Trip Up The Nile – Leaving Cairo

February 14th, 1917

William and his companions, Captain Stevenson and Lieutenant Barr, alighted from Cairo’s Bab El-Louk Station at 1700.  Brushed by cool, late afternoon air, they enjoyed the short walk down Rue Bostane to where it met Suliman Pasha Street.  Turning right, they could see the National Hotel, beaming like a glimmer of hope against the fading light.  For the three travellers, who lived in a desolate town of tents and dust, her refined beauty added bounce to their army boots.

The National was not as luxurious as other popular establishments, however, it was still aglow with a certain colonial glamour that attracted a decent clientele.  More pretentious hotels, like the Shepheard or the Savoy, upheld a formal dress code for evening diners.  The National, on the other hand, relaxed her standards and became favoured by military personnel, colonial civil servants and nurses. [1]

The men paused, their eyes ran up and down the five storeyed façade, and caressed the curves of the minaret styled towers, that guarded each corner. Row after row of green shuttered windows peered seductively back at them through delicate lace iron balconies.  Surrendering to their desires, to enjoy  pre-dinner drinks, they strode between the two columns that flanked the entrance.

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Two hours later, the men were finishing their dinner in The St. James – Restaurant, American Bar and Grill Room. [2]

William glanced down at his wrist watch, not wanting to miss their train .

“Chaps, it’s 1900,” he reminded the others, knowing their train for Luxor was departing at 2000.

The others nodded, but made no effort to leave. Nor did William. After-all, they still had an hour.  Oblivious to the chiming of silver on china, and the indecipherable chatter of fellow diners, William leaned back against his chair, savouring that satisfying moment when one has had his fill of hearty, home cooked food.  His potage and pom frits [3] were better than anything the mess had ever served. Washing the remnants down with his last dribble of beer, he felt complete and renewed.  Driven by thoughts of the wealthy adventurers, who filled the restaurant before the war, he suggested to his companions they should make a move.

The three travelers collected their great coats and kit bags from the cloak counter.  Slinging their bags over their shoulders, their boots quietly padded across the exotic rugs that softened the tiled floor of the reception hall.  A steady flow of military personnel ebbed in and out of the room.  Small groups stood, discussing the current state of the war.  Others sunk into rattan chairs, that sat plump and content, beneath potted palms. Cigarette smoke rose curiously through their stringy fronds.

The patrons of the National, like elsewhere in Cairo, were transients, seeking some form of enlightenment.  Whether they were soldiers yearning for an evening of hope and normalcy, or visitors wishing to embrace a lost past;  they all wanted some of the Egypt’s magic.  And, William was no different. He sought to satisfy the cravings of his curious mind.

Gazing wondrously at his surroundings, he explored the elaborately patterned frescos that washed the walls and high ceilings in soft shades of blue, russet and gold.  He studied the details of photographs of antiquity, and  urns, adorned with hieroglyphics.

As if reading William’s mind, Captain Stevenson commented, “The hotels of Cairo are certainly splendid.”

“My word,” William replied with a chuckle, “nothing like hotels at home.”

“And this is not as grand as some,” Piped in Lieutenant Barr.  “The Shepheard is a palace.”

“Indeed!” William had seen the Shepheard first hand.

Shepheards Hotel Cairo

Photo: Pinterest Shepheard Hotel, Cairo

Evidence of the country’s incredible history was everywhere.  A large, framed photograph of the Sphinx reminded William of a fact he had gleaned from Charles Bean’s guide “What to Know in Egypt”. [4]

“He’s a portrait of Kephren, the Pharaoh who built the second pyramid.” William informed the others, not out of a desire to impress, but rather, out of his fascination for Egyptian history.

“The head of a king on the body of a lion,” he mused.

Facts, no matter how small and obscure, were like food to William’s soul.  He knew that the magic of Egypt would normally be out of reach for a sugar cane farmer from the Haughton River. The war had given him access to a fascinating world, although, he conceded, it came at an enormous cost, for both himself and his family.

Upon approaching the front entrance, the glass door was opened by the hotel footman.  Looking splendid in a long black western style jacket that fell to just above the ankles, he greeted them in perfect English.

“Good bye Gentlemen,” He said, with a slight bow to his head.  His maroon tarboosh was firmly anchored to his short black curly hair, allowing a black tassel to swing freely to one side.

“Salam”, William replied in Arabic.  The doorman’s brown face softened into a white toothy grin and another off centred bow.

The three men re-emerged onto Suleyman Pasta Street, as a tram squealed to a stop in front of the hotel. Hurriedly, they hauled their kit bags through the passing foot traffic, stepped onto the rear of the tram and settled into seats inside.

As the carriage clanged forward, the fresh evening breeze brushed William’s face, through the open windows, with the aromas of spicy street food and warm soothing coffee. Flushed from alcohol, he felt alive and free.  The streets were moving with a fascinating mix of people who hailed from ancient times.  Although, the reminders were there.  They were like an infinite thread, woven through the city’s fabric.  He could never truly escape the reason he was in Egypt.  Closing his eyes he thought about the next four days, away from it all.

 

NOTES:

  1. The National Hotel – Cairo
  2. St. James – Restaurant, American Bar and Grill Room –  The restaurant at the National Hotel, Cairo.  I have a receipt that William kept from this restaurant.
  3. Pottage and pomfret – A meat and vegetable stew and French fries, listed on the abovementioned invoice.
  4.  What to Know in Egypt – A guide written for Australian soldiers in 1915 by War historian, Charles Bean. I found a copy in William’s belongings. He purchased a copy for 1 piastre.
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One thought on “Trip Up The Nile – Leaving Cairo

  1. Kim
    Another wonderful scene in William’s life. Immediately, I was searching my memory for my time in Cairo. We took the train to Luxor. Aside from how frenetic Cairo was, I remember the most, the call for prayers as the voices and music blared at dawn and dusk.

    Like

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