I went to Cairo to direct a film on the state visit of King Khaled of Saudi Arabia. Having to make arrangements for passes and security clearance for the crew, I went thirty-six hours without food. We filmed the royal arrival at Cairo Airport.
That evening, there was a main event, the State Dinner at the Qubba Palace.
We arrived early, as was our wont, In the large estate in the middle of which sat the great palace. This had been the Royal Palace since the days of Turkish rule and the Sultan Faud who became King Faud.
It was about six o’clock in the evening and the whole crew were there. I said to Osman “Do we get to eat here ? I haven’t eaten for thirty-six hours”. He said, “ I don’t know”.
I had never known hunger like it before. It was starting to hurt.
We set up inside the Palace entrance and deployed our lights. King Khaled was to meet President Sadat there and then go inside the Place for a while for talks. After that, he was do to, re-emerge from the Palace and attend a sumptuous banquet in the grounds. The grounds were all laid out with fairy lights and street lights. Tables and chairs were set out with a small army of waiters in attendance. The food was being “dished up” in several huge marquees. The smell of the food was wafting across the lawns and I was becoming quite ill with hunger.
The King arrived and off he went inside with Sadat. I said to Osman “I must eat something or I will collapse”. He went away through the milling guests who now occupied the front entrance of the Palace.
After several minutes, Osman returned with a flunkey, all dressed up with buckled shoes, white knee-length stockings, white breeches, a tailed jacket braided in gold lame and silver decorations. He wore a white silk shirt with a white silk scarf around his neck. On his head a curled wig. I thought that I was hallucinating. How could this man exist in the Republic of Egypt, a country that had been a Republic for over twenty-five years.
In perfect English, he asked me to follow him. We wended our way through the gathered guests into a long corridor. We must have walked about sixty yards along this corridor when we turned left into another. We walked another sixty yards down that one until he ushered me into a large room.
The room was a dining room, with a table for about twenty diners. The room was luxuriously decorated. The walls were covered in great drapes of red and gold with intricate decorations. The floor was carpeted from wall to wall. The furniture was magnificent.
My guide pulled back the carver at one end of the table and invited me to sit down.
He said “Would you like a beef sandwich ?” “Oh, yes”, I said “That would be perfect”.
A few minutes later he returned with a dinner plate piled high with “beef sandwiches”, he also offered me a half-pint of fresh orange juice.
I told him what a wonderful room it was and how grateful I was to be able to have something to eat.
He said “I cannot tell you what an honour it is to be able to serve someone in this room, it is many years since I have been able to do that” . He went on to tell me what it was like when King Farouk was living in the Palace. He must have been quite old to have witnessed life with the King, he had been gone since 1952 when he was deposed and kicked out by Gamel Abdel Nasser.
I have always thought it strange that, in most countries that were former Kingdoms, the republican governments have gone to great lengths to preserve the best of the Royal Palaces and buildings. Witness the Hermitage in St. Petersburg which hasn’t changed one iota since the departure of the Romanovs over ninety years ago.
I had to sit there, in the Qubba Palace Dining Room, to recuperate after the sudden intake of food. The Chef, who had prepared the sandwiches, came out to shake my hand. It was quite an experience.
My guide took me back to the main entrance where Osman and the rest of the crew were moving their gear outside the palace where we would shoot some of the banquet scenes.
I always made a point of never shooting people eating, especially at banquets. However, I thought that it was in order to see the guests at their tables talking and awaiting their first course.
We finished shooting and Osman came over to me and said “Now we eat !”. I said “What do you mean ?” He said” We are invited to have a meal over in the press tent”.
“Do you mean that I have eaten beef sandwiches while the banquet meal awaits us in the press tent ?”. He looked a bit sheepish, knowing that somewhere, somehow, something got lost in translation.
The press tent, in fact, was one of the serving tents or marquees. They were situated within thirty or forty yards of the perimeter wall of the palace grounds. For the first time, we could see that the entire inner wall, on this side of the Palace grounds was occupied by people, by families, living in crude leant-to tents. They were the poor of Cairo with nowhere else to live. They had been invited to camp inside the Palace grounds by President Sadat. What a wonderful gesture. All this within a few yards of a State Banquet. I could imagine that, in some other places, they would have all been thrown out, at least for the duration of the State Visit.
However, the Presidential gesture was not confined to providing camping grounds, waiters from the banquet moved over to speak with the heads of family. They were instructed to go to the serving Marquees where they could gather food that had not been sent to the banquet tables. There was so much food and I became quite annoyed that I was only able to sample it.
The menu was, obviously, fit for a king. There were several courses. The encamped poor of Cairo must have seen some of the food for the first time in their lives. Nile Carp and Tilapia were on the menu. I had first eaten Tilapia in Nairobi. That fish may have come up from Lake Victoria and was extremely tasty.
There was lamb which fell off the bone and a beef stew rather like a Greek Stifado. When we left, the campers were still coming back for more. By now, they were prepared to take food sent back from the table, but the waiters would not let them eat anything that had been on someone else’s plate. The campers would have already had an enormous meal and it was a pity that none of the food could have been preserved for more than a day.
We followed the King to Alexandria, arriving before his major engagement there.
In the evening, we decided to go to dinner together. Osman knew of a restaurant which was on the edge of the Mediterranean at the extreme east end of the Alexandria Corniche.
The restaurant was a delightful place, built on the edge of the sea. We sat at a table overlooking the water. At the table was Osman Mahmoud, Farouk Foley, our Cairo crew, Felix Yiaxis, our cameraman from Cyprus Giuliani Nocco and Andrea from Rome, Peter Hellyer and myself.
Yiaxis suggested that we might start with Sardines. Up to that time, my experience of Sardines was limited to those in a tin, the “packed like sardines” type.
What arrived at the table was amazing, each sardine was about nine inches long head to tail, and fat. They were delicious and I ate five of them. When I have been able to find them on offer in the United Kingdom, I have bought them, cooked them and ate them.
We had a very enjoyable meal and returned to our hotel well fed.
The next day, we were to film the voyage of the King and the President in the Mediterranean on board the Presidential Yacht. They were to review the Egyptian Fleet, which included the destroyer “October 6th” which had famously done some damage to the Israelis in the October War.
The El Horriya was built in England in 1895 and had been built for Faud, the sultan who became king. As I write, it is acknowledged to be the fifth largest yacht in the world, it is 478 feet long. That is almost 160 yards, the length of our road in Tottenham.
After about an hour at sea, the fleet dispersed and I think we went round in circles while we took lunch. I am sure that we were offered the same lunch as the king, it was a feast fit for a king. There were lots of Arab delicacies, Mansaf with lamb and wonderful salads.
We returned to Cairo.
Next chapter: Chapter 84: You would be mad to eat in the Bazaar