New Internationalist

A world apart

March 2008

A dinner invitation provides Maria Golia with a taste of the power, glitz and tact of Cairo’s high society.

Illustration by: Sarah John
Illustration by: Sarah John

Back in the 1980s, Cairo’s upper class fêted lavishly, as often in their flats and villas as on feluccas, the sailboats that ply the Nile, or moonlit desert caravans culminating in dinners beside the ruins of lesser-known pyramids. Nowadays outdoor parties are problematic, the flaunting of booze and wealth being increasingly unwise. People mostly meet at the pretentious restaurants and clubs that have multiplied in the last decade. So when my friend Kamal, a superb host, invites me to his home, it’s hard to refuse.

Despite his aristocratic background, Kamal nurtures a lively curiosity in lesser-born humans. He’s gay, older now and generally philosophical. When I chide him for being so enamoured of beauty – his house is crammed with costly oriental objets d’art – he quotes Nietzsche, saying ‘the Greeks were superficial out of profundity’, except he adds a ‘darling’ at the end. His guest list invariably includes representatives from the worlds of power, glamour and art. I suppose I fall into the last category.

People tend to arrive late at Kamal’s, embracing, exchanging extravagant compliments, and displaying an almost unhinged pleasure at seeing one other. By tacit agreement, they’re always pleasant, or if moody, attractively so. They never share deep concerns, only witty anecdotes, never lean too hard on an argumentative point, and never, above all, demonstrate any sort of need. Aside from the local moguls and vamps, Kamal’s foreign guests included a maharajah visiting with his polo team, and a Kuwaiti gentleman, wearing a diamond ring so large that even without my glasses I spotted its prismic gleam from across the room.

At around 1.00am, Kamal’s liveried Nubian servant did a little dance to indicate that dinner was served. The party of around 30 trickled into the dining room. I sat on a huge damask-covered throne, a painting of a rosy nymph wearing flowers and a strip of leopardskin behind me, and Cairo’s incoherent lights spread out in front, through a series of high windows. The table was strewn with gilded leaves and acorns, Lalique butterflies, and brass pomegranates filled with geode crystals, the whole lit by candelabra attached to the wall in brackets shaped like muscular forearms and hands.

I assisted a woman called Nazli into the throne to my right; at nearly 90 she’s a fixture at these gatherings, the last of a long line of Ottoman princesses and a living compendium of Cairo’s players and scenarios throughout its various belles époques. An Egyptian telecom tycoon took my left. The hot conversation topic was the son of the President, who had recently moved to Kamal’s neighbourhood, and the distinct possibility of his succession.

‘He’s not a bad-looking fellow, but too serious by half,’ someone said.

‘If only he had a sense of humour, people would like him more,’ said Nazli.

‘He lifts weights to ease the tension,’ Kamal added.

‘The people don’t want him,’ I said. ‘They’re fed up. Why bother having a revolution to end up with another king?’

‘I don’t know why they bothered either,’ said Nazli. ‘The monarchy was paradise compared to this.’

‘I share your nostalgia, dear, but don’t forget you grew up in a harem and had to bribe the eunuch to buy your cigarettes,’ noted Kamal.

‘At least we dressed well, and entertained in style.

These poor girls in their black tents…’

‘I suppose nothing ever changes in Egypt, not really. Isn’t that why we love it?’ asked Kamal.

‘But it is changing, always has been, you just can’t see it from up here,’ I couldn’t resist remarking.

‘Darling, I know what the countryside is like.’

‘Sure, because you’re landed gentry.’

‘No, because I’m interested. When was the last time you got your hands dirty with the fellahin [peasants]?’ ‘I don’t have to go to the country for that. I’ve got them living six to the room on my roof, not to mention all around me.’

‘I don’t see what the problem is,’ said the telecom billionaire. ‘The son is a smart guy, and besides, he’s my friend. It’s not his fault that his father is the President.’

I laughed at this convoluted gem of logic – alone – and Kamal gracefully changed the subject. Then Omar Sharif arrived, looking marvellous, with a pan-Arab mega-diva on one arm and a Hollywood star on the other; and all else, for the moment, was forgotten.

Maria Golia writes for The Middle East, the Times Literary Supplement and is the author of Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004).

This column was published in the March 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 409

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