EGY.COM - ZAMALEK
by Samir Raafat
Embassy Row: Saudi Embassy (Tewfik Doss Pasha House) center
Because of the Pasha's intervention Guido Gavassi refused to append his name to the villa he had just designed in Zamalek. This was 1929-30 and the pasha in question was Senator Tewfik Doss, the Presbyterian scion of a well to do Coptic family in Assiut, Upper Egypt. His new villa overlooking the Nile on Mohammed Mazhar Street (No. 11) had been built in the Italo-Gothic style, which, according to Gavassi, could not indulge a wrap-around balcony on its first floor. Nevertheless the pasha remained adamant much to the Italian architect's dismay.
"As it turned out," recalls his youngest daughter Laila (a.k.a. Lilly) 65 years later, "this protrusion became our favorite spot. It was there, on that wonderful balcony overlooking the Nile that together with my sister and four brothers we gathered for breakfast and afternoon tea while admiring the wondrous river flowing beneath us. During high flood season it felt like we were on a houseboat."
Today, the Tewfik Doss mansion is better known as the Saudi Arabian ambassadorial residence. Sold to the Saudi government in the 1960s lock, stock and multiple obussons not forgetting the collection of life-size naked Italian marble statues adorning the 3000 sq. meter garden. All this for the paltry sum of LE 70,000! These were hard times when sequestration, confiscation and nationalization were rampant. Discretion and low profile were of the essence.
The mansion's new Saudi occupants proceeded to add an entire floor plus a huge outdoor Nileside esplanade. Painted over in white with new columns, trimmings etc added here and there (minus the naked statues) the mansion looks like a White House sur-Nil. No doubt this is one of the grandest Cairo residences especially since there are only 14 villas of its kind directly situated on the Nile embankment.
A lawyer by profession, like many of his peers Tewfik Doss had made himself a career in party politics. But unlike most of his generation Doss was not a Wafdist preferring to join the royalist Liberal Constitutional Party instead.
Twice during King Fouad's reign Doss held cabinet posts. It was therefore in his capacity as minister of communication/transport in 1931 that he welcomed the Graf Zeppelin to Egypt and played official host to the groundbreaking ceremony of the new Kasr El Nil Bridge. The bridge would have a cataclysmic impact on the island of Zamalek transforming it from a suburb into a bona fide Cairo district.
Up until WW2 the island was a laid back bedroom community. Vegetables and fruits were purchased from the northern tip of the island where farms were still in evidence. "Gardeners also came from these farms," says Lilly. "We had no use for a bowab since it was those very same fellaheen who mounted guard on our entire district."
Tewfik Doss's neighbors although of comparable standing were sometimes a nuisance. "There was no sympathy between Elias Awwad Pasha and my father!" exclaims Lilly. The aggravation, which led to a court case, began when Awwad decided to build his house too close to the Doss property thus obliterating part of their view.
The Awwad house has several interesting stories attached to it. For instance its renown French designer Auguste Perret (photo) rather than personally inspect the area's layout, preferred to mail the villa's drawings from Paris; the architect of Avenue Montaigne's art deco Theatre des Champs Elysées was a busy man. Informed that Awwad's plot of land stood on a Nile embankment, Perret proceeded to place the front door on the Nile side thinking perhaps that Cairo had no streets and guests arrived by boat. Understandable therefore that the villa's orientation was reversed during the early phases of construction so that its main facade now overlooked Mohammed Mazhar Street.
Years later the Awwad house was the scene of a suicide and a homicide which earned it the reputation of being haunted. While the former victim was Elias Awwad's sibling it was his wife who was brutally murdered by her hired help. "She was not known to be generous," was Lilly Doss's only comment on this gruesome affair. In any case the haunted house was sold by the Awwad heirs, Pierre and Youssef, and ultimately torn down to be replaced by the bunker-style Swedish Embassy at No. 13 Mohammed Mazhar.
Another neighboring villa that eventually became "that noisy embassy next-door" is that which belonged to Finance Minister Ahmed Abdel Wahab Pasha and his first wife Ra'aya Faizi, before it was acquired by the Iraqi government.
Lilly Doss also remembers Madame Sati Topalian-Chaker. She was the Armenian lady across the street who had an exquisite collection of objets d'arts. When Lilly asked the suave Middle East director of Wagons why he had married such an unattractive woman Monsieur Janig H. Chaker explained how his first wife had been a raving beauty and how she ultimately ran off with someone else. This time around he was taking no chances! The Norman-style Chaker Villa "Les Eucalyptus" built circa 1928 is today the Armenian Embassy courtesy of Madame Sati's estate.
What about the Doss mansion, what interesting stories did it conceal?
Not many according to Lilly, or is it that she doesn't care to probe into her family's past? In any case she had that little nugget to spare. The crown prince of Ethiopia was a serial visitor whenever in Cairo. On one such visit it was rumored that he had asked for Lilly's hand in marriage. The bond between the Tewfik Dosses and the Haile Selassis besides being one of religion was also one of trust and respect. Which is why the Negus's grandson spent all of 40 days in the house by the Nile in order to recuperate from a chest condition.
But what does it take to run a house of that size, especially one that entertains dignitaries of that caliber? The reply came with a lot of laughter from a Lilly who at upper-eightysomething seems to fend for herself in an 8th floor apartment in Garden City. "We had at least 13 hired help not including the makwagi (ironer/drycleaner) and the ghassala (washerwoman), all of them live-in. It was very much the upstairs-downstairs saga. The highest monthly wages in those days was seven pounds."
When Tewfik Doss Pasha entertained he did so generously but with an edge for local color and taste. He did not shirk from adding Taamia, Fool (beans), Adss (lentils) and Bossara to the general fare next to the roasted duck, the turkey and the stuffed lamb. "The first plates to be wiped out were our national dishes," says Lilly proudly.
"Naturally father entertained political figures, leading industrialists as well as family friends and relations." There were also the many Assiut cousins who visited at length during Sham el Nessim week. Lilly's maternal grandfather, Habib Shenouda Pasha, was the sometime Coptic omda (mayor) of Assiut in the days when Egypt's southern capital sported twin omdas, a Copt and a Moslem.
There were also the charity events hosted by Lilly Doss who, along with several like-minded women, formed the Society of Tahseen Al-Seha in 1936. Regular supporters at Lilly's fund-raisers were primo belly dancer Tahia Carioca and singer/actress Asmahan.
Since Tewfik Doss Pasha was a director in several of Egypt's blue chip companies, it was not unusual to find the captains and kings of Egypt's economy gathered at his house. Most were privileged guests at the annual Ramadan Iftar which was a long time tradition at the Doss mansion, a clear show of solidarity among Moslems and Copts.
Not a regular at the Doss mansion was Sir Miles Lampson, the dominating British ambassador who regarded the pasha as an undesirable pro-German element "and a prime candidate for house arrest," cackles Lilly. "The animosity came from father's wartime off the cuff remark that the German Luftwaffe was superior to the RAF."
Another wartime stance that may have earned the Pasha British antipathy was his designation as defense lawyer for the two Zionist terrorists who murdered Lord Moyne in 1944. But since the culprits readily admitted their crime there was no defense case to be made. All that remained was "for justice to hang them slowly" a phrase largely attributed by the frenzied press to the pasha-politician from Assiut.
Tewfik Doss Pasha died in 1950 and was buried with all the honors due his stature and rank. "Thank God he did not live to see the dismal changes that took place a few years later!" exclaims Lilly with a sad look in her usually sparkly eyes.