50-year saga to reclaim Egypt’s ‘Cecil Hotel’

It took exactly half a century for the Metzger family to reclaim ownership of the Cecil Hotel, the illustrious palace overlooking Egypt’s Mediterranean and immortalised in Lawrence Durrell’s classic, “The Alexandria Quartet.” “I can’t believe it, after all these years of lost hope,” said Patricia Metzger, the British daughter in-law to Albert Metzger who owned the Cecil and was kicked out of Egypt in 1957 “with only two suitcases”. Albert Metzger came from a Jewish family in Alsace-Lorraine in eastern France. Born in Egypt, he was given one week by authorities to leave the hotel that his father founded in 1929.Fleeing westward towards Libya, he reached Malta then Italy before finally settling in England.

All efforts to come back to his native Egypt were in vain. Tens of thousands of the country’s foreign and Jewish elites fled Egypt where the hostile mood following the creation of Israel made them suspect or at least unwelcome.

Looking towards the Mediterranean Sea, the Cecil palace, which once attracted Alexandria’s rich cosmopolitan elite, was nationalised by late president Gamal Abdel Nasser after Egypt’s nationalist revolution in 1952.

It is now an 86-room four-star hotel run by French company Accor.

After marathon negotiations, an agreement was signed between the Egyptian government and the heirs to the once glistening palace which in its heyday hosted the likes of Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, British writer Lawrence Durrell and the infamous Al Capone.

Patricia and her son John, 40, who now live in Tanzania, signed the deal with Egypt’s tourism holding company Hotac, returning to the family the hotel which they have now sold back to Egypt for an undisclosed amount.

“A page has been turned, a terribly moving one,” said Patricia.

“Justice has finally won, but it took too long,” said the elderly lady, who celebrated her engagement at the palace in 1956 before her forced exile.

After his expulsion, Albert began a new life with his family in Tanzania. In Dar Es-Salaam, he bought the New Africa hotel, which itself was nationalised after the independence of the east African country in 1964.

“My grandfather was a real adventurer, a man of great strength who cashed in before dying in 1971,” said John Metzger, a Canadian citizen.

After Albert’s death, Patricia and her two children spent the “nightmare” of 1970s in the courts trying to reclaim ownership of the Cecil. In 1996, a court ruled in their favour, but the ruling was never carried out.

The Egyptian government had quietly opposed the deal, for fear of creating a precedent. The official “owner”,  the Egyptian state-owned Egoth Hotel chain, claimed it had spent $4.5 million (3.3 million euros) to turn Cecil into a luxury hotel.

A source close to the negotiations said that Egoth had been dragging its feet over a settlement with the Metzgers who demanded $10 million for the palace, minus money spent on so-called renovations.

While its Moorish-style facade was barely altered, the interior hallways and the terrace suffered under renovations by the Egyptian state.

Gone was the mirror where Justine, Durrell’s heroine in The Alexandria Quartett, used to see her reflection. The immense patio bordered by an interior gallery was destroyed making for a skimpy entrance hall.

Alexandria’s jet-setters crossed paths at the Cecil, whose walls were witness to lavish parties and intimate rendezvous. It is there that the British General Bernard Montgomery, who beat Italian and German troops in the key World War II battle of El Alamein in 1942, was billeted.

“We were terrified, General [Erwin] Rommel was only 110 kilometres away, and every night I would go to the Cecil bar in search of news,” remembers Max Salama, 92, the head of Alexandria’s tiny Jewish community, referring to the German field marshal nicknamed the “Desert Fox”. Of the 30,000 Jews who lived in the northern Egyptian city before the mass expulsion, only some 20 remain, including two men —  eight short of the number required to form a prayer assembly.

“My father was a tailor to Nasser, that is why we managed to stay,” said Ben Gaon, who sat in the vast and empty synagogue on Alexandria’s Nebi Daniel Street.

During their short visit to Egypt, Patricia and John Metzger spent their first night at the Cecil and managed to recover a few of Albert’s personal items: a watch, a pair of boots and some volumes of an Encyclopedia Britannica.

“It’s a relief for us, and the beginning of a new era for the hotel,” said Magdy El Badry, the hotel director. Renovations are planned “in the spirit of Cecil’s bygone era”.

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