Fashion / Weddings

Shelby Hodge’s Own Romantic Engagement Story — How Architect Shafik Rifaat Won Her Heart

Russian Caviar, French Champagne and an Empress' Former Bedroom Make for a Cairo Dream

BY // 02.14.20

Ah, February, the month of romance. Love is in the air. Cupid is warming up his bow. And our thoughts are turning to romantic engagements. This is a new PaperCity series of engagement stories that will continue throughout the year.

My heart glows as I recall when Shafik Rifaat dropped to one knee and asked for a lifetime together. There was Russian caviar and French champagne and the gilded setting was Empress Eugénie’s former bedroom in a palace on the Nile in Cairo.

It could not get anymore romantic.

We had been seriously dating for almost a year (a decade after we had dated briefly, but that’s another story). Shafik invited me to accompany him on a business trip to Cairo, where he was born. We had talked about dancing together into our 80s, being blissfully together forever but never actually talked about getting married.

Then in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport as we waited for our connecting flight, we strolled over to a display of diamonds and Shafik said with a huge smile, “If we are going to get married, we should look at rings.”

I was thrilled. But the subject didn’t surface again during our days of exploring Egypt’s antiquities. I was getting anxious. It didn’t help that when we checked into the Winter Palace in Luxor, we were required to have separate rooms because we were not married. (That did not mean that we slept separately.)

Finally, when back in Cairo, I boldly suggested that if we were going to become engaged, maybe we should pick out a ring. Shafik agreed and we found a lovely ruby ring surrounded by diamonds. But Shafik kept it, saving its presentation for just the right moment.

We had checked back into the historic Cairo Marriott, in the chichi Zamalek district on Gezira Island.  The heart of the hotel is a palace which was built by the Khedive Isma’il Pasha in 1869. He ordered the palace designed in the style of Versailles to impress Emperor Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugénie. Legend has it that the Pasha was in love with her, thus the ornate gilded confection that certainly sets the stage for romance.

On our visit, some 116 years later, the empress’ bedroom had been converted into a very classy bar with enormous crystal chandeliers, the Versailles-influenced gilded mirrors and decorative elements blending with the ornate sensibilities of the Ottoman Empire design.

Shelby Hodge & Shafik Rifaat
Shafik Rifaat & Shelby Hodge in Prague

We found a quiet sitting area in front of Empress Eugénie’s fireplace and there, after the champagne and caviar had arrived, Shafik went to one knee and with ring in hand officially asked for my hand. Of course, I said yes. Sadly, there are no photos of the moment.

To continue the romance with travel and with one another, we were married twice — by the captain on an Alaskan cruise and by an Alaskan JP — and had a blessing of the civil marriage at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston.

That was 32 years ago and I have to say, and our friends and family will agree, that we are still as crazy about one another as then.  Shafik, who enjoys the distinction of being FAIA and FAICP, continues his architectural practice, SIR Inc. Architects & Planners and his post as a tenured professor in the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design.

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