Tag Archives: Windsor Hotel

An eyewitness to the burning of Shepheard’s

Another curiosity discovered in the archives of the American University in Cairo. In an old alumni newsletter I saw a notice for the death of Claude Feninger, who was described as the last manager of the old Shepheard’s hotel. Really? I’d never heard of him. A little googling and I find that it’s more or less true and that Claude even wrote an autobiography, Sang Froid: Keeping My Cool in the International Hotel Business, much of which can be read online.

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Born in Cairo of an Egyptian father of Swiss descent and a Neapolitan mother, after completing his education Claude had to wait until the end of World War II before taking the first boat out of Alexandria. He was bound for the Ecole des Hoteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland. After a brief experience managing a small hotel in a Swiss resort town, he returned to Cairo at the age of 25 to become the ‘resident manager’ of Shepheard’s, working under general manger Antoine Foester.

You can’t trust everything Claude writes. For instance he says Shepheard’s was the first hotel built in the world, which is a ludicrous claim to make – it wasn’t even the first in Cairo. He also says that he started work on 12 October 1952, which he calls ‘the best day of my life’. Except Shepheard’s burned down on 26 January 1952. I think that’s probably a typo and was meant to be 12 October 1951. Claude knows very well when Shepheard’s burned down because he was there and he describes the day in his book.

He relates how that Saturday began with Mrs Blanche Weinberg, a long-term resident, knocking on his office door to tell him she was off to spend the day in Maadi with her daughter-in-law. Twenty minutes later there is a call from Mr Ibrahim Yehya, the minister of culture and a family friend. He says there are anti-British riots breaking out in the city and that Shepheard’s may well be targeted. Claude thanks him for the information and goes to find his boss, Antoine Foester. Foester can’t be found so Claude takes his passkey and goes through the hotel, instructing all the guests to leave what they’re doing and quickly assemble in the gardens at the back of the hotel. By noon, the streets are filled with rioters chanting, ‘Death to England. Death to the puppet Farouk’. Black smoke rises above the surrounding streets. Nubian staff are posted at the entrances to the hotel but the rioters force their way in and start fires all over the hotel. As the flames take hold, 250 guests are in the garden, terrified. They need to be evacuated and taken through the city streets to somewhere safe. Claude steps up on a chair and shouts at the rioters. ‘You’ve done your damage. Now I need some help take the guests to safety.’ He was, he says, swamped by willing volunteers.

Once the flames died down three bodies were found in the ruins. Two were looters found in the basement where the hotel kept its silver. The other was found in suite 302. It was Mrs Weinberg, who must have changed her mind about going to Maadi and returned to the hotel. Claude had never checked her room because he thought she was out for the day.

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In the picture above (click to enlarge), the streetfront terrace is at the bottom of the picture with steps in the middle leading up to the main entrance. The domed structure is the Moorish hall. To the left, beyond the burned-out Shepheard’s, is the Windsor hotel, still in business today.

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Back at the Windsor

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Photo by Jacobs Cindi

In the 1990s, when I was lucky enough to be paid to travel and write guidebooks for the likes of Lonely Planet, people would occasionally ask, ‘Where’s your favourite place in the world?’ The answer was usually wherever I’d been last, but there were also a couple of immovable regulars I always mentioned: one of these was a coffeehouse in the shadow of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, another was the barrel lounge at the Windsor hotel in Cairo. I’ve no idea if that coffeehouse in Damascus has survived the devastation of recent years but the lounge at the Windsor hotel is definitely intact, and I was back there last week.

If you have never visited the Windsor, it is a time capsule, not just of Cairo, but of a very particular vanished world of steamer trunks, Baedekers and gin & tonic sundowners. The caged lift that carries guest up to the first-floor lounge is still manually operated and may well be the oldest in Egypt. The hotel décor has certainly not changed since the Doss family took over the hotel in 1962 and looks like it hadn’t been changed for a further 30 years before that. In the lounge, the wooden floors are deeply scored with age, the walls are hung with hunting lodge trophies and many of the seats are fashioned from old barrels – hence, the ‘barrel lounge’.

