Sunday, July 1, 2012

Letters from the Underworld: Cairo and a Tale of Shepheard's Bar

An archaeologist's favorite mysterious places

It was January, 1985. I was traveling through Egypt with my parents and younger sister. My dad suggested we make a stop at a famous hotel bar that was popular with expat writers back in the early 20th century. 

Downtown Cairo was a maze of cars, dust and noise. Directly in front of the Cairo Museum it seemed that eight different roads converged, with cars driving in any which direction, all honking horns. We crossed a bridge over the Nile at dusk and once we stepped inside the hotel, all the chaos seemed to fade away into the background. 

It was one of those old world kind of places, lost to another time...or century. Heavy wood paneling, flickering sconce lighting on the walls. The tinkling of glasses on well worn tables, martinis being prepared. Men in suits manned the bar and soft music played. 

But it wasn't the bar itself  that captured my imagination.....it was the massive fabric banner that hung above it. Embroidered in old English lettering, it hovered above the room like Damocles' sword about to drop. I got the gist of it: BE HERE NOW, it intoned. Live for today. In other words, all the world may be going to hell in a hand basket, but bottoms up my friend. Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we diet. Or as in some cases that this storied city has witnessed, tomorrow we die. 

Equally storied men - and women - have frequented Shepheard's Bar over the years. The writer T.E. Lawrence, explorer Henry Morton Stanley, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, The Prince of Wales and the Aga Kahn, to name a few. More recently, Shepheard's inspired the setting for several feature films, including The English Patient: 

Scene: the Sand Club members gather in a plush bar. Geoffrey Clifton enters, only to be asked where his lovely wife is. Geoffrey gestures to the lobby, where Katharine Clifton sits, reading, and says in an apologetic tone: 

"Chaps only in the Long Bar." 

The hotel has seen its way through several wars, including the Crimean War, the Boer War and two World Wars, and has been the site of celebration for such events as the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The original burned to the ground in 1952 and was resurrected in its present form in downtown Cairo, where it continues to witness the death of leaders, revolution and the Arab Spring. 

The photos of the banner (it took two shots to capture it in its entirety) sit above my desk as I write. Given the current state of our world, its message:

Unborn tomorrow and dead yesterday, 
why fret about them if today be sweet

seems more meaningful today than ever.


24 comments:

  1. The sign says so much. As a professional worrier I can certainly attest to the idea that fretting does absolutely no good and is a sheer waste of time. Let today be sweet. Yes, indeed.

    Did you see the film, "The Sheltering Sky"?

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    1. rubye, i have not seen that film, nor read the book. it the author paul bowles?

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    2. Yes, Paul Bowles.
      I'm reading Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor btw and am about 3/4 through it. I love much of what she says such as how we are a figment of our imaginations in our body state, the notion of fluidity while in the right brain. Her philosophy of how we are one is exactly the same as mine and it's nice to find someone saying the same things I've been thinking.

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    3. rubye,

      i asked for that book for my birthday i liked it so much. it's the kind you can read over and over again.

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  2. I get the appeal of visiting this bar in Egypt as I loved visiting pubs that famous authors frequented in England. I'm very distressed about what is going on politically in Egypt right now.

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    1. sarah, me too. very worrisome to read an article yesterday about the new regime, stating women may lose some rights.

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  3. you write so well, I get the feeling of that old bar. Love the sentiment

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  4. i felt it amanda, stepping from that chaos into or onto another plane (or so it seems). brilliant writing and memories, i love that you have those photos to remember. i had a very similar experiance with my family, the year was 1973 and the place was portugal. and now you have me searching through my thoughts too, i don't know if i have something that i've saved that moved me as much, but this is why i believe nothing makes you richer than travel.

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    1. lori, i agree with you ~ few things educate or enrich more than travel♡

      i hope you are able to dig up some of those memories from portugal~

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  5. Favorite sentence:
    Downtown Cairo was a maze of cars, dust and noise.

    I felt it. All of it.

    Thank you, Amanda.

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  6. Amanda, as I was reading this wonderful recollection, my first thought was, "and another great author passed through this bar, unaware of what the future held for her."

    Hope that your writing is going well as I am sending you virtual encouragement across the miles.

    Bises,
    Genie

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    1. thanks for your encouragement genie - i am working to complete a first draft of my novel by summer's end ~

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  7. What a great experience , Amanda. it felt like I was right there!You write in an authentic way and that´s why I love reading your posts.
    Have an inspiring week for your writing! Warm wishes,

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  8. Funny you post about the Shepheard; this spring, at McGill U., I was in a creative writing workshop and one of the participants, an Egytian immigrant, wrote about how his architect uncle had been involved in renovating and rebuilding the Shepheard in 1952.
    I love that banner.

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  9. Amanda, you captured the bar and the city for me. I can see them through your eyes and I'm thankful writers can do that with their words.
    I'm always looking forward to reading about your digs and your travels.

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  10. Dear Amanda, were your parents historians, archeologists or just curious travelers.;) What an experience to have as a young girl. The place in your story simple speaks of carpe diem...
    Yes, dear friend, my birthday is this Thursday - thank you for your best wishes, returned with some token - may I ask when is yours?;))
    xoxo

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    1. zuzana, my dad was in the air force and then went into business so we moved around the world growing up. i feel fortunate they my parents gave all us kids the gift of travel.

      my birthday is july 10th ~

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  11. And then, of course, Katharine gets it on in the corner with the English soon-to-be-patient, in what is all in a heated moment. The foreign correspondent in a bar during a time of strife seems to be a favorite theme of ours!

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  12. Oh the stories those walls could tell! That's so cool that your parents took you there :)

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  13. I love the imagery....the heat, the dust, the honking horns....then, inside to *another world*....the banner...how wonderful - and how true! It has taken me years to realise the truth behind those words.

    (And...*The English Patient* remains one of my favourite movies....)

    Off to our final *Nixon in China* tonight... but afterwards, I will raise a glass of Pinot Noir to you, dear Twin....

    Love,

    ♥ Robin ♥

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  14. Ah, yes. Cairo. Where a shiny Mercedes meets a dusty donkey cart in the street. And the population by day is about 6 million more than the population at night. Distinctly I remember!

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  15. Amanda, fantastic writing of time and place. I felt I was there too.

    I have never heard this expression and I just love it

    Unborn tomorrow
    And dead yesterday

    So true. There's our message again: Be Here Now

    I've enjoyed this post immensely. Thank you

    Love
    kj

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  16. seo services adelaide

    This is way too cool. You write brilliantly. While reading I felt I was there with you.

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  17. The summer of 1980, I was on an AID project in the delta with 12 other professionals. We would stay at the Shepheard when we were in Cairo. I shared many happy hours with friends and beers and gin and tonics in the dark paneled room. It was our central gathering place, looking out the west windows over the Corniche to watch the fallucas on the Nile. Like it was yesterday. A truly special place.

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Thank you for visiting♡