A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Huffington Post on the Bars of Cairo? Actually, Worth a Read and it Reminds Me of a Story...

Since I noted in my earlier post that today's news wasn't very inspiring, a little social commentary may be in order. Thanks to a link from The Arabist, I was led to this interesting piece over at The Huffington Post, of all places, about the decline of Cairo's non-elite downtown bars.

This is actually a good story, and what gives it away is that the authors were not just going to middle class bars but to the baladi bars in "popular" working-class neighborhoods like Bulaq. I know the Bar Massoud in Bulaq, which they mention, among others. It was a true baladi bar (that is, "of the country," "native,") working-class bar. The equivalent of a blue-collar bar in a steel-belt city, only it would be a white-galabiyya bar where the locals worked as vendors, doormen (bawabin), cab-drivers, laborers and such. If I remember Massoud correctly it was one of the biggest in Bulaq, which then had six or seven, and it may even have had Western-movie style swinging doors. One of the Bulaq bars did. I don't know many Westerners who ever went to them, and it wasn't a regular hangout, but it was a real glimpse of an Egypt even the Egyptian middle class never sees.

And it evokes a somewhat dormant area of my scholarly research product . . .

During a post-doctoral research year in Egypt in the late 1970s (1977-78 for the record, the year Sadat went to Jersualem), several fellow scholars (who have achieved some level of professional success and might not want me to identify them by name) and I actually wrote up a little underground guide to the baladi bars of Cairo. There were, as the article notes, a lot more of them then; the 1980s and 1990s were devastating to the baladi bar scene as religious pressures closed a lot of the bars lower-class Egyptians could afford, even while more five-star hotel bars were sprouting for the tourists and the nouveau riche. We explored the old, declining bars of the downtown and its outliers, described in the article I've linked to, as well as such areas as Shubra, Bulaq, Faggala -- mostly neighborhoods with minority or (Faggala) majority Christian populations,which meant they were a little less vulnerable to Islamist pressures as most of the bars were owned by Copts -- as well as such really down-market places as the makers of the ancient African fermented wheat drink known in Egypt as buza (a true speakeasy sort of place, but with families and, I'm sure, no sort of government license whatsoever). We disdained the big hotels and the upmarket areas such as Zamalek and Heliopolis. Our guidebook, typed up in the days before personal computers and circulated as a xeroxed samizdat, is pretty much gone with the wind (I may have a copy in a storage room somewhere, and a few mid-to-late-1980s updates on a 5 1/4" disc), but the memories endure, and are rather like those evoked by this story. [Readers: If you have an original complete copy post a comment and let me know.] Most of the bars we explored are gone now; some of those we patronized were known to Naguib Mahfouz and others of the literati, but most were holes-in-the-wall where foreigners were a decided oddity, and the Egyptian middle classes rarely showed up unless slumming. (And of course, one had to speak the language.) You do not want to know about the sanitary facilities.

Perhaps this article will remind other old Cairo hands of a different era in Cairo, before Islamist pressures closed the bars in the "popular quarters." I understand the bar scene today is one of wealthy young Egyptians with their cell-phones and text messages, not the baladi bars of old men in galabiyyas drinking Egyptian brandy, evoked in the article linked to.

There's a secondary class of bar worth remembering: the mid-level colonial bar. The old Bar Cecil on Midan Tawfiqiyya (Urabi) was a stupendous one: once a hangout of the British officer class, but not the senior ranks who hung out at Shepheard's, it was glorious for its big windows on the circle, its brass rails, and so much more, but it died, became a branch of the Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI), itself of later scandalous infamy, and is forgotten. Another mid-level British officers' bar survives I think (last I heard) in the Barrel Bar of the Hotel Windsor, which was an overflow for the original Shepheards burned in 1952. But the old colonial bars have their own fan clubs, and this post is really aimed at remembering the baladi spots.

And, to try to give some additional "redeeming social value" to this post, let me add a comment that spins off the word baladi in its sense of local, down-market, working class. It's still sometimes a bit of a pejorative "a baladi neighborhood," the baladi loaf of bread is the heaviest barley round, not the nice white bread of the middle clases, etc. But it also can mean "everyman": In the era of the monarchy the standard "Egyptian public" figure in Egyptian political cartoons -- the equivalent of the old "John Q. Public" in US cartoons of a certain era -- was a dapper gent in a tarbush (fez) called Misri Effendi, roughly "Mister Egyptian" using an honorific not used for the working classes. After the 1952 Revolution (and we can talk another time about whether it deserves the name of a Revolution), the standard character in political cartoons became Ibn al-Balad, "son of the country," usually a fellow in a white galabiyya and a skullcap. Middle-class types still appeared in cartoons where appropriate, but the national personification became Ibn al-Balad. Of course, the real Ibn al-Balad types didn't read political cartoons in Roz al-Yusuf or the big dailies, but at least they replaced Misri Effendi as a stereotypical cartoon icon.


Anonymous said...

Michael, if I remember correctly, a lot of these bars were casualties of the government's effort to be a little bit pregnant on the subject of alcohol. You remember at that time Sadat was rehabbing the Brotherhood and encouraging Islamist students in an effort to stave off criticism from the left, but it was a bit difficult to claim to be running a Muslim state when the government owned the breweries and distilleries, which Nasser has nationalized. So Sadat got the People's Assembly to ban alcohol except in tourst locations, which Bulaq and Shubra definitely were not.
Tom Lippman

Michael Collins Dunn said...

True as far as it goes, Tom, but many of the old bars survived at least into the 1980s in those neighborhoods by simply changing th word "bar" to "cafeteria" (in Arabic) and/or erecting a screen behind which the alcohol was served. Also I know that some of the bars in Bulaq and Faggala simply got hold of tourist posters of the pyramids, in English or French, and put them on the walls. Voila: a tourist area.