Published 19 February 1995 Style Magazine 85th article
For strong stomachs only: a Cairo belly dancer (Robert Harding Picture Library)
Okay, we haven't had a quiz yet. What time do you think Miss Lucy, the belly dancer at the Nile Hilton, started her two-hour act the Friday I was in Cairo? Go on, guess. The answer is 4.30 in the morning! In Cairo nobody goes to sleep and the big stars are the belly dancers. Some people support Fifi Abdou at the Sheraton, some Miss Lucy, some Mona Said at the Meridien. We opted for dinner with Mona on the 15th floor at the oddly named La Belle Epoque, sporting a red menu with black silhouettes of a lady dancing with a monocled gent to a horn gramophone.
Mona was coming on early that night, 1.30am I was told. So I had a sleep, got up. and we presented ourselves in this enormous bam with a tired three-piece orchestra playing on a large stage. Some 20 people were lost in a room that seated 200.
We got a table for six with a Japanese party of four on our right. It looked desperately sad. I ordered a glass of wine. but a bottle appeared. It was Omar Kayyam from the Egyptian Vineyards Company. Rather sweet, no great taste, but quite harmless. Through the picture window we had an uninterrupted view of our suite at the Gezirah Sheraton. We had the inevitable and good general mix, the mezze to start and by the time we got to the sea bass, a few more people had come in. The traditional bread and butter pudding, Om Aly, was gone and it was still like sitting in an aircraft hangar at the function that time forgot.
Then at 1am things started to move. The three weary musicians left the stage and a rather grand 15-piece orchestra appeared in black
trousers and flowered shirts. An Egyptian singer, looking like a mafioso Tony Bennett (mind you, Tony Bennett looks like a mafioso Tony Bennett), started to sing Autumn Leaves. An Egyptian wedding group clapped as the bride danced well and the groom danced nervously on the stage. Then the singer started on upbeat numbers, lots more people came in, it all began to get lively. Very different from my afternoon trip to one of the vast cemeteries that surround Cairo. There, in enormous and elaborate mausoleums, some 200,000 poor people live in what is called the City of the Dead.
"Full of criminals and terrorists," my guide said. "Don't go near them."
But l walked about for two hours through historic old tombs hugging and kissing warm-hearted people, from old men without teeth to kids, who smiled and said "Welcome". It was a world beyond belief. I thought of little fires burning there now among the dust, the chickens and the goats.
My reverie was interrupted. The singer was exiting to great applause. The room had filled up. It was a quarter to two. The belly dancer's own 43-piece orchestra came on with six singers! Suddenly it was all happening. To a cacophony of rhythm, yelling and clapping the very ample Mona Said appeared, making a triumphal entrance through the tables, accompanied by six male dancers in long grey smocks waving sticks above their heads.
This was it! The star had arrived! The act was extraordinary. Bit of large-belly movement, many bespangled costume changes from a Liz Hurley safety-pin outfit to yellow sequins galore. A lot of fingerpointing at the audience accompanied by small, sexy moves. The whole thing a cross between a jolly auntie and a massively voluptuous siren.
"I bet you'd be scared if you were alone with her," Vanessa volunteered. "She'd envelop you."
"I'd be terrified," I admitted.
A few seconds later I was welcomed as the famous English film director, a microphone was thrust in my hand and I had to say a few words. Arabs who got up and danced at their tables as Mona tripped the heavy fantastic, grinned and waved at me.
A second bottle of Egyptian wine came and went. Around 4.15, Mona finished to a tumultuous roar of appreciation. The box of tissues which she'd dipped into for two hours to wipe away the sweat was discreetly taken from the side of the stage. We went back to our hotel through the x-ray check, past the soldiers on guard and up to sleep. Gosh, I thought as I nodded off - I wish they had events like that in London.
I was delighted to read Michael Winner's article "Enjoying the Nile Rushes" (February 5). We have been to Egypt seven times in recent years and still can't convince our friends that we are largely going "for the food". However, Michael missed a treat by not eating at the Jolie Ville Hotel, on an island in the river at Luxor. Here there is wonderful food (Egyptian as well as "European"), much of which is grown in the hotel's own garden. We have eaten there dozens of times everything from salads and mayonnaise to fish and ice cream and have never been ill. To eat, abundantly and well, under the stars for about £10 a head, is sheer magic. Even the Egyptian wine is improving!
Ann Batten, Christchurch, Dorset
I took advantage of the Savoy Group's special January offer of dinner for a mere tenner, the only stipulation being you must sit down by 8pm. We arrived at 7.30pm. We went to the St Quentin Brasserie. The main course was limited to a choice of two dishes, which we did not fancy, and pheasant from the trolley, but there was none left. Surely, as all the tables are pre-booked, and the dining room was full, they must have known there would be a fair demand for pheasant, and to run out before 8pm without an alternative was rather surprising. This was answered with a Gallic shrug. So we opted for the a la carte menu which is, of course, a different price. My companions ordered crab salad for starters, which was all shell and practically no meat. My fish soup was cold and, when heated up, too well done for my taste.
S Ross, London, NW8
As the owner of a small restaurant I follow Mr Winner's column every week, albeit two days late as I live in Cairo. His comments on the security situation in Egypt (February 5) are welcome in that certain reporters have convinced travellers that Egypt is unsafe and to be avoided at all costs, when, in fact, it must rate as the safest mega-city in the world, with a low crime rate. Florida's annual figures alone must lead Egypt's total attacks since the start of the Fundamentalist problem.
Robin Wrigley, Cairo, Egypt
I write regarding a New Year's Eve party we attended at the Devonshire Arms Hotel in North Yorkshire. The establishment has, in the past, enjoyed favourable write ups and holds several awards within the hotel/restaurant trade. In view of this we booked in advance and, without any further information available from the venue, turned up on the evening anticipating the delights of a gourmet five-course dinner. To our disapointment the set menu consisted of an avocado sorbet resembling a well-known brand of soap powder, a bland consomme, a red and bloody duck breast followed by tinned pears in chocolate sauce. While we all appreciate how difficult it is to cater at functions such as this, a choice or prior warning of the menu would have been appreciated. Our expectations of a band at the "Dinner Dance" were dashed as an ageing DJ took the stand to play his favourites from the 70s and 80s. Like Michael Winner, we believe in constructive criticism and followed up our evening with a personal visit to the manager, followed by various letters expressing our disappointment. We achieved nothing. In fact, as soon as we pushed the issue further, looking for some refund on the £65 per head, we were told "no further correspondence from you is expected or desired".
Mrs Williamson, Ilkley, West Yorkshire
Driving through Ipswich recently, we thought we would stop off at the local Beefeater establishment, the Royal George Hotel, for Sunday lunch. We were seated at the back of the eating area (we hadn't booked in advance and there were barely five other tables filled). We gaily ordered "three roast beefs please" to be told that "we don't do roasts on Sundays"! We gathered our belongings and left. I can recommend our local public house, the Chequers, Kettleburgh, for a hearty roast beef lunch, served without fuss, super veg and even a "half" portion for my elderly mother-in-law.
Heather Tanner, Kettleburgh, Suffolk