Saturday, December 18, 2010

Meet Zeina Aboukheir: The woman behind Al Moudira, the Middle East’s most intriguing boutique hotel

For decades, well-heeled visitors to Luxor, Egypt, have checked into the Winter Palace, a grand hotel built on the east bank of the Nile in 1886. But in 2002 a pink Oriental palace of domed suites emerged on the Nile’s less congested west side. It is in this unlikely location in the middle of rural Egypt that one will find the Al Moudira’s ochre-colored walls looming in the distance.

The soul of this unique boutique hotel is Zeina Aboukheir, its owner and managing director. Although she grew up in Lebanon, Aboukheir can best be described as a citizen of the world. An accomplished photographer and jewelry designer, she traveled and lived around the globe before falling in love with Luxor’s west bank. It was there that she decided to build her dream hotel; a cosmopolitan oasis that attracts a like-minded crowd of polyglot jetsetters and creative individuals.

"It was a pity to come here and not to find a single tourist," Aboukheir says. "Since that time, I decided to do something to bring tourists back to the area. I decided to provide the area with a certain quality of accommodation that would attract only quality tourist, which Egypt has unfortunately lost," she says.

"I don't care about the number of travelers I am getting, my concern now is much more about the quality. I do not deal with travel agencies but only with individuals," explained Aboukheir. "And, you know, I don't make any publicity, people come through word of mouth. My main goal is actually to create something like home; to let the traveler feel at home."

If Al Moudira’s guest list is anything to go by, Aboukheir may have succeeded in doing just that. In a relatively short period of time, her quietly luxurious boutique hotel has been drawing privacy-seeking celebrities such as Mick Jagger and Kate Moss, as well as haute cobbler Christian Louboutin. “Before I owned property in Egypt, I always stayed there, it feels like a family home,” explained Louboutin, who owns a flat in Paris’s first arrondissement, a houseboat on the Nile, and a house outside of Luxor.

The Al Moudira isn’t a hotel (at least not in the traditional sense of the word), but a multi-sensory experience which hits visitors the moment they walk through the large carved wooden doors of its entryway, where one will find flowers floating on a small pond inhabited by three baby crocodiles. It’s hard to escape the scent of jasmine, lemon, mango and orange trees that form part of the luscious eight-hectare terraced gardens dotted with fountains. The pool with its adjoining pavilion is a work of art; so much so that French Vogue recently used it as a backdrop for a fashion shoot.

Nestled in the middle of this oasis is the hotel itself. Instead of the overwrought marble and mirror palaces one has come to expect from 5-star establishments in the Middle East; the Al Moudira seems to invoke the homely grandeur of a stately Beirut mansion, a Turkish palace or a caravan-sarai in Damascus. No surprise since much of the Al Moudira’s architectural features have been salvaged from abandoned18th and 19th century town-houses in Cairo and villages along the Nile Delta.

To make her dream a reality, Zeina teamed up with the architect Olivier Sedaoui to create a pink domed fantasy palace inspired by her childhood memories. "The design is my idea,” explained Aboukheir, as she sat in an open courtyard sipping from a cup of cold karkadeh (hibiscus). "It is a mixture of Lebanese, Syrian and Turkish influences, whereas the colors have an Italian touch. I have lived in Italy for 10 years. It was the dream of my life," she explains. "The east bank has become noisy and I wanted a peaceful place for my project."

She would spend the next three years overseeing 150 local artisans and workman during its construction; a relationship which would also spawn the hotel’s name. During the hotel’s building phase, Aboukheir’s strong personality and persistence prompted her laborers’ to nickname her Al Moudira (the boss lady). In the preceding years she became so identified with the name amongst the local community, that when it came time for her hotel to open its doors she already knew what to call it.

Today, Zeina’s relationship with the surrounding community continues, as she is single-handedly responsible for revamping the West Bank’s economy by employing half of the nearby village; which may explain why service at the hotel is always prompt and friendly.

"I wanted the ideal of an Oriental palace; the space, the luxury, the hospitality," explained Aboukheir (who peppers her speech with “chèrie”). Not surprisingly, at the Al Moudira one gets the feeling of being a house guest in the well appointed home of a cosmopolitan aunt (with an ever revolving cast of fellow guests no less). Fluent in five languages, Aboukheir switches effortlessly between French, English, Italian and Arabic amongst her guests, who on any given day could include French aristocrats, British rock stars, and travelers fleeing the East Bank's package-tour scene, (everyone is given equal treatment by this hostess).

To give travelers the intimate feel of a private home, each one of Al Moudira's 54 rooms are grouped into units of four or more, which then open onto private courtyards lush with greenery and fountains, as well as shaded seating areas beneath wooden mashrabiya-clad porticos. The suites are no less luxurious; boasting columned archways, domed ceilings, private fountains and hand painted frescoes executed by local artisans. Aboukheir decorated each one of the rooms with pieces from her own private collection of colonial and oriental antiques, culled from souqs, bazaars, and the handicrafts of local artisans. These include Damascene mother-of-pearl inlaid tables, stately brass beds, thick Persian carpets and large vibrant throw pillows made from antique Turkish flags.

The bathrooms resemble mini hammams with vaulted ceilings sporting tiny skylights; from which morning light pours multicoloured reflections onto a sunken bathtub in the middle of the room.

The Al Moudira’s cosmopolitan vibe continues at its restaurant and two bars. One never knows who they are going to meet over a leisurely supper at the hotel’s café-terrace; a large meshrabiya-framed space decked out in cushioned couches and brass tables. One particular evening included a dashing Argentine banker from Geneva, an Austrian architect and his partner, a Lebanese socialite and a charming retired diplomat and his wife from Brussels. The menu is an intriguing blend of Lebanese, Egyptian and European fare, featuring produce grown in Al Moudira's own garden and fresh fish brought in daily.

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1 comment:

1589jaipur said...

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