Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Of Nasser and Cleopatra

This anecdotal history about the creation of the Cleopatra cigarette was recounted to "Al-Bab" by Kamal K. Katba, a former general manager of the Egyptian Chamber of Tobacco, where he worked from 1952 until 1968. The story, told in the first person, goes like this:

In the winter of 1960-1961, Syria was still the northern province of the "United Arab Republic" – the union of Egypt and Syria. And we at the Chamber of Tobacco managed to establish a kind of common market with the Syrian Tobacco Monopoly. This we hoped would be the prelude of a common market between all of the members of The League of Arab States (the Arabs are still waiting and praying for their useless League to establish that common market).

A few weeks after our agreement with our Syrian brothers, Egypt decided to hold an international exhibition on the Cairo exhibition fairgrounds at Gezira. The board of directors of the Chamber of Tobacco, after consultation with the Syrians, decided to build a large pavilion in which samples of Egyptian and Syrian tobacco products would be nicely displayed. It was left to me to implement that decision.

A couple of days before the inauguration of the exhibition, we were advised by the cabinet of the Minister of Commerce that the late President Nasser would himself attend the inauguration.

Because of the importance of the event, we decided that all members of the board, led by Joseph Matossian, its chairman, plus myself, and others, would form a committee to welcome President Nasser and show him around.

On the day of the inauguration ceremony, Nasser arrived with members of the Free Officers group. We received him at the entrance of the pavilion, we shook hands with the utmost respect (he even hugged old Mr. Matossian), and we took him around briefing him about each of our tobacco products on display.

At the end of his tour, we offered Nasser a Belmont - our number one brand - and offered cigarettes and cigars to all the dignitaries in his company. They all obliged but Nasser himself, a chain smoker, declined to accept our cigarettes. Instead he put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a pack of illegally smuggled Kent cigarettes. I lit his cigarette with my lighter while all the assistants were looking on with surprise. Nasser felt a little uncomfortable with the situation, and apologized to us claiming that he was used to the Kent and any change of brand would irritate his lungs.

It suddenly dawned on him that what he was doing was illegal and was a kind of faux pas, considering the context. He looked at us and chuckled, saying, “Shoufo kidda ya geda’an (Look here guys), if you make me a cigarette similar to the Kent, I’ll be your first and your best client.” Matossian looked at Nasser and responded, “Mr. President, your wishes are our orders.”

The next morning Matossian called me up and said, “Ya Kamal, we promised the rais that we would make him a cigarette similar to the Kent. I want you to go down to the black market where they sell the American cigarettes and I want you to buy three cartons of Kent. We’ll have them analyzed and we’ll see what the exact blend is, and we’ll create something similar.”

So I went to Kasr el-Nil street where they sold contraband on the sidewalk. I bought three cartons and took them back to Matossian. Weeks later I was phoned and told that some samples were ready. Matossian got his designers in the company to design a box that was very similar to the Kent box at the time – white with gold inlay.

We then had to decide what we were going to name the cigarette. A Hollywood film in production with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor called “Cleopatra” was making headlines at the time. Taylor and Burton were having an affair, and there was a huge scandal surrounding the actors and the film. It was also the most expensive movie ever made at the time at around $20 million dollars. Therefore we thought "Cleopatra" would be a good name for our cigarette. True, Cleopatra was of Macedonian origin, but she was after all the Queen of Egypt at one time, and an icon. We also figured we would not need to advertise the new brand as the film was, and would continue, doing all the promotion work on our behalf. It was decided.

We felt that since the cigarettes were created at the behest of Nasser, that the first person to try them should be the President himself. We had four Cleopatra cartons wrapped with golden paper and silver ribbons, and had a letter signed by Matossian attached to the parcel. The chairman and myself drove to the Kubbeh Palace, which was then the site of the presidential offices. There we were received by Mr. Abdel Meguid Farid, then the General Secretary of the Presidency who thanked us on behalf of Nasser.

A few months later, a friend of ours was getting married to the daughter of General Rashad Hassan, Nasser’s aide-de-camp. We actually knew both families and helped to introduce the young couple. So of course we attended the wedding. It was held at the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, which is now the Presidential Palace of Mubarak. We were seated just next to the main wedding table. There was a long delay in serving dinner and rumours were rife that Nasser was expected to attend.

So finally after waiting an eternity, in comes Nasser with his entourage of bodyguards and he is given a seat right in between the married couple – just a few meters away from my wife and myself. Nasser was a chain smoker and I knew that the first thing he would do was to light a cigarette. I was dying to see what cigarette he would smoke. After hugging the newlyweds and sitting down, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his pack of cigarettes and put them on table in front of him.

He wasn’t smoking his usual Kents, nor was he smoking Cleopatra, the cigarette of Egypt which we worked for months to create at his request - he was smoking L&M! Another contraband American cigarette!

We never knew in the end whether this chain-smoking, Egyptian nationalist president ever departed from his beloved American cigarettes and gave in to the seductions of Cleopatra. My guess is, probably not.

Kamal K. Katba worked for The Chamber of Egyptian Tobacco, a branch of The Federation of Egyptian Industries, from 1952 until 1968. In that same year, he emigrated to Canada. He worked for the Canadian Federal Government in various capacities between 1973 until his retirement in 1999.


Anonymous said...

Hello John

I love the story. Very nicely told.

Very nice blog.


Anonymous said...

Hello,my name is Marius,i'm from Romania and i want to find out a couple of things about this brand of egyptian cigarettes.If you have time to answear to some questions for me,related to this subject,i would be very grateful! can you give me your email?or should i give you mine? thanks!