‘May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness.’
– from the ‘Wishing Cup’ of Tutankhamun, inscribed on the headstone of Howard Carter, Archeologist and Egyptologist, 1847- 1939.
‘Run quick, crazy traffic,’ the man warned as he jiggled through six lanes of tooting cars weaving their way around the busy roundabout which frames the famed Tahrir Square.
‘Welcome in Egypt’ he added, his body wobbling and keys jingling, ‘you’re France?’
‘La, Maghreb, Tanja,’ I advised.
With a look of disbelief he kept moving, perplexed by my non Moroccan appearance and ‘whoosh’ we became separated by a large, hooting tour bus and at least four taxis.
This trip to Egypt came about over a cup of coffee in the Cafe de Paris, Tangier, just weeks ago. My wonderful travel companion, Jonathan Dawson had wanted to return after an absence of three years, and I’d never been. Within days, flights were booked and I’d started a file on ‘Um el Dunya,’ which in Arabic means – ‘Cairo, the Mother of the World.’
As the flight began its descent into Cairo, I craned my neck and strained my eyes from my aisle seat as I took in the landscape below. I just knew that Egypt was going to bring a welcome change.
A change that I didn’t understand the value of before I left Morocco.
The Lotus Hotel was built in 1950, and is situated in the heart of downtown Cairo on one of the cities main thoroughfares leading off Tahrir Square, the famed Solim Pasha Street – known today as Talaat Harb Street. According to their website, ‘ the Lotus maintains an authentic art deco ambiance that dates to the founding of the hotel. Today, as then, the Lotus Hotel remains a family-run institution, providing guests with ultimate hospitality and comfort.’
During my stay, the hotel staff constantly reminded me of recent and extensive renovations, and whilst this is probably true, the badge of honour behind the desk which once boasted two brass stars and now displays just one, might suggest that the Lotus is a ‘former two star hotel.’
I couldn’t have been happier there with two single beds, Art Deco furniture, a bedspread printed with teddy bears and a piping hot shower that drenched the lavatory and soaked the loo roll. Emad, head of client relations and probably one of the most patient people I’ve ever met, had the shuffling night porter deliver a desk to my room as soon as I arrived with my laptop and plenty of questions. One night, following a monumental wifi crash, my computer had a sporadic moment of waking up – delivering all sorts of messages through WhatsApp while opening multiple pages on Google, causing all my devices to melt down as soon as they’d reincarnated.
The Lotus is Jono’s preferred hotel in Cairo and it soon became mine as well. He warned that it hadn’t changed since inception and ‘heaven only knows’ what to expect on arrival, but after a quick search on the internet I knew that I was going to be more than fine surrounded by Egyptologists, writers and other travellers who also appreciate the magic of the Lotus Hotel.
Miss Ruth Buchan, a Scottish woman from Perthshire and self proclaimed ‘armchair Egyptologist,’ wears a kilt and a sensible sweater each day teamed with tights and a pair of navy blue creeping court shoes.
Miss Buchan has lived in the Lotus Hotel for 35 years and is showing no signs of ever leaving. When the BBC pulled out of Egypt following the recent revolution, she put away her wireless because only ‘the Beeb’ could accurately tell her what is going on in the world. These days, she spends most of her time sitting in reception pining for an era very much past, nattering to guests about topics varying from the British royal family to the privatisation of the Royal Mail service.
Miss Buchan is rather cross that the Sunday service has been moved to Friday at the church of Saint Andrews, built by the Queen’s Grandfather George and located just fifteen minutes from the hotel. She forms a very important part of the choir of Saint Andrews, and when I found her waiting in reception one morning wearing a floppy straw hat (Marks and Spencer she told me earnestly), she was poised with two magazines dating back to at least 1998 – ‘a gift’ she explained because she felt that I was someone who enjoyed reading.
Each day, as I devoured plates of tahinah and taboulé at the Cairo institution that is Cafe Riche, I imagined Miss Buchan blinking furiously on the sofa in reception back at the hotel, longing for the time when she hopped off the ship in Melbourne on the eve of the Queens coronation. ‘We sailed for weeks on end and when we’d pull into ports in these parts, the crew would bring all sorts of things on board, including poofys,’ she once told me.
‘Poofys?’ I raised my eyebrows.
‘Yes, those wonderful leather things you put your feet on. They were stuffed with god knows what, so we’d empty their insides into the Nile,’ she responded through gritted teeth, before lowering her voice to a whisper as if someone was still following her 70 years later to see if her poofy was stuffed with contraband. Miss Buchan very much lives in the past and is sceptical about everything, including the future.