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Photo by Jacobs Cindi

In one corner there is a small flag, red with a white cross, a memento to the former owner from whom Doss purchased the business, a Swiss man named Frey. Last week I was delighted to find William Doss lunching underneath the flag, as he has done for decades, which is something of an achievement considering this year he turned 102. With him were sons Wafik and Wasfi, and daughter Marileez, who now together oversee the hotel. We drank tea together and I caught up on news.

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From left to right: Gadi Farfour, me, Marileez Doss Suter, Wafik Doss and William Doss

I first visited the barrel lounge in 1988, shortly after arriving in Cairo, and was a regular for a few years. During the 1990 football World Cup, the last in which Egypt participated, I watched some of the games at the Windsor – including the one in which England inevitably went out to Germany on penalties. Even without the football, it was a lively place at that time. Every night one particular large table would be filled by a boisterous crowd of actors, directors and hangers-on from the theatres on nearby Emad ed-Din Street. It went a little quiet in the 2000s – as, sadly, did the hotel side of the business – but on current evidence the bar seems to have bounced back into life. While we were there an Egyptian crew was shooting a short film in the stairwell, just the latest, Marileez said, in a string of recent shoots taking advantage of the Windsor’s period charms (taking advantage in a very literal sense in one case, when a production crew walked off with a couple of the hotel’s armchairs and the lid of an antique urn).

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A scene from the filming on the day of our visit

There have been one or two changes Marileez was pleased to point out to me. The faded old Swissair posters that used to hang on the stairs have been replaced with new Windsor hotel posters inspired by the luggage labels in Grand Hotels of Egypt. The cover of that book has also been framed and hung on a column in the lounge, as has the book’s title page, which I inscribed to the Doss family during the launch party, held in this very place in 2012. I’m hugely honoured to have a lingering presence in this wonderful old establishment.

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Photo by Jacobs Cindi

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For anyone who has never been to the Windsor, I urge you to pay it a visit next time you’re in Cairo. Meanwhile, with Egypt now qualified for the 2018 World Cup, I’m thinking I might book a room for next June and cheer them on again from a seat in the barrel lounge.

The photos in this post come from the Windsor’s Facebook page. Those credited to Jacobs Cindi are from the website of French newspaper Le Monde, where they accompanied a recent article on the hotel

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Back at the Parisiana

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A few years back I posted a request for information on the Parisiana, the bar-restaurant that used to occupy the ground floor of the Windsor Hotel building. It received a bunch of responses in the comments section. A few days ago, another comment was posted.

“My maiden name is Djerdjerian, and I am the grand-daughter of Garabed Djerdjerian, one of four partners who together owned and ran the famous Parisiana. The family names of the other partners were Tekeyian, Ibishian, and Ayrandjian. In 1952 Parisiana was burned down during the revolution, and the following year my grandfather passed away and my father Arto Djerdjerian took his place (although the restaurant was still closed). In 1954, the Parisiana was reopened by Levon and Senpat Ibishian (sons of the original partner), who were then joined by my father. The restaurant was nationalised in (I think) 1965/66, closed and turned into a governmental communications office. I remember Parisiana as a young girl of 12/13 years old, always with great fondness.”

I asked the lady – whose name is Rita Batchelor – if she had any photos and she kindly sent the three images below, as well as a scan of the clipping, ‘Enjoy Cairo Café for 50 Cents,’ which comes from a January 1961 edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune (click to enlarge to a readable size), a time when 50 cents went a long way.

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Five years

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This coming weekend marks five years since the first post on this site (which was about four months before the publication of Grand Hotels of Egypt). To mark the occasion I’d like to say a big thank you to everybody that regularly checks in here, and particularly to all those people who’ve left comments or have emailed me directly. Every time my enthusiasm has flagged and the posts have dropped off, there’s been a fascinating or gratifying communication from someone out there and I’ve been inspired to dig up more material to share.

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It really is the interaction that keeps this site going. I’ve got a big kick out of hearing from the distant relatives of some of the hoteliers and other characters that I write about in my books and from people whose ancestors travelled to Egypt way back when, especially those who’ve shared diaries and photos with me. I’ve also loved fielding some of the intriguing requests for information that regularly come my way – helping to identify a hotel in Alexandria hotel for an exhibition about Paul Klee in Germany or show what a letterhead from Shepheard’s would have looked like back in 1914 for a dramatisation of one of HP Lovecraft’s weird tales. The query about tessellated pentagonal tiling at the Cataract flummoxed me, though. Next year I’ll also be loaning some of the bits and pieces I own relating to Egypt’s old hotels to a couple of museum exhibitions here in the UK, one on an amateur Egyptologist who travelled to Egypt in 1886/7 and 1890/1 and the other devoted to Winston Churchill in the Middle East. More on those nearer the time.

