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March 30, 2010

A New Cairo

With new five-star hotels and an upgraded airport, Egypt’s capital tries to find the right balance between antiquity and modernism. Christopher Dickey explores the contradictions.

The air along the Nile in the early evening was cool enough for me to roll down the car window and catch the smells of dust and water, diesel and tires, bread and jasmine. The call to prayer from nearby mosques played against the spluttering whine of Egyptian-made motorcycles ridden by men in galabias, the peasant robes that look like nightshirts (and may well have been slept in during the heat of the day). Single-masted feluccas set sail in the twilight with families and lovers, some of the women wearing veils in that coquettish nod to Islamic modesty typical of Egypt, where the arts of seduction are older than the legends of Cleopatra.

The light turned red. A policeman stepped out with hand raised to halt the onrushing cars and motorcycles, but the traffic kept moving as inexorably as the river. That’s always a problem when driving in Egypt: knowing when to stop at a light. As with so much else in the country, instincts count for more than laws.

Twenty years ago I had an office in this Cairo neighborhood called Garden City. The name always seemed ironic to me. It had once been a colony of luxurious European-style villas, symbols of Egypt’s belle époque. But concrete had encroached on the elegant mansions, their walls were dilapidated, the leaves of the surviving jacarandas and bougainvillea drooped beneath the gray-brown silt that drifts in on the desert winds. If you wandered along the broken sidewalks, edging between parked cars to peer through iron fences, you could imagine some Levantine version of Miss Havisham holed up behind the drawn and tattered curtains, her great expectations faded away. Today, among Garden City’s office blocks and high-rises (many of those now crumbling, too), there are only glimpses of the old gentility. But there is also something newer: the Four Seasons Nile Plaza.

Opened in 2004, massive and glistening, it’s a palace of pleasures large and small, a pristine refuge from the sensory assault of the street, and, in its way, both an homage to the past and a vision of the future. With 365 rooms and suites (practically a boutique by Cairo’s standards of industrial tourism), eight restaurants, a gym overlooking the Nile, a spa, and all the comforts associated with a first-class hotel anywhere in the world, the Four Seasons Nile Plaza is one symbol of the many changes taking place in this most eternal of cities, a harbinger of enormous possibilities and also a reminder of risks.

What does a hotel mean, or rather, what can it mean in the ancient metropolis that is Cairo? Anyone who has ever lived here will tell you that to enjoy the city—so huge and so old, so dense and mystical, so grimy and glorious—you have to find ways to take repose for an hour or an evening, or perhaps a day. For most Cairenes the waters of the Nile, the riverbank cafés, the breezes on rooftops, or the tonic smoke of a water pipe offer some respite. But for foreigners—and for the moneyed classes of Egypt—hotels have always been special havens.

The original buildings of the Mena House Oberoi at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza still convey something of Egypt in the thirties, when Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile. Britain’s colonial domination set the tone, but the mystery and romance of the country remained strong enough to make a perfect setting for the passionate intrigues of countless fictions. At the Mena House the wondrous Pyramids loomed so large and so close, Evelyn Waugh wrote between the world wars that it was “like having the Prince of Wales at the next table in a restaurant; one kept pretending not to notice, while all the time glancing furtively to see if they were still there.” When I stayed at the Mena House recently, in the legendary Suite 1102 with its four balconies looking straight onto the Pyramids, Winston Churchill’s granddaughter Celia Sandys was just down the hall in another suite that her sybaritic forebear had favored. She was soaking up the atmosphere and, of course, she was a part of it, too.

There is a danger of myopia in such places, of mind- numbing detachment. A few hundred yards down the river from the Four Seasons, the old Shepheard’s Hotel once stood as the refuge of the British and Egyptian elite. When it was burned to the ground by a mob in 1952, the usual clientele could hardly fathom what was hap-pening. They had missed the revolution beyond the veranda. As smoke spread through the structure and flames leaped from the roof, the barman (a solid professional by the name of Joe Scialon) generously served drinks on the house. To no avail. Troops had to evacuate the building. A military coup came shortly afterward and with it the line of strong-fisted rulers—Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, Hosni Mubarak—that endures to this day. The good life in Egypt has been trying to get its bearings ever since.

