Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

June 19, 2004 In Cairo, in a manner of speaking

I got in at 2:00 this morning, and was so amused by the hotel where I’m staying that I wrote it all down in an email to a handful of friends, promising that once I had some photos it would go onto the web. So here it is, only slightly edited.

Dear folks,

I'm staying at the Four Seasons hotel. I've never stayed at a Four Seasons before, though the one in Georgetown is pretty upscale. But this place is truly a riot.

Before I say anything snarky, though, I should say that my room is huge, though from the emergency exit floorplan, I appear to have the smallest one in the hotel. It's tastefully decorated (astonishing for a hotel), the air conditioning works brilliantly and silently (I'm freezing, yippee!!!), I could fit Matilda three times over just in the bathroom, they provide enough light (amazing), enough electric outlets (unheard-of), high-speed internet access (for a fairly hefty price, but I'll probably try it from time to time), a refrigerator (removed all their overpriced sodas at once), enough hangers and of the type you can remove from the rods to hang your clothes on them, and even a clock radio that plays CDs. The pool is quite reasonable, and the gym is fantastic with stunning views of the Nile while you work out. So it's a great place to be staying.

Now, for the funny part. This hotel is part of a development called "First Residence," which I'd driven past en route to and from the Marriot a zillion times. The First Residence is a terribly ostentatious apartment building. In Cairo when they want to be ostentatious they put huge three-story-high fluted columns at the entrance, and that's what this place has, all in black marble. Last time I was here I asked an Egyptian colleague about the building. He said it had very upscale apartments, one per floor in the 30-story building. The building is along the Nile, so of course everyone has a splendid view all along the front of their apartment. The servants get the other rooms, I guess. According to Adham, it has an elevator that takes cars, so you could park your car inside your apartment. (Hey, sounds just like Walt’s warehouse in Pittsburgh!) And each apartment, according to him, had its own swimming pool. Someone else told me that for those who need a bit more space, some of the apartments are two floors instead of only one. Or maybe, judging from the photo, double-height ceilings?

Okay, I don't know how much of this is true, but that's the kind of housing it is. Not for the likes of us! (In response to my email, my friend Meg in Cambridge reported – from an Egyptian colleague – that only rich Saudis own apartments there.)

The hotel is a separate tower - unfortunately it's behind the apartments, so to see the river (if you face that way, which I do) you have to look around the big building. Between the two towers is a shopping mall which someone described to me as "kind of like Rodeo Drive." Maybe some of it is as plebian as Nordstrom's or the nicer parts of Pentagon City Mall (for you non-Washingtonians, Pentagon City Mall is one of the fancier ones in the DC area). There are a lot of jewelry stores, stores selling Mont Blanc pens, Rolex watches, and a number of stores selling really outrageous and tacky but undoubtedly VERY expensive furniture and home décor. Like six-foot high sculptures of sheihks on horseback, wall-sized paintings of turbaned bearded men reclining on couches with tonight's selection from the harem. Then a few upscale clothing stores and the like - maybe they sell something for less than $1000? Oh, and one of those glass elevators with strings of lights in it. And two huge domed skylights through which you can see the many columns of the hotel tower. On the third floor of the mall is a spa for men - through the semi-transparent screens on their windows I could see guys being shaved and given facials, and they had all kinds of products up front for skin and nails. Tell me the "metrosexual" thing has hit Cairo!??!

The mall shops are all on balconies overlooking what would be the food court in a US mall (just like Pentagon City, in fact!) but here it's big restaurant, with live piano music every evening (Nordstroms has that, I think). Actually the restaurant is quite decent - which is to say, for $1.50 I can get a pot of reasonable coffee and a little pitcher of hot milk and settle in with my computer and write this email! And the food is much cheaper than room service, which isn't bad - I could end up having a good number of meals here.

But the thing that amazes me most is that EVERYONE here (except me) is Egyptian. Or Arab, anyway. Do they shop in this mall? Live in those apartments? A woman all covered in long robes and a headscarf was in a jewelry store with a stout white-haired man, picking out gold. A family whose mother wore a headscarf, but the bored looking teenagers wore western clothes, was having dinner at the restaurant. Groups of middle-aged women in black headscarves talking on their cellphones. One girl walked past me - tight pants, a skimpy denim dress of the sort that girls wear over their jeans in NYC with a mid-thigh-length skirt and skinny shoulder straps - and a headscarf! I guess the headscarves really are a fashion statement around here, not a statement about religion or modesty. I all but burst out laughing when I saw her. Oh, and just now I saw walking past three women draped from head to toe in black, including their faces, but with sparkly things on the edges of their black robes. They were walking into the Guess store. What are they gonna do there, stock up on their halter-tops?

This is Egypt? At least from the fourth floor deck where I went to the pool I could see feluccas on the Nile, so I guess I wasn't hijacked to LA instead of Cairo. Tomorrow I have to go to work, then I guess I'll remember where on earth I am!


p.s. Continued later. Eleven p.m. now. Some of the shops in the mall are closing, but the restaurant is going strong. A family sat down next to me half an hour ago to order dinner. A woman just grabbed her toddler, who was playing at the stand where the waiters keep cutlery and things. The three women in black just left. Two had taken off their headscarves, revealing themselves as attractive young women with thick bouncy pony tails. The third, perhaps their mother, was still wearing hers, but I think all that shimmering black garb might also be a fashion statement.

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