Flashback to Cairo, 1973: No more gold at the Golden

27th November 2022 |

I don’t know now who it was that sent me to the Golden Hotel in Cairo, but it was an inspired recommendation. Right in the centre of the city, on a busy but fashionable street, it should have been too expensive, but despite the noble façade the rooms were quite spartan and the facilities very basic. In reality it was pretty run down and although I don’t remember any cockroaches, I’m sure there were some around.

Even so the manager, Amin Simaika, worked mightily to keep it clean. I had only intended to stay a couple of days, but in fact I got stuck there for over a week, hoping in vain for permission to ride up the Nile to Aswan, and during that time Amin became a good friend. He endeared himself to me immediately by bringing the motorcycle into the hotel, relieving me of the biggest of my problems.

Golden Hotel, Cairo, 1973

I spent most of my days on fruitless missions to the Government Press office in pursuit of a permit, but although they didn’t accuse me of being an Israeli spy – which had happened to me twice in one day in Alexandria – I was obviously viewed with suspicion. And in fact I have to admit, retrospectively, they may have saved me from a nasty fate because the population had been raised to a high pitch of ardour by the war. The cities along the Nile, like El Minya, Asyut and Luxor, became infamous years later for massacres perpetrated by fundamentalist Muslims and any foreigner would have been suspect.

The evenings I usually spent with Amin and Alan, a very English young man with blond hair, a slightly posh accent and a sardonic manner whom Amin was convinced was an MI6 agent. We played a lot of chess, which I discovered to my surprise I was quite good at, and learned as much as I could about what was going on.

Amin was a Copt – that is to say, a Christian – which put him and his sect somewhat at odds with the Muslim population. His uncle, who actually owned the hotel, was a very distinguished old gent called Faris Serafim whose family had founded the city of El Minya. He told of his great grandfather who was “keeper” of a village in the reign of Mohamad Ali. The villagers hatched a plot to murder him rather than pay taxes. He escaped, but they claimed he had run off with their taxes and a price was put on his head.

However, he made his way down the Nile and somehow contrived a meeting with Ali when the guards were some way off.

“Surely you know,” said Ali, “that I have put a price on your head?”

“You can have it for nothing,” was the reply, “if you don’t believe my story.”

The upshot was that he promised to double the tax returns if he was allowed to found his own village, and did so. The village became El Minya, and his family became very wealthy: Sufficiently wealthy, according to Alan, to give a visiting Cardinal a dinner for forty off gold plate. But most of the wealth was confiscated by Nasser at the revolution.

Faris was at Oxford in 1919 with Nehru and other famous men of that generation, who founded an International Club and toured England – Cardiff and Bradford were mentioned – to speak in halls and churches about their respective countries.

In my notebook I wrote:

“Cairo was the first city I’d come to in which fate as much as mortar seemed to fix the fabric.

In Tunis the poorest appeared to have some sense of social movement, could dream and hustle a bit. But here the impression was different. Cairo was intensely populated – 6 million in a relatively small space. Many of them – I don’t know how many – were newly arrived from the farms around and were as completely uneducated and unskilled as can be.

I saw them swarming into the city on foot in the morning, hundreds and thousands it seemed, in identical pale blue galabeas, crowding over a footbridge that crosses a big central highway.

Economic inequality is, of course extreme. Despite having kicked out the British, the shadow of the Raj lingers on. My small amount of money buys me luxury.

Not a hundred yards from my hotel is a cake and coffee house called Groppi’s, where a light breakfast of eggs, coffee, toast and marmalade involves the waiter in bringing eleven separate items to the table; a glass of water, a glass containing cutlery and napkins, two heavy silver jugs of coffee and milk, a cup and saucer, a plate of toast, a slab of white butter, a silver pot of marmalade, salt and pepper, and the eggs. My coffee cup comes from the kitchen full of boiling water which is poured out at the last minute.

It takes the waiter, who wears white linen and a turban, an appreciable time to unload the tray. The whole routine, I presume, was prescribed by the British, and the price is 28 pence.

Anyone living here within grasp of a Western income is clearly able to enjoy the best the city can offer, while the poor are just able to subsist on the crumbs he sprinkles in his wake – a penny for guarding the car, twopence for polishing his shoes, a penny for simply being somewhere regularly on the off chance of a service to perform, and so on.

There is little evidence of resentment on one side or contempt on the other. Once the donor has evolved his routine, and his small area of patronage becomes established, the relationships are warm and benevolent on both sides. This mutual respect is fostered by the clear duty imposed on the Moslem by his religion, to donate a distinct fraction of his income or wealth to others in need (10%, I think) The other duties are, to pray five times a day, to keep himself clean – particularly private parts – to do as he would be done by, and to visit Mecca at least once, if he can afford it.”

I finally surrendered all hope of riding the bike to Aswan, and took the train. Just before leaving, Amin asked me if I would carry his sword to Brazil. It was his father’s ceremonial sword (he had been a soldier). Amin was plotting to leave Egypt illegally and couldn’t take anything much with him. Of course I agreed. It fitted next to the umbrella, caused a bit of excitement here and there, and I delivered it a year later in Campinas, as promised.

In Brazil

In Campinas, Brazil in September 1974. You can see the tip of the umbrella, but I had already given the sword to Amin, on the right.