Nasser confiscated lands and properties from the Europeans and Levantines— the British, Italians, Greeks, and Jews who had constituted the economic elite in Egypt since the 19th century. In their place he created a new class, the petite bourgeoisie and the military whose tastes were as garish as they were destructive. Public structures rose high above the skyline in hideous emulation of Soviet grandiosity. In wealthy homes the dominant style became what is known as Louis Farouk: rooms filled with faux tapestries and heavily gilded imitations of the imitations of the European imports of old.

Only in the last few years, as the sons and daughters of the new ruling class have come into their own, has something like real luxury been revived. Many of the most successful have ties to Mubarak or to his handsome and increasingly imposing son, 43-year-old Gamal. Their tastes are influenced by the United States and Europe, where many of them were educated, but also by the glitz of Dubai, and their businesses have put a flashy veneer on the Cairo experience. The last vestiges of Nasser’s pseudosocialism are now fading away behind forests of billboards advertising pop music and cell phones. Even the Kafkaesque Mugamma, a huge—and hugely ugly—building on Tahrir Square that long stood as the impenetrable heart of Egyptian bureaucracy, has been emptied and should be torn down soon or, some say, converted into yet another luxury residence. (Whether the smell of moldering documents and Cleopatra cigarettes and the stains of tea spilled from glasses balanced on the functionaries’ piles of loose files can ever truly be expunged, I tend to doubt.)

Yet as the visible signs of prosperity are growing in Cairo, so is a spirit of revolution. The two go naturally together, it would seem. There’s a truism in history, of which Egypt has so much, that the poor may riot, but it’s the middle classes, educated and aspiring, that make revolutions. The political tension in the city today is like the dust—it seems to get into everything. And unlike the spontaneous revolts of the recent past (in 1977 and 1986) or the terrorism that made grim headlines a decade ago, there’s an excitement now that actually sends occasional shivers of hope running through Cairo.

In the lobby of the Four Seasons, I had coffee with Amr Rageh, one of the city’s most experienced and well-known guides, who had been recommended to me by the hotel staff. “When I was young, British soldiers were on Cairo’s streets,” he recalled. Then came the coup. “The revolution wanted to protect itself, so anyone who was against Nasser went to jail. Now, the other day I saw a group on Talaat Harb Street shouting, ‘Down with the president!’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, I lived to see this!’ Egypt is changing!”

But the change, let’s be clear, is sporadic and erratic and frequently repressed. The protesters Rageh saw were supporters of Ayman Nour, the young politician who dared to run for president against Mubarak in 2005—the first such challenge allowed in Egyptian history. Nour came in a distant second but garnered more than 500,000 votes; he quickly found himself jailed on implausible charges of forgery.

As it happens, I’ve known Nour for a long time. His wife, Gameela Ismail, first worked for me in Cairo 20 years ago, when she was still a university student, and she’s been a reporter and translator for Newsweek (where I now serve as Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor) ever since. The couple were classic studies in upward mobility, albeit with a touch of very Egyptian eccentricity. For years they lived on a houseboat, with Nour’s own little menagerie of dogs and monkeys in the garden on the riverbank. More recently they had a penthouse with a small swimming pool on top of an apartment building in the middle of the overbuilt island of Zamalek.

On the night I arrived in Cairo, I invited Ismail to the quiet of the Four Seasons. Over fried dim sum in the hotel’s Cantonese restaurant, Spice, she told me about Nour’s experiences in jail. His diabetes and heart condition meant he was sent to the prison hospital. But he was alone there and always more afraid. He thought he might die or be killed with no witnesses or explanations. Ismail, who had been a prominent personality on the state television network since the nineties, was just getting by now. All the family finances were in the hands of the court. She was selling off the family’s possessions to try to keep their teenage sons in a good school.

On and off over the past two decades, Ismail had taught me a lot about the corners of Cairo that tourists do not see, the simple pleasures they rarely experience, the histories they hardly know. But she couldn’t join me this time. There were too many problems in the courts. The ruling on Nour’s appeal was just a few days away. She tried to be optimistic. We would see each other again, I said.

Fi Misr, kulla haaga mumkin—Arabic for “In Egypt, all things are possible"—is a phrase you hear often in Cairo. But a more vernacular translation might be: “As long as you can pay for the request, it’s doable.” What extravagances might you dream of? Perhaps an exclusive nighttime tour of the Great Pyramid, its mystical passages and hidden chambers reserved for you and your friends alone, with a trained Egyptologist to explain it all? (I once passed such an evening with a group of New Agers from the States. We crawled to the lowest tunnel into the lowest chamber, then turned out the lights so the expedition leader could “channel” the thoughts of a high priest dead for 3,000 years. Amazingly, the sepulchral priest spoke English.)

Or maybe you would prefer cocktails at sunset on the very top of that wonder of the world, the one others are forbidden to climb? Be ready to spend thousands of dollars, depending on the trappings. More modestly, an evening on a felucca catered specially by the Four Seasons only costs a few dozen dollars an hour. All is possible—for a fee.

The tradition of the doable is long, of course. Someone surely said to the pharaohs, “You want to build a huge tomb with triangular sides? An enormous statue of a lion with the face of a man? Vast temples? Well, as long as you can pay.” Or even if you can’t. The elegance of 19th-century Cairo was the work of the khedive (or viceroy) Ismail Pasha, who went on a spending spree in the 1860s as cotton revenues rose and the Suez Canal opened. Educated by the French, Ismail deluded himself into thinking he was “rich enough to turn Egypt into France, Cairo into Paris, and his court into Versailles,” as my friend Max Rodenbeck wrote so elegantly in his book Cairo: The City Victorious. “Egged on by European banks who stampeded to offer credit, Ismail spent and spent.” Eventually the khedive mortgaged the whole country but couldn’t make the payments. In the wake of his forced abdication, British troops—the repo men of the empire—marched into Cairo to make sure Egypt’s creditors got their money back. They stayed on for more than 70 years, until shortly after that unfortunate incident at Shepheard’s.

Something of the same spirit of high-price possibilities, for better and for worse, permeates the newly luxurious Cairo of today. So much is going on. There are two refurbished terminals at the international airport and a third, built from scratch, on the way. A $500 million antiquities museum is under construction on the road north of the city. One hundred and fifty years ago, Cairo grew famous as a stop for British travelers on their way to India. Now it is part of itineraries that conclude in the Sinai and the rest of the much-advertised Red Sea Riviera.

If the wealth being generated was making its way to Egypt’s poor, or even to its middle class, all this might help to stabilize the country. But as the rich get richer, they retreat more and more into their own world, taking their money with them. The Four Seasons Nile Plaza and its sister hotel, the Four Seasons First Residence, across the river in Giza, are in the city, at least, if not exactly of it. But those making big money in Egypt these days have mostly moved out into the desert, to oases they’ve created just for themselves. Many live in a gated resort community called Katameya Heights, where water has been pumped out of the Nile to fill manmade lakes and pools, sprinkle the two golf courses, and irrigate the lush foliage lining the walkways. Top-of-the-line BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes are parked in the driveways. Inside the homes, fine wine and even finer Cuban cigars are served. The friends (and some ex-friends) of Gamal Mubarak live well in Katameya. They have the look and the language of progress and prosperity down pat in their walled community. The desert beyond is invisible; the overcrowded and overwrought city seems even more distant than it is.

“There is very, very little in common between the tiny number of wealthy Egyptian elites, who live opulently, and the high majority of rural and urban poor,” said Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. Egypt’s politicians, he said, tend to see the country’s problems as a matter of public relations: “The thing they come back to again and again when you talk to them is this image thing, this message thing.”

People who live closer to the street make fun of the upper class, but the jokes are always edged with bitterness. “We Egyptians are always taking something from the West and damaging it,” says Ibrahim Issa, the sardonic editor of the weekly Al-Dustour. “If you look at a Peugeot made in Egypt, it’s completely different from one made in France. Even cultural imports from the West get changed when they come here. This also applies to democracy, as when our government says, ‘Yes, we want democracy—but according to our own principles.’ That means ‘Dictatorship forever.’ ” (Issa wrote this sort of thing in his paper all the time until a few weeks after I saw him, when he was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for “insulting the president” and “spreading false or tendentious rumors.")

 

On the morning that Ayman Nour’s appeal was decided at the supreme court, phalanxes of riot police, hundreds upon hundreds of them, sealed off the parts of downtown Cairo near the building. Helmeted, all in black, they carried shields and truncheons and tear gas guns. The show of force was for Nour’s supporters and also to keep in check demonstrators from the Muslim Brotherhood, which has become the most potent political opposition in Egypt—not because of its Islamic preaching but because it lives and works in Cairo among the people. Dozens were arrested that day, some beaten. I managed to get through the police lines to the court only by joining up with some friends from Western embassies. (In Egypt, all things are possible.) When the ruling came down, I was sitting with Ismail and her older son, Noor. Arguments had been long, but the decision came swiftly. Nour would spend another four and a half years in prison.

Ismail did not cry. Not then. Neither did Noor. They walked down the steps of the court and Ismail pushed through the police line to where a crew from an Arabic satellite network had positioned its camera. The riot cops formed a backdrop for the shot as she talked about her disappointment and her hope that democracy would come one day. Then the press pulled away and we walked from the court to the party headquarters down Talaat Harb Street. With the cameras gone, the tears came. But Ismail tried to find something else to discuss. “This is the Yacoubian Building,” she said as we passed a decrepit apartment block that had once been luxurious. “This is the building the movie is about."

She had not changed the subject at all, in fact. The government’s quest for an image of free expression sometimes creates strange results, including the biggest budget ever for an Egyptian film. The Yacoubian Building, a saga of decline, was written by a dentist turned novelist named Alaa al-Aswany. The apartments were constructed by an Armenian entrepreneur in the early thirties for the old elite. “The cream of the society of those days took up residence in the Yacoubian—ministers, big land-owning bashas, foreign manufacturers, and two Jewish millionaires,” wrote al-Aswany. Rolls-Royces filled the garage and a silver store sold sterling place settings for exclusive dinner parties. Gradually time and revolution and the changing fortunes of Egypt destroyed all that. The building housed more and more people in less and less space, until the poorest, who lived on the roof, “collaborated to create a shared latrine for every three or four rooms.” In l-Asawny’s novel, only a few are left who truly remember the pleasures of the old days, such as the aging engineer who thinks often of “Lady Kamla, daughter of the former king’s maternal uncle, with whom he learned the etiquette and rites of the royal bed chambers—the candles that burn all night, the glasses of French wine that kindle the flames of desire and obliterate fear, the hot bath before the assignation, when the body is anointed with creams and perfumes."

In the immaculate spa at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza, as it happens, one of the specialties is a milk bath with flowers and candles and scents. They call it the Cleopatra treatment, but one can imagine that someday soon it could be named for Lady Kamla.

 

Cairo, as I remember it—and as I continue to live it whenever I visit—is a city of the senses and a society where people love each other’s company. Politics are important, not least because they are something to talk about and frequently to joke about. What else can most people do? Egyptians laugh easily, warmly, generously, and often.

Deep in the old bazaar Khan al-Khalili, a café opened in 1989, one year after the late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz—whose fictions are the best guidebooks to the grassroots facts of Cairene life—won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the café was named for him. Some of the great old tea rooms and watering holes of the past still exist in other parts of town: The Café Riche, where intellectuals once gathered to debate and seduce each other, and Groppi’s, where aging aristocrats ordered up cakes and pastries, are still open, but with each year they grow a little more triste. Naguib Mahfouz, meanwhile, can still be a place of contentment and joy.

Anyone in the Khan can tell you how to get there, but you will eventually find it anyway. The Khan is a place to wander and the meandering can last for hours. Here are brass merchants and taxidermists; there are dealers in antiques and in fake antiquities, and the alleys are lined with gold shops and silver, moiré silks and satiny cottons, exotic scents, tables and backgammon boards of inlaid wood, elaborately wrought water pipes, crudely sewn leather goods. For you, of course, there’s always “a special price.” If you keep exploring you’ll get into the back corners, where workers trundle their goods on carts, shouting to make way, and the air is filled with the dust of spices piled high in open burlap sacks.

Guides lead groups to Naguib Mahfouz because the food is simple and good and, no small consideration, the bathrooms are clean. But the re-fectory in the rear, where the bussed-in go, is not the place to be. The life of Mahfouz is in the front rooms. “Foreigners come here for a break, on the run. They have a quick 7Up or a Pepsi,” the manager, Sameh Abdallah, told me one afternoon as I ordered a water pipe and mint tea. “Egyptians and Arabs come here in a different way. They come to spend the evening, as a destination. In a Cairo café people love to be seated together, very close to each other. One hour later you find all the guests have become friends. There is a feeling that they are family."

I was in the café, waiting to meet Ismail one final time before I left, but she had been called back to court for some procedural matter and never showed. I took a long draw on the pipe, savoring the apple-flavored smoke as it took my mind into a zone of contemplative ease. Family. Of course. There is the reason Cairenes call their city umm el dunya, or mother of the world. They are all family, with every bit of the history and enmities, the bad blood and deep affections, the hopes and frustrations that it implies. Their politics are family feuds. Their luxury is the talk, the laughter, the society they share. Their ultimate refuge is not in places but in each other. And if you let them, they will invite you in.

The Insider’s Guide to the New Cairo

Flying into Cairo, long considered one of the least pleasant parts of a trip to Egypt, is about to get easier thanks to a major upgrade of the city’s airport. Terminals 1 and 2 (which handle, respectively, regional carriers and airlines of the major alliances) are already finished. Terminal 3, scheduled to open in spring 2008, will be the crown jewel, with five lounges, duty-free shops, and a Méridien hotel. Most important, the Cairo Airport Company is working to set up a vetted taxi service to and from the city, which would eliminate the current hazing ritual of a dozen scruffy men descending on you at baggage claim.

For lodging, the two Four Seasons hotels, despite being just a few years old, have already entrenched themselves in the hearts of well-heeled Egyptians. The original Giza bank location (from $300; 35 Giza St.) is renowned for the patisserie next door, La Gourmandise, whose desserts are the highlight of society dinner parties and weddings, while the newer Four Seasons Nile Plaza (from $350; 1089 Corniche al-Nil; 20-2/791-7000; fourseasons.com) in Garden City hosts a branch of Beymen, the upscale Turkish department store.

Cairo’s best boutiques are a taxi ride away, on the leafy island of Zamalek. At Mounaya Gallery (16 Muhammad Anis St.; 20-2/736-4827; mounaya.com), the Middle East’s answer to Colette, owner Ghada Abdel Hak-Khalife stocks jewelry, clothes, accessories, and home goods sourced from Egypt and Lebanon. Among the highlights: Fortunylike-pleated Cambodian silk scarves by Khamsa and playful evening bags by Sarah’s Bag, a Lebanese line, printed with images of old Arab film stars. Around the corner is Siwa Creations (17 Ahmed Heshmat St.; 20-2/737-3014), an airy second-floor boutique that sells clothes and scarves from the women of the Siwa Oasis in the country’s northwest, plus organic products such as olive oils and carrot jam. For jewelry, head to Nakhla (10 Corniche al-Nil; 20-2/571-3457), not far from the Giza Four Seasons, where father-and-daughter team Ikram and Malak Nakhla offer pieces with 21-karat gold and semiprecious stones, inspired by the different civilizations in Egypt’s history.

The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square is in its last days as the top cultural institution in the city; a new $500 million facility, the Grand Egyptian Museum several miles from the Pyramids, is slated to house more than 100,000 highlights of the country’s antiquities collection. In the meantime, check out Cairo’s more contemporary cultural scene a few blocks away at the Townhouse Gallery (10 Nabrawy St.; 20-2/576-8086; thetownhousegallery.com), Cairo’s most cutting-edge art showcase. William Wells, founder and director, shows work from both up-and-coming and established artists. —Anna Sussman