From resistance to the British occupation around the turn of the 20th century, through to the revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Cafe Riche played and continues to play, a central role in Egypt’s political and cultural life.
Located moments from the hotel, Cafe Riche has survived more than a century of twists and turns in Egypt’s political, economic and literary history.
Founded in 1908, the cafe was given its name in 1914 by French owner Henry Recine. Racine sold it a short time later to Greek businessman and art lover Michael Nicoapolits who added a theatre that would feature prominent artists, including legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.
Today, Cafe Riche is run by the family of its first Egyptian owner fondly remembered as ‘Magdy,’ who purchased the cafe in 1962.
Things have changed around the cafe but inside the clock seems to have stopped. Everything is the same – the paint and photos on the walls, the tables and chairs and the layout of the furniture. Perhaps it is tired and the tablecloths just the teeniest bit filthy, but for the most part it is heavenly and a most wonderful trip back in time.
Cafe Riche was the favoured meeting point for Egypt’s literary celebrities, such as Youssef Idriss, Naguib Mafouz and Yusuf Sibai and modern history makers, including Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mohamed Naguib.
Leaders of the 1919 revolution against the British occupation had secret meetings in the cafe’s basement and used the printing machine, which is still in place, to print political pamphlets.
The cafe was at the heart of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s regime. The young people who staged the uprising would meet in the cafe each day for their free morning coffee and sandwiches, before heading to Tahrir Square where they would join tens of thousands of other anti-Mubarak revolutionaries. It is said that the revolutionaries also had secret meetings in the basement of the cafe in fear of Mubarak’s policemen.
As I wandered around the streets of Cairo, it was almost impossible to imagine tanks stationed on each corner, before they rumbled along the main thoroughfares as street pavings were torn up and used as ammunition against the police when the army really moved in following the chaos that was the revolution of 2011, and the protests that followed 18 months later marking the one year anniversary of then president elect – Mohamed Morsi.
Nowadays the city, and the country as a whole, seems to be in a state of revival under ‘new’ President Sisi. A lot seems to have changed in Egypt, and while there was huge unrest at a time that feels like yesterday, Cairo has returned to its original busy, magnificent, filthy and friendly ways; where open smiles greeted us in every doorway and street corner as we made our way to another street cafe each morning to watch the world go by. A mesh of religions and a bundle of cultures all exist in this bustling city of over 20 million people and from my very early and raw observations, I began to realise that there is a certain amount of magic in Cairo.
So much has changed, but much remains the same, and I find Egyptian people both proud and kind. As Socrates wrote:
‘The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.’
It would appear that this is exactly what the majority of Egyptians seem to be doing.
On the subject of change – a year ago almost to the day – I arrived in Tangier for what I expected to be a week or two following the Easter weekend with Jono. When I boarded the flight from Paris to Marrakech for what was supposed to be a month of warming up in Morocco rather than enduring what had become a long and bitter Parisian winter, I could not for a moment have imagined how much my life was about to change.
Morocco had me at tajine. I soon decided that I loathed mint tea, and figured that the best way to avoid being hassled was to answer each question flung in my direction.
‘Lady, I know you from the last time – I am your Italian friend, remember me?’ a Moroccan man said to me during my first trip into the souk in Marrakech.
‘Yes of course you do,’ I smiled back ‘how are you, and how are your family?’
He darted off in the other direction because his script didn’t involve an extended dialogue about children in Siena, or a Nonna in Rome. Another man once shouted at me ‘are you deaf?’ when I kept walking through the Medina in Tangier, ignoring his greetings of a thousand hellos in as many languages. Turning back, a bit ashamed but smiling, I replied ‘Hello, I wasn’t sure in which language I was supposed to respond.’
My love for tajines soon dwindled and I have since limited them to special occasions – usually a visit to a private house or a celebration. I relish in Friday cous cous, a religion within the religion, and I still loath mint tea.
Darija, the Moroccan version of Arabic, was something that I was keen to learn a ‘kitchen’ version of when I finally took over my flat at the end of Ramadan last year. A Moroccan friend spent a good deal of time helping me learn the very basics of a language that is purely phonetic, not written and not recognised in any other Arabic speaking country. These days, I can hop into a taxi, greet the driver, thank him for pulling over and giggle when he laughs at me when I count my dirhams, ‘khamsa’ I exclaim when we pull over, realising the trip was just five dirhams. ‘You speak the Arabia?’ they always laugh, to which I reply ‘shweya’ meaning, ‘a bit.’
