The decline of the Egyptian Bar Scene

An interesting article  in the International Herald Tribune writes about the decline of the Cairo bar scene:

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 city center.

The former police officer is part of a cadre of older Egyptian men who frequent drinking holes and belly dancing cabarets chronicled by the 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 central city.

“They were part of an Egypt that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Alaa al-Aswany, who immortalized the remnants of the Cairo 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.

There  has been a movement, led by non-Egyptians,  to rejuvenate the Cairo downtown bar-scene over the last couple years (mentioned in the story).  However, I’m ambivalent about whether this is something that should be encouraged.  The overwhelming majority of Egyptians are opposed to bars and alcohol consumption, and, contrary to what Alaa Aswanty implies or outright says,  this is not a matter of Islamic fundamentalism.   So I don’t see anything particularly intolerant or backwards about discouraging the presence of bars, especially in working class downtown neighborhoods. 

See this Egyptian Chronicles post for an Egyptian perspective.   I agree with Zeinab.  Alaa Aswany likes to look back nostalgically at the good old days (ie before Nasser) as if this  period represented the heyday of progress and tolerance.  I suspect  that, statistically, the amount of Egyptians who drank alcohol before the Revolution (and similarly the % that rejected it) and those who do now is very similar- very, very small.   Both pre-Rev and post-Rev the overwhelming majority of Egyptians did not drink alcoholwhich they consider prohibited according to the basic rules of Islam.    The difference is that  before 1952 , Egypt was dominated by foreign, non-local rule and customs which made it more socially acceptable for the small number of Muslims who drank, to do it openly.  Once the foreigners were kicked out,  its only natural that Egypt return to its native culture, which for 90% of the population, is clearly inconsistent with a bar culture.

….

Aswany says resistance to bars in downtown Cairo is a sign of Islamic fundamentalism.  I disagree and think its the other way around.  The presence of bars, something clearly inconsistent with Islamic values,  is what causes Islamic fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism is a return to what are pure Islamic values.  From 700 through the 1800s, there were no bars whatsoever in Egypt.  Only with foreign (non-Muslim) colonialism did they appear.   The imposition of something so clearly un-Islamic, is what causes the society’s desire to return to what is clearly Islamic.   So I do not necessarily  believe it is a sign of backwardness and negative fundamentalism for Egyptian society to have emptied Cairo out of its bar scene.

….

Why is the  narrative (especially the framing in the fundamentalist context) always   defined by AlaaAswany .  Why is he the official spokesperson for Egyptian cultural mores?  Sure he is very accessible so maybe its easier as a reporter to get ahold of him. but his politicaland social views are not shared by large percentages of Egyptians.   I am certain that intellectuals such as Rafiq Habib, Fahmy Huwedi, Hussuam Tamem, all more established and influential inside Egypt,  would also have different takes on this story.  They certainly wouldn’t see cutting back on bars as some kind of regressive return to fundamentalism.

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5 Responses

  1. You’re probably right, but as a thirsty Westerner – especially if you’re new to town – finding somewhere “pub-like” to have a drink is next to impossible. Five-star hotels? No thanks – soulless, Western-themed, vastly over-priced. The Cairo Jazz Cafe and various other dancing joints? Nope, for the same reasons, with the added annoyance of oh-so-trendy children of the moneyed Egyptian classes. Bellydancing? God forbid. You’re pretty much left with places like Bar Horreya and the Stella Bar, or squinting into the sun through the hothouse glass at the Excelsior. Or there’s the great Deals …

    There’s no shortage of bars or bottle-shops, really, but they can take one hell of a job finding.

  2. I agree with you. In this post I was writing with my analyst of Egyptian society hat on. But when I have my American in Cairo hat on, I do like going to some of the bars mentioned in the story.

  3. I think your analysis is right. Lamenting the lack of colonial-era watering holes is paying scant regard to the contemporary non-Copt Muslim majority. Cairenes are remarkably tolerant of the bars that do exist. I wonder what you make of Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Brahim’s decision to empty the Grand Hyatt’s cellars though?

  4. from an Islamic standpoint, I think he had a logical arguement.

    However, thats irrelevant because he willingly agreed to follow the rules of the game in Cairo which are- to get a 3 stars or higher rating, you have to agree to sell alchohol. You cant take the rating, and then suddenly have a change of heart a couple years later.

    Or you can change your mind and ban alchohol but the state has their legal right to reduce the hotel to two stars which would have killed revenue (because he could only charge 2 star rates).

    So thats what happened. He backed down and began reserving alchohol, knowing that he was gonna lose his stars.

    If he was that concerned about serving alchohol, he never should have agreed to do business in Cairo in the first. Its hypocritical to make a big deal out of it after the fact in my view.

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