-ups and is now hip. Just a couple of years ago the place du Caire was a forgotten space, now it’s buzzing, the pavement split between seating for a new Californian-inspired café and Le Champollion, the in-house café of the hotel.
As for the hotel, I haven’t actually been inside but I read that it has 30 rooms spread out over six floors. They overlook the glass roofs of the passage or place du Caire. From the photos it looks extremely chic. I didn’t dare click on the prices.
At the Musée des 30 années (Museum of the 1930s) on the outskirts of Paris I came across the above maquettes. The two sculptures are each about the size of a suitcase. I stopped to look at them because they’re beautifully streamlined examples of Art Deco styling. Then I glanced at the information on the plaque and was surprised to read they were working models for a proposed monument to the defence of the Suez Canal. What monument? What defence? So, of course, I went straight to Google and it transpires the monument was actually built, and there it stands, forty metres high, the height of a tower block, beside the Suez Canal near Ismailia. To my embarrassment, the author of guidebooks to Egypt for Lonely Planet and National Geographic, I’ve never seen it. Never even knew of its existence.
It’s the work of Raymond Delamarre (1890–1986), a French sculptor, known particularly for his war memorials, and the French architect Michel Roux-Spitz. Together they won a competition organised in 1925 by the Suez Canal Company to produce a monument celebrating the force of British, Egyptian, French and Italian troops who in 1915 repulsed an attack on the Canal by the Ottoman Turkish army. The monument takes the form of two huge winged angels in rose granite placed at the base of two pylons. The angels carry flaming torches and stand, in Delamarre’s words as ‘guardians of the country’s destiny’. The monument is designed be seen by ships passing through the Canal. Its inauguration took place on 3 February 1930. A special medal was struck to celebrate the event, designed by Delamarre himself.
That makes a second reason to head back out to Ismailia next time I’m in Egypt (the first being George’s restaurant, of course).
You can find out much more about the project here (in French but with some great images). Click here for a post on that other piece of impressive French sculpture originally also intended for the Suez Canal.
Still on the theme of divas. I was at the recently reopened Musée Carnavalet in the Marais district of Paris, a beguiling labyrinth of grand old spaces devoted to the history of the city. In a room documenting Parisian city life of the mid 20th century I found the above painting of Suzy Solidor. She was most definitely a diva and there is an Egypt connection.
She was born Suzanne Louise Marie Marion, later changing her name to Suzy Solidor when she became a cabaret star and eventual owner of a number of infamous Parisian nightclubs. No surprise really that the Carnavalet should have a portrait of her because there were many of them made, mostly at the request of Madam Solidor herself. She was an obsessive collector of her own image, a Kim Kardashian of the 1930s, documenting herself in painted portraits rather than selfies. She commissioned portraits from artists as diverse as Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, Kees van Dongen, Tamara de Lempicka (below) and Francis Bacon. They hung in her clubs, where she and her guest artists would perform in front of them. After the Second World War, she was convicted as a collaborator because she’d kept her nightclubs open during German occupation and willingly, it was said, served German officers. She had to leave France and travelled to the US, taking her favourite portraits with her. By the time she died in 1983, she was completely forgotten.
I first came across her name when she was mentioned in connection with the burning down of Shepheard’s hotel, in January 1952. Some of the newspaper accounts of the event record that one of the ﬂeeing guests was Suzy Solidor. Some mention that she lost her jewellery in the fire; some reported later that some of her gems were recovered. Since then I’ve always been intrigued to know what she was doing in Cairo. Was she looking to add a selfie painted by Mahmoud Said to her collection? It’s unlikely we’ll ever know. Still, Solidor’s presence at Shepheard’s suggests that the hotel retained an air of glamour until the end.
Anyone lucky enough to be in Paris between now and 26 September should get themselves over to the Institute du Monde Arabe, currently staging an exhibition called ‘Divas: D’Oum Kalthoum à Dalida’. The show is a celebration of some of the iconic women singers of the Arab World, including Asmahan, Warda, Fairouz, Dalida and, of course, Um Kolsum. It’s beautifully presented with lots of old magazine covers, records, posters and photographs. There are film clips of trams rattling along Cairo streets filled with men in tarboushes and of café terraces thronged by elegantly dressed couples to set the scene. Plenty of clips from classic movies, too, as the golden age of Egyptian cinema was intimately linked to music. Early displays highlight the achievements of early Arab feminists, including a room with period desk and furniture devoted to Hoda Shaarawi and displays on Rose al-Youssef, but it’s really all about the emotion, the joy and, above all, the glamour, particularly on the exhibition’s upper floor, reached via a processional staircase draped with crimson-red. Up here, in a procession of theatrically spotlit spaces, are dresses and jewellery worn by Um Kolsum, kitschy costumes fashioned for Sabah, and personal items once owned by Warda, along with displays devoted to dancer-actors including Samia Gamal and Tahiyya Carioca. And then there’s the music, which plays constantly, changing from room to room.
The final rooms of the exhibition look at the divas’ influence on a younger generation of artists and musicians. There’s a film by Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil, who began his career shooting portraits inspired by early Egyptian cinema, and footage of composer Wael Koudaih and visual artist Randa Mirza who together perform as Rayess Bek, sampling music and dialogue from classic Egyptian movies and setting them to contemporary beats.
For anyone who can’t make the exhibition and who speaks French, there s an excellent catalogue, which can always be ordered through Amazon – search for Divas, d’Oum Kalthoum à Dalida. Even if your French isn’t great, it’s worth buying for the images alone.
I was in Paris last week and I went to the cinema – not just any cinema, but the magnificent cinema above. It’s a place I’ve passed it many times on trips to Paris over the years, but previously the building was always derelict and boarded up. Apparently, it had been that way since the 1980s. But recently it has undergone a three-year long restoration and the regenerated Louxor – Palais de Cinema opened in April this year.
It’s a beautiful example of Egyptian-inspired Art Deco that followed in the wake of the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – except that this theatre was built the year before Carter’s epic find, in 1921. One theory is, it was designed this way to capitalise on the massive success of the 1917 silent film Cleopatra staring Theda Bara.
After the cinema closed, the building was a disco and a gay nightclub. Now it’s back to showing films. Good films, too, with an eclectic programme heavy on arthouse and world cinema, the latter reflecting the make-up of neighbouring multi-racial Barbès district.
The Ancient Egyptian theming isn’t limited to the mosaics and columns on the façade – the main auditorium also has a painted relief spanning the whole of the room and moldings of pharaonic heads. I particularly loved the 1920s bar up on the third floor, which has a small outdoor terrace from where you can see the roof-line mosaics close up – or, if you are facing the other way, the domes of nearby Sacré-Cœur. You can use the bar even if you aren’t intending to watch a film. The Louxor is in front of Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station, one stop from the Gare du Nord.