I cannot speak a bit, I can only say hello, goodbye, thank you, and I can count to ten. I also know the word for fifty and I can order half a kilo of cherry tomatoes. Or, half a kilo of anything for that matter. I’m good at telling people that I live in Tangier, ‘anah tanjawia’ and if I feel a twinkling little set of hands rifling through my basket as I go about my daily chores in the Medina, I’ve got the word for ‘shame.’
In many ways I’ve adapted and changed, and for that, I feel better prepared to build on what I’ve learnt as I plan for tomorrow. The past year has taught me about navigating the nuances that form part of living in a culture quite different to my own. I’ve enjoyed embedding myself in a new country and have experienced some inconceivable blows. Having said that, I wouldn’t change anything because I have learnt a great deal about myself and others. As someone said to me recently, we don’t necessarily change, we just get to know each other better.
One of the most important things I have observed about living in a small expatriate community in a foreign land, is to care for each other – with an emphasis on trust and with a willingness to share in the positive and negative experiences that will inevitably come our way. A short year ago, I knew no one in Tangier, and just twelve months later I have a wonderful family made up of people from a variety of cultures and mindsets.
Following a lecture at the American Legation in Tangier on the eve of leaving for Egypt, I limped out of the building on my way to a much anticipated appointment with the podiatrist. The corn that has both plagued my writing and my life for many years now had habitually reared its head – and I had a plane to catch to Cairo the following day. The corn wasn’t invited.
The subject of the lecture was ‘Jews and Judaism in Moroccan society.’ I listened intently as academics drew parallels through music, history, population and the dwindling numbers of Moroccan Jews living in Morocco today. The role between Islam and Judaism was discussed with a particular focus on the way in which the two religions had meshed for centuries, both pre and post independence from the French in 1956.
The final speaker – raised in a household in 1950s Tangier – spoke of Alice, seamstress to her mother and an integral part of the family. The two women would travel to Paris and observe couture and patterns and source the most beautiful silks, before returning to Tangier where Alice would create pieces ‘fit for a catwalk.’ The speaker remembered fondly the relationship between the two women – Alice Jewish, and her mother Islamic, and both of them as close as sisters. When Alice delivered a child of her own, she continued to work with this woman’s mother and when ‘Mother’ went out, Alice fed both children.
‘Mother, how did you feel about me being fed from the breast of a Jewish woman?’ the daughter asked years later.
‘She kept you alive, sharing with you precious food meant solely for her own child and that is what was most admirable,’ came the mother’s response.
Limping through the fruit market as I made my way to the podiatrist, I reflected on these words just as a fight broke out between two men who looked set to kill each other – one had blocked a narrow road with an early 1980s standard issue Mercedes Tangier taxi, and the other was trying to weave his way past in a small Honda van typically used for transporting things like little chairs.
The Honda driver was dressed in a pith helmet and army fatigues and he was really furious. Just as I thought war was about to break out they found a solution, blew each other a kiss, and held their right hands to their hearts in a moment signalling peace. Ducking under brooms and mop buckets, cartons of UHT milk and a stack of strawberries, my bad foot – the one with the corn – was almost run over by a small blue ‘petit taxi.’ A man pushing a trolly stacked high with open cartons of eggs stepped back, signalling me through with his right hand in a moment where he almost lost everything.
‘Shoukran bzaf,’ I thanked him – riddled with reflections, as I limped up the hill to the podiatrist.
Whilst it is early days for me in Egypt, the time to purge and reflect has been more valuable than I could have ever imagined.
On the eve of leaving Morocco for a short break in Egypt, I was all but a bit weary and ready for a change. Never could I have imagined the way in which this country, beginning in Cairo, would wrap her arms around me – so willing to share her magic. Cairo is after all, the Mother of the World.
Last Sunday, during mass in the Catholic Cathedral in the suburb of Zamalek on the residential island of Gezirah (Cairo), I lit four candles with each one allocated a number of thoughts.
That evening, we sat with a small group of elderly men from Yemen and sipped on a glass of beer while sharing their freshly roasted peanuts spread out over the table on newspaper. I watched them smiling and laughing with each other, realising that even when faced of adversity at a time where they are all but separated from their country with no actual knowledge of what the future may hold, these men are happy together, regardless of their situation.
‘God bless Yemen,’ I smiled as we shook hands and called it a night. They blew kisses before handing me a cigarette, ‘a Yemeni gift,’ they laughed. A good one at that, I concluded.