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Meanwhile, please keep checking back regularly, and keep the comments and emails coming. It’s good to know I’m not alone in my obsessions. (The photos, by the way, are from the launch party for Grand Hotels, which took place at Cairo’s Windsor hotel.)

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Memories of the Parisiana

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When a few years ago I interviewed the owner of Cairo’s Windsor hotel, William Doss (who was then 94), his earliest memories of the place were not of the hotel but of the bar–restaurant that once occupied the ground floor. This was the Parisiana, one of several popular night spots on Alfi Bey, along with the neighbouring Kursaal and the St James. As a student in the 1930s, Doss told me, he would go each Thursday evening to sit at one of the Parisiana’s pavement tables and order a beer for two and a half piasters. The café also appears in the memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, as the venue where the parents of author Lucette Lagnado first met: “Edith was sitting outdoors at La Parisiana, Cairo’s most popular café, enjoying a café turque with her mother, when she noticed the man in white.”

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The café is, of course, long gone. It was ‘foreign-owned’, and in the wake of the 1952 Revolution it was either nationalized or the owner just sold up and quit. Doss remembers the space becoming a showroom for a state collective of furniture makers before being occupied by the Ministry of Communication. This week I received an email from the great-granddaughter of a/the former owner of the Parisiana, an Armenian called Kapriel Ayrandjian. This lady wonders if I have any further information on the Parisiana and/or her great-grandfather. Unfortunately I don’t but I wonder if anybody reading this blog has? If so, please do get in touch.

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Judging a book by its cover

So Grand Hotels of Egypt is out. We had the launch party last Sunday at the Windsor Hotel in Cairo and I’m sorry if you weren’t there because it was a terrific evening (thank you Neil, Trevor and Nabila at the AUC Press). First reactions to the book were fantastic – although, at this point nobody had, of course, read any of it and it was all based on appearances. A lot of people, in particular, said how much they liked the cover. But the praise wasn’t unanimous. Word was someone had objected to the fact it shows a dark-skinned waiter serving white folk. I thought nothing of this until the following morning when Gadi (the book’s designer) and myself were interviewed by a local journalist. He and I had a straightforward chat about the subject matter of the book but when it came to Gadi’s turn to talk about the design the very first question was, ‘Why did you chose to show a black servant on the cover?’

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The cover was chosen because it’s a striking and appropriate image. It’s a genuine poster from the 1930s and the scene is of the terrace at the Mena House, one of the hotels covered at length in the book. The original poster (above) was designed by the graphic artist Ihap Hulusi Gorey. Born in Cairo in 1898 to a Turkish family, Hulusi left Egypt to study art in Munich before setting up his own studio in Istanbul in the latter half of the 1920s. He was one of the first graphic designers of modern Turkey and a fervent supporter of nationalist leader Kemal Atatürk. He was hugely influential, initially producing endless propaganda and educational posters for the new republic, later doing a lot of work for major international brands such as Cinzano, Haig whisky and Fernet Branca. At some point he was also commissioned to produce a series of posters for the Egyptian government and Misr Air, some of which are below.

The poster we used for the cover of my book is an artfully executed portrayal of the hotel life of the time: the dignified sufragi in uniform bearing tea things on a silver tray past a table of pale-skinned foreigners enjoying afternoon refreshments. A bit of a cliché perhaps, but beautifully done and very evocative of the era covered by the book. Ironically, the Thirties graphic style aside, the thing that really dates the image is the clothing and accessories of the Westerners – the pipe, trilby and ladies’ suit hat. The fancy garb worn by the waiter – or a variant of – is still uniform in plenty of upmarket hotels in Egypt today, where serving staff are still often Upper Egyptians starting careers on the lower rungs of the ladder. Is this racism? I don’t think so, I think most people would just recognise it as tourism.

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