Jeremy Clarke on lust, literature and luxury at one of Churchill’s favourite hotels
A retired Egyptian army officer, comfortably married, two grown-up children, is relaxing with friends by the pool at his club in the smart Maadi district of Cairo. A lifelong heterosexual, Captain Ni’mat is surprised to find his idle gaze drawn for the first time in his life towards the youthful male bodies on display around him. That night he is assailed by a powerful homoerotic dream, and the next day he finds himself casting lustful glances at his Nubian valet, Islam. During his daily massage, he asks Islam to also massage his buttocks. Islam does so, and it occurs to Captain Ni’mat that his buttocks, neglected for over 60 years, are being kneaded back to life. This thought completes a revolution in Captain Ni’mat’s consciousness, one thing leads to another, and before long he and his Nubian servant are having it off right, left and centre.
This, in a nutshell, is the plot of Le Dernier Combat du Captain Ni’mat (Captain Ni’mat’s Last Stand) by Mohamed Leftah. Leftah is highly regarded in the francophone literary world (‘An observer of the abyss. A champion of delight’). His previous novels include Young Girls of Numidia (1992), Metamorphoses of Love (2006) and The Day of Venus (2006). Captain Ni’mat’s Last Stand was one of ten books shortlisted for this year’s Prix Littéraire La Mamounia 2011, and the bookies’ odds-on favourite. The annual award, sponsored by Churchill’s favourite Marrakesh hotel, is for Moroccan novelists writing in French. Your Low Life correspondent was in residence at La Mamounia that weekend, and embedded among the très chic French and Moroccan literary hacks packed into the banqueting suite for this year’s ceremony.
My money was on Safia Azzedine’s La Mecque–Phuket (from Mecca to Phuket). I hadn’t read it. Nor any of the ten shortlisted novels competing for the 200,000 dinar (£15,000) cheque. But I’d checked out most of the writers, and I was backing Agadir-born Safia on the perhaps facile grounds that she started out in the Texas diamond trade. Also, she looks nothing like a rising literary star of the Maghreb, noted for tackling contentious issues of gender, religion and identity. With her slight frame, sexy face, and a bosom so disproportionately large it would qualify her for a disability allowance in the UK, she looks more like an internationally famous porn star who is ever so slightly over the hill. And I like that in a writer.
La Mamounia at Marrakesh appears often in top-ten lists of world-class hotels. It’s not bad either. The view from my east-facing balcony of pool, palm and Atlas mountains had a glamorous, seductive, even aphrodisiac quality. If I shut one eye and took away the vast expanse of cobalt blue in the foreground, the view was exactly that captured so colourfully by Winston Churchill in his 1935 painting ‘Sunset Over the Atlas Mountains’. (One of the Lion’s Roar’s better ones, the picture sold for auction in 2008 for £300,000.) Churchill described Marrakesh to Roosevelt as ‘the loveliest place in the world’ and he stayed at La Mamounia five times, but he probably wouldn’t recognise the building today. When Churchill first came here, it was a single-storey building. Today there are four storeys and 208 rooms.
In 2009 La Mamounia’s doors were reopened after French interior designer Jacques Garcia (Hotel Costes, Paris; The Metropole, Monaco) had revived the old girl with a revamp costing £100 million that took three years to complete. The temperature gets up into the mid-50s centigrade in Marrakesh in high summer. (‘Easily,’ said our shopping guide, daring us to think even for a moment that she was exaggerating.) And in spite of the enormous sum he was authorised to chuck at the place, the designer’s priority seems to have been one of admirable simplicity. Coolness. Some guests complain that the suites are too dark. But darkness is surely very welcome for guests retreating in disorder from a midsummer morning spent sightseeing in a furnace. There are marble pools, cisterns and fountains in all the public spaces. You are rarely out of earshot of the sound of trickling water. Outside the door of my suite was a marble fountain which wouldn’t have discredited the civic centre of an English market town.
Marble is the preferred material. If there’s the slightest excuse, it’s marble. When you aren’t looking at marble, you’re looking at that intricate, colourful ceramic mosaic tiling called zellij, and if not that, then decorative Islamic cedar fretwork called moucharabei. Doors are thick and heavy. Awnings shade the balconies, and if necessary guests can barricade themselves into their rooms behind heavy, floor-to-ceiling wooden shutters. And if all else fails, and your fantasy of pre-war French Africa colonial living is just not working out for you, there’s always the air-conditioning button.
The overall style of the hotel is Moorish splendour tempered by art déco. The hotel’s focal point is that pool, situated in the 200-year-old garden of Al Mamoun, with colonnaded paths running beside beds of flowers, cacti and home-grown veg. The high 12th-century mud walls which enclose the garden cast long evening shadows. And you can smoke! Alhamdullila! Lie back on your poolside lounger and light up a 7.1 inch Romeo y Julieta and no one gives a damn.
In the banqueting suite, the eight-judge literary panel looked like an advert for Specsavers. They stared glumly down at us from the stage. Someone had already let the cat out of the bag. One of the judges, last year’s prizewinner Mahi Binebine, had, with indescribable naivety, told a hack that the Leftah book had won it. The panel’s chair, Casablanca-born novelist Christine Orbon, looked mightily cheesed off.
A well-dressed giant gave a speech of utmost gloom and solemnity, which finally petered out on a dying fall, then Orbon briskly rapped on her microphone and announced Leftah as the winner. Warm applause. I craned my neck to see what sort of a man Mohamed Leftah was.
Unfortunately Mohamed Leftah was unable to be there in person to collect his award because (and this came as a complete surprise) he’d been dead for three years. He died in Cairo from oesophageal cancer. Not only was the winner brown bread, but his novel — although a stylish and intelligent read, and far and away the best book of the shortlisted ten by all accounts — is unobtainable in Morocco owing to its explicit portrayal of homosexual sex. Which is a great shame, say Leftah watchers, because Captain Ni’mat’s Last Stand is an important apology on behalf of Egyptian intellectuals for their failing to speak up in support of the so-called Cairo 52.
In 2001, 52 gay men partying aboard a Nile cruiser called The Queen Boat were rounded up and arrested. They were beaten, subjected to brutally invasive forensic examinations and thrown into jail. Some were charged with ‘the habitual practice of debauchery’, others with ‘contempt of religion’. A so-called ‘ringleader’ got five years’ hard labour. Twenty-one of the accused were sentenced to three years in prison. After two retrials the other 29 were acquitted. And from start to finish, apparently, the Egyptian — and indeed the entire Arab — intelligentsia kept its head down and said nothing. Not a dickey bird. Captain Ni’mat’s Last Stand is therefore something of a landmark statement in Egypt’s exciting national conversation. Speculation that his daughter might be there to accept the award on her father’s behalf foundered when we learned that she lives in Guadeloupe.
And that was it. We all fought our way out through the same door that we came in, and reassembled on the terrace beside t he pool for an incredibly civilised champagne piss-up. But where was Safia? I looked everywhere. I wanted to interview her, I said. I wanted to ask her about the predicament of the returning female évolué, and how she felt, as a Moroccan woman, at being granted equal rights just three months ago. Something like that, anyway. But could I find her?