17 SEPTEMBER 1977, Page 4

Nile Notebook

According to Lord Edward Cecil, in his magnificent book, The Leisure of an Egyptian Official, 'No Egyptian ever profits with experience'. It is a generalisation with which 1 am tempted to agree after spending a week in Egypt as a guest of the Egyptian government. The government is generous with such invitations, which, one assumes, are designed to make a favourable impression on the visitor. But this desired effect is sometimes achieved despite, rather than because of, its efforts. A far more distinguished journalist than myself, Mr William Rees-Mogg, the Editor of The Times, felt obliged to lodge a formal protest with the Egyptian Embassy in London over the treatment he received during a visit to Cairo not long ago. I have no wish to make a protest becayse the truth is that I am very glad I went, but it would be difficult to bestow much praise on the way in which the visit was organised. Suffice it to say that, although the Egyptian Embassy itself had sent me my return air ticket to Cairo, I was not expected there, I had no hotel reservation, none of the people I had been told might see were able to see me; and this level of efficiency was sustained throughout the visit. Everyone was sorry. It was Ramadan. A telegram from the Embassy in London must have gone astray. All the same, everything possible was being done in these very difficult circumstances. I was the subject and silent witness of many an earnest conversation. My name appeared, noble in its Roman lettering, on many an Arabic form. But the obstacles were somehow too great. It still proved impossible to prepare the government officials in Luxor or Aswan for my arrival or even to reserve a hotel room. An official in Suez had apparently tried hard to get my visit postponed and was furious when I arrived. And so it went on. Kipling wrote that it was a fool who tried to hustle the East, so I displayed throughout a truly Egyptian patience verging — due to the heat — on apathy. But this exemplary behaviour did not reap its just rewards. I relate all this not from ingratitude, but as a warning to future visitors not to place too much faith in the Egyptian bureaucracy.

Let me not give the wrong impression. A chauffeur-driven car was placed at my disposal and, after one miserable night at a seedy establishment on the road to the Pyramids (the area developed as a playground for the Gulf Arabs, who are as much 'loved in Cairo as they are in London), I was lodged in the celebrated Shepheard's Hotel ,which, although rebuilt as recently as 1957, manages to convey the comforting impression of being old-fashioned. It is now a poorly run hotel, and the food is nasty (tasting rather muddy as if it has been dredged up from the bottom of the Nile. Cecil said that in Egypt all eggs tasted musty, as if they had been laid by a mummy, but I never tried one). Still, Shepheard's is somehow more agreeable than such flashy establishments as the Hilton or the Sheraton. The diningroom is huge and normally empty. I ask for the wine list. The waiter brings it and stands by me as I study it. It is a very long wine list and a very remarkable one. The youngest of the French wines is a 1957 Beaujolais. There is a Mouton Rothschild of 1952 and a Chateau Lafite of 1947. After several minutes of indecision, I order the Mouton Rothschild. It is at this point that the waiter chooses to inform me that the hotel has no French wine — only Egyptian — and, furthermore, has not had any for a number of years. Why the wine list? It is a very ancient wine list, he says complacently. This reveals something of the Egyptian character. You ask for a wine list and he gives you a wine list: you should, in his view, be completely satisfied.

My hotel bedroom provides an excellent view over the Nile, which has a mesmerising effect. The view is in other respects hideous, but is made beautiful by this vast, majestic river. One thinks of Idi Amin sitting at its source some four thousand miles away and feels like sailing up it to assassinate him in a great romantic exploit in the tradition of Speke or Baker, of Stanley or Livingstone. It was at Shepheard's, indeed, that so many nineteenth century explorers rested before or after their journeys. Although the city of Cairo is in a depressing state of decay and is desperately overcrowded with impoverished humanity, it must be one of the safest towns in the world. You discover quite soon that you need have no fear of wandering around alone at night, People are pleased to separate you from your money, but will not seek to do so forcibly. This is because the Egyptians are a good and peaceable people, only occasionally aroused to violence by extremes of provocation. They were aroused, for example, last January during the food riots. When will they be so again? It is widely held that frustration is growing. The only excuse, in Egyptian eyes, for President Sadat's slavish loyalty to the Americans is that it may lead to some relief from the grinding poverty which afflicts so many Egyptians. 8o far there is no sign of substantial economic improvement. Investment on a major scale will only come with peace, and peace seems further away than ever. Sadat tries to sustain hope by announcing project after project that will make the desert bloom in the 1980s, while continuing to rely on the Americans to bring pressure on Israel. Officials in Cairo maintain that America's dependence on Saudi Arabia (Sadat's chief supporter and paymaster) is far greater than is generally supposed, and that America In the end will squeeze acceptable concessions from Israel. But can she? The best one can conclude is that the prospects for Sadat are extremely uncertain.

There is no space to discuss the extraordinary beauty of Egypt, but any visitor must go to Luxor and must stay in Roan 331 of the Winter Palace Hotel where he can enjoy the best view both of the Nile and of the temple. The only thing wrong with Luxor is that the demands for bakshish (which simply means a 'gift') and the attempts to sell one repulsive souvenirs are exceptionally intrusive and persistent. The 1929 Baedecker, in its section entitled 'Intercourse with Orientals', advises one how to say 'Be off' in Arabic and suggests that this should be done in a manner both calm and imperious. But I found that I couldn't manage the necessary air af unruffled authority. For this reason, I have returned home with a model of the sacred Ibis, which 1 did not want but purchased at nearly three times the normal price. 1 liked my guide, however. He knew little abat!t Ancient Egypt, but was a supreme music. hall comedian. His visiting card read!' `Gasem Ahmed. Guide. Speaks Enghs"' French, German and Italian. 56 years experience.' Despite such vast experience, he managed to state convincingly that we, were the most wonderful audience he haa tote ever had, and he was referring to a Li unusually charmless group. What warmea me most to Egypt was that my companions hated it and swore that they would never visit the country again.

Alexander Chancellor