Facing the Nile, in the hotel that once played host to Winston Churchill and his gala balls, everything was magnificent. The doors of dark and heavy wood with bevelled glass panels opened to the interior of a tale by Malba Tahan. A round central table welcomed the guests with eight delicate oil lamps: green, blue, red, purple, yellow, pink, orange and turquoise. The red velvet and golden embroidered sofas and armchairs. The pearl satin vests and ties worn by the waiters and valets, so reminiscent of the time of the British Empire. Reproductions of paintings found in the Louvre displayed on the walls, and a sign indicating the entrance to the Churchill Ballroom.

Inside the Grand Holiday Villa even silence was majestic, echoing melodies and stories of a distant past. A luxurious past when more people would be seen passing through those endless corridors.

At times a family would come into the hall: a husband in his jellabiya and turban, two or three wives in their silver-threaded veils. Everything glittered in the Grand Holiday Villa; everything was gold and silver. And as geographically mistaken as my fantasy might have been, I always expected a rajah to cross the entrance hall with his elephant adorned with precious stones.

Everything was grand at the hotel, except for the girl. She seemed to be 11 or 12. I could not judge precisely. She would wear a discreet veil in light colours – white, peach, green – which failed to conceal the vanity of a young lady.

She used to run and explore all that grandiosity. A magical but every so often threatening grandiosity given voice by her father’s warnings, as the hotel was not a place where one should be running around; neither was it the sort of behaviour to be expected of her.

However, the father, the bookkeeper of the hotel, was unaware that the girl’s fascination lay beyond what the place could hide and rested right on the top of his desk, on the pages of his accountancy records.

As in The Man Who Counted, the language of the girl’s magic world was that of numbers. The language of a world usually reserved for men. And the little princess from my creative reverie grew up and became real.

Far from the Nile River, in a street right in the centre of the city, in a much less charming hotel, she met me one afternoon to show me the place that even today I still refer to as home. Her clothes complied with the precepts of a religion of ancient traditions, but her attitude was that of a woman who would defy time and society anywhere in the globe.  Small in stature, strong in presence, her vivid eyes and sweet and friendly smile introduced me to the little girl from the Grand Holiday Villa.

She told me about the position of her father in the hotel that used to host Churchill and talked about her passion for books while fixing the veil covering her hair. Plans were made for future meetings and a close friendship between the woman of numbers and the woman of words. But they never came to be.

Too many business meetings, too many trips, two worlds apart, two different cultures. Though we may not have had frequent encounters and exchanges of confidence, every time we saw each other, we recognised ourselves as equals.

A few days after that afternoon in the city centre hotel she sent me a cake she had made. On the top of it a small note with a big message: “From your sis.”





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