At the cataracts of the river Nile in Aswan, where François Mitterrand decided to run for president in 1987


“I want to go back to Egypt soon, it has been almost one year since I been there last, I miss Egypt” said my wife Dr. Virginie Wolff at our house in the French town Brive la Gaillarde gazing at me with eyes full of longing.  This time we chose Aswan city south of Egypt since she already has been to the North coast, Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada in preceding years.  Our only concern was the heat as her busy schedule only allowed her a week-off in May this time.  We checked the weather forecast for Aswan and the expected 35° degrees temperature average in this time of the year didn’t sway us off.  Our choice for a Hotel landed on “Old Cataract”, as we were mesmerized by the photos of 19th-century Victorian palace on the banks of the river Nile.  It seemed to offer us the cultural depth we are used to experiencing in the French towns of the South and appears to add a blend of remnants of a 4000-thousand-year ancient Egyptian civilization on the river islands surrounding it.

Virginie and I were having breakfast on the Hotel terrace enjoying an extension of blue-greenish Nile waters, green surrounding it, and looking at scattered ancient temples and sanctuaries on the river islands and banks listening to the songs of joyful birds chasing each other in an orchestra of fairylike scene when we were interrupted.  We were interrupted by a deep voice of am Hussain Hashem saying: “Is there anything else I can do for you sir?” (am is a local word used for older people with no university education, it equals Mister).  I looked at am Hussain’s tanned age carved Aswani face and asked: “how long have you been working here am Hussain?” he replied with a smile: “oh more than thirty years sir”. When Dr. Wolff and I chose to spend our vacation in this hotel we had no idea about the long list of celebrities who had made it a frequent destination of their own.  Walking to our room as we checked-in we could not help but notice many portrays of frequent celebrity visitor’s photos hung on the corridors leading to the rooms.  Names like Tsar Nicholas II, last emperor of Russia, Winston ChurchillHoward CarterMargaret ThatcherJimmy CarterPrincess DianaQueen Noor of Jordan, Omar El-Sherif and Agatha Christie, who actually set portions of her novel Death on the Nile at the hotel. Furthermore the 1978 film of the novel was shot there.  On December 2007 Le Figaro published an article titled: “When Mitterrand spent the holidays in a hotel in Aswan” in which Sophie Huet said that he made the decision to represent himself at the Élysée Palace in December 1987 from this same Hotel.  I couldn’t resist then asking am Hussain about his personal encounters with some of these celebrities.  Am Hussain who was born in “Bahaa reef” village in Aswan, graduated hotelier school and joined Old Cataract staff since 1988 said he chose this career because he always had a passion for meeting people from all over the world without having to travel.  “I have had the pleasure of servicing tourists from various countries of the world, France, England, America, Sweden, Germany, and Austria are just examples, in the 80s the majority came from France and England” am Hussain said.  “I found the French more into etiquette and refinement whilst the English are good but they are more into discipline and seriousness,” he added.  One of the main differences Hussain noticed between tourists in the 80’s and nowadays is that the 80’s tourists were more into monuments and culture, they used to come with their books and had very specific agendas of what they wanted to visit, whereas nowadays tourists are more into leisure tourism, swimming pools, scenery and fine cuisine. Nevertheless, tea-time and sunset view were more appreciated by the 80s until 2005 tourists than current ones.  “I have serviced president François Mitterrand on multiple visits, he used to sit on this table (pointing to a table next to us) and drink his Roselle (Hibiscus) juice.  Hussain served President Sarkozy as well, but at the time he was still France’s minister of interior.  “Ex. Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy used to sit on table 7 here, when he sat he didn’t use to face the Nile like most but rather faced the people, he used to prank with the staff saying you want to come with me to Italy? The staff members say sure sir, then he would say-with a smile- no it is much better here in Aswan,” am Hussain recollected as he was giggling. Hussain continued chatting me about his long list of celebrity encounters on the grounds like, president Bush, Condoleezza Rice, actors Claudia Cardinale, Morgan Freeman, Jane Fonda, and Omar Sherif.   Hussain concluded his chat with me by expressing his excitement that the tourists are coming back to Aswan after a few years of slow traffic, evidenced by the fact that he has not seen the Hotel full in May (out of season) like he does today.


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