March 19, 2012

The Semiramis is an old style Hotel in Cairo

The Semiramis is an old-style hotel. According to one of the guidebooks published by the Tourist Development Association of Egypt, it opened in 1934. The guidebook contains photographs of members of the royal houses and nobility of Europe who stayed there. Recently it has become the haunt of writers. At one time Mahmud Darwish, the celebrated Palestinian poet, made a protracted stopover at the hotel and could often be seen talking with friends about politics and literature in the lobby or on the terrace. Nowadays, the hotel’s tea lounge, Day and Night, has become a meeting place for young couples on dates. The hotel will be completely renovated within one or two years.

Semiramis Hotel in Cairo
On the south side of the Semiramis is Shepheard’s Hotel. The old building, on Gumhoureya Street, was burned and gutted in 1952 when a mob attacked it. Shepheard’s was rebuilt on the banks of the Nile. Traditionally one of Cairo’s top social spots, the hotel comes alive at night when elderly gentlemen, their heads swathed in red tarboosh, and elegant women, their glittering gold ornaments jingling, meet in the lobby to enjoy a few hours of refined and desultory conversation, sometimes speaking only in English or French.

South of Shepheard’s Hotel is the area where the foreign embassies are clustered. Known as the “Garden City,” the area is near Roda Island where the eye-catching Hotel Meridien is located. In French “meridien” means “afternoon nap,” and in the dry climate of Cairo, where one tires easily, it seems to beckon one to stop in and take a short rest while gazing at the calm waters of the Nile. This is sound advice in Egypt where the newcomer and the unwary may be tempted not to waste time napping when the afternoon hours could be used for sightseeing. Wandering about at three o’clock, the hottest time of the afternoon, is ill-advised, and anyone doing so is inviting a sunstroke.

In the eighth century, the Nilometer was built on the south side of Roda Island to measure the rise and fall of the volume of water in the river. During the summer two boats, which have been converted into floating restaurants, are moored in front of the Hilton Hotel and Semiramis Hotel. The larger is known as Osiris, and the smaller as Isis, after the god and goddess in Egyptian mythology. Ancient Egyptians believed that Osiris was slaughtered and his body scattered after being hacked to pieces. Isis, his wife, searched out the pieces one by one and buried them together at one place. Osiris is the god of the underworld, and Isis the goddess who protects the tombs. During the winter both boat-restaurants are floated to Aswan where they are docked for the season.

A stroll along the banks of the Nile inevitably includes small children, with outstretched hands, demanding, “Backsheesh.” Some foreigners are apt to show their displeasure, but Egyptians always give something, no matter how little. I suppose this is the manifestation of the principle “From those who have to those who have not.”

Sometimes a taxi driver will turn to a passenger and say “I’ve no change,” and simply pocket the difference in the fare as backsheesh. Some might conclude that the drivers are misusing their religion except that it works both ways. I have often found myself a few coins short of the exact fare, and most times the driver has let me off with a discount, a smile, a shake of the head and a whispered “Maareish.” There is this feeling that everybody occasionally has hard times, so it is best to approach life with a liberal dose of both give and take.

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