Each day over morning coffee in Cairo, Jono would shares tales of his life in Egypt. As a self proclaimed ‘Tower of Trivia,’ he gave me more to think about; just as I felt as though I’d conquered the dates of the Pharaohs, had almost re acquainted myself with the AC’s and BC’s, the Greeks, the Turkish, the Egyptians, the entire Ottoman Empire, not forgetting the Nubians, the Coptic Christians and Islam; and when I believed I’d finally come up for air in my constant state of drowning in history, I came to terms with the fact that, (for instance) Howard Carter actually died before my father was born even though in a historical sense, it is as if he discovered Tutankhamen just yesterday. Then there was the first revolution in 1919, another in 1952 and then of course the toppling of Mubarak in 2011. The ‘Tower of Trivia’ would then drop in another piece of information which saw me up late at night on my computer with the tired and maddening wifi at the Lotus whirling around and around, as I madly read about the extensive history that form the bones of modern day Egypt.
Cairo partied late into the night, with horns tooting from the millions of cars filling the streets, and the cafes and bars seemed to barely close. But as I closed my eyes at the end of each long day, I heard nothing but complete silence. I don’t think I have ever slept so well in my life.
One night I found myself up very late after Jono asked if I’d read much about Om Seti, formerly known as Dorothy Eady. Eady’s story soon became an obsession, luring me further into the magic of this country.
Dorothy Louise Eady was born in London in 1904 into an Irish family. A quick bit of research tells me that Eady was an only child and raised in a coastal town. At the age of three after falling down a flight of stairs, she began exhibiting strange behaviours – asking that she be ‘brought home’ and she had also developed foreign accent syndrome. Her Sunday school teacher requested that her parents keep her away from class, because she had compared Christianity with ‘heathen’ ancient Egyptian religion. She was expelled from a Dulwich girls school after she refused to sing a hymn that called on God to ‘curse the swart Egyptians,’ and her regular visits to Catholic mass, which she liked because it reminded her of the ‘Old Religion,’ were terminated after an interrogation and visit to a priest by her parents.
After being taken by her parents to visit the British Museum, where she observed a photograph in the ‘New Kingdom Temple’ exhibits room, the young Eady called out ‘There is my home!’ but ‘where are the trees? Where are the gardens?’
The temple was that of Seti I, the father of Rameses the Great. Eady ran about the halls of the Egyptian rooms ‘amongst her peoples,’ kissing the statues’ feet. After this trip she took every opportunity to visit the British Museum rooms, and it was there that she eventually met E. A. Wallis Budge, who was taken by her youthful enthusiasm and encouraged her in the study of hieroglyphs.
Eady became better known as the legendary Om Seti, keeper of the Abydos Temple of Seti I and draughtswoman for the Department of Egyptian Antiquities. She is especially well known for her belief that in a previous life she had been a priestess in ancient Egypt, as well as her considerable historical research at Abydos. Her life and work has been the subject of many articles, television documentaries, and biographies. A 1979 New York Times article described her life story as ‘one of the Western World’s most intriguing and convincing modern case histories of reincarnation.’
At a time where I am in a constant reflective state as I continue to set up my life in Morocco, I am reminded of how much I have always relished in cultures and civilisations so often meshed together, and just as often in conflict. I find myself hungry for stories that pre-date everything we understand in the current day, which form an important part of the patchwork of an overwhelmingly historical and patterned past, as I contemplate a future riddled with unknowns.
Last night, as we rounded endless corners and took wrong turns on the way to Terminal 3 at the airport in Cairo, I observed a perfect crescent moon shielded in dust as palm trees swayed in the distance and Umm Kulthum’s beautiful ballads drifted out of the radio in the taxi. Arriving in Luxor just after midnight, and waking up this morning on the West Bank of the Nile in the old Marsam Hotel – formerly known as Chicago House and home to Egyptologists since it was built in 1920, was something of a dream.
The Marsam is situated on a wheat field overlooking the colossi of Memnon, and the Ramesseum is just next door. The Nile flows just a tuk tuk ride away, and overall, arriving in glorious Upper Egypt is a further reminder that this trip is every bit worthwhile.
From my flat in Tangier to the Lotus Hotel and the streets and cafes of Cairo, to the wheat field on the edge of which I sit typing this – where the call to prayer sounds in the distance and the house camels bed down for the night. A donkey makes a racket across the way, just as the sun begins to set over a cloud of smoke from a fire burning sugarcane in the distance- everything is very much in perspective.
Here I sit, my spirit alive, in the foothills of the Valley of the Kings, with my face to the north wind and my eyes beholding happiness.
I look forward to what the ‘Tower of Trivia’ has in store for tomorrow.
Pictured: ‘Mohamed the Mint Monitor’ who delivers a fresh bunch of mint to Cafe Riche each lunchtime.