15 March, 2012

Pubbing in Cairo

The increased social conservatism and the Islamