Religion, decrepitude threaten downtown Cairo bars

Many of the establishments have fallen into disrepair and disrepute as Egyptians grow more observant of Islam.

cairo bar 88 248 (photo credit: )
cairo bar 88 248
(photo credit: )
Armed with a bottle of Egyptian brandy and a bowl of steaming chickpeas, Hatem Fouad keeps watch each night over a historic slice of Cairo that is in danger of dying: the bars that once flourished amid the sweeping boulevards and graceful roundabouts of the city's European-style downtown. The former police officer is part of a cadre of older Egyptian men who frequent drinking holes and belly dancing cabarets chronicled by Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz in the 1940s and popular with Cairo's artists and intellectuals until the late 1970s. Many of these establishments have fallen into disrepair and disrepute as Egyptians grow more observant of Islam, with its prohibition on alcohol, and the country's elite migrates away from the traffic-choked streets of the now crumbling downtown. "They were part of an Egypt that doesn't exist anymore," said Alaa el-Aswani, who immortalized the remnants of the downtown bar scene in his best-selling 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building. He was talking about the heyday of the bar and nightclub era - when anyone from King Farouk, Egypt's last monarch, to the British playwright-composer Noel Coward, might show up in a Cairo club. "This Egypt was very liberal, very tolerant," Aswani said. "You had the bars, you had the synagogues, you had the churches, you had the mosques. Everyone was absolutely allowed to practice religion, to go and drink or whatever." Cairo at the time was filled not just with Egyptians, but with Jews from various Middle East countries, Greeks, Italians and other Europeans who frequented the bars and restaurants sprinkled among the downtown's ornate belle epoque buildings. Mahfouz's novels describe the wealthy patronizing these establishments and the denizens of Cairo's medieval back alleys sometimes venturing into the brightly lighted downtown for a drink. The 1952 ouster of Farouk and the nationalization of businesses chased away many of the Europeans. Then, in the 1980s, millions of Egyptians returned from working in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia with both money and the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam. They formed a new Egyptian middle class that had little interest in spending the night drinking Egypt's Stella beer and Bolonachi brandy in places like Bar Massoud, a hole in the wall on a busy street in the downtown Bulaq neighborhood. "There used to be seven bars in this area. Now there are only two. It's because everything is forbidden now," said Magdy Michel, who owns Bar Massoud and, like most of Cairo's bar operators, is Christian. As middle- and lower-class Egyptians increasingly turned toward Islam, the elite migrated to trendy bars in wealthier Cairo neighborhoods. "The rich people and the high-ranking people in the regime, when they drink they don't go to the downtown bars, so they don't need these bars," Aswani said. To assuage Islamic fundamentalists, he added, the Egyptian government has made it difficult for bars to get or renew liquor licenses. Downtown bar owners also say they face pressure from police officers demanding bribes and threatening to arrest customers. "We get harassed by the lower-ranking police officers," said Michel at Bar Massoud. "Corruption is everywhere." Ex-policeman Fouad said he had to talk to "some friends" to avoid trouble with the law at his favorite drinking spot, the Gemayka - pronounced like the Caribbean island. "The police don't bother us here," he said. Many downtown bars such as Bar Massoud and the Gemayka have a speakeasy feel, with men drinking and trading jokes behind windowless, nondescript facades meant to avoid scrutiny from the street outside. The barmen work hard to make sure their customers keep coming. They scurry about offering complimentary fava and lupin beans, cucumbers and occasionally yogurt to coat the stomach. Vendors wander in throughout the night hawking newspapers, peanuts and even full meals. In some bars, the entertainment is firmly traditional, featuring recordings by legendary Arab diva Umm Kalthoum, whose music transfixed the Middle East for four decades until her death in 1975. The mournful nostalgia of her hour-long ballads fits well with a scene that feels as though it's living on borrowed time. In most bars, though, satellite television has made its inroads, and the customers watch bad Hollywood action movies with Arabic subtitles. It's a far cry from the 1940s, when downtown Cairo's greatest attraction was cabarets where the Middle East's best belly dancers shimmied their hips. Now the top dancers are often from Brazil or Russia and tend to appear at the city's five-star hotels, hastening the decline of the old venues downtown. One exception is the Shahrazad, a belly dance club under nine-meter-high ceilings, with velvet curtains and large Arabian Nights-style murals that were recently renovated by Egypt's largest alcoholic beverage company - part of an effort to restore downtown establishments to their former glory. The company also produced a map of downtown bars and cabarets in an attempt attract young Egyptians and foreigners. "If we can bring tourists and foreigners back to downtown, I think it is good for Egypt," said Philippe Saintigny, head of marketing at Al Ahram Beverages Co., which produces Stella beer - a brand founded in 1897 and now produced under the guidance of Holland's Heineken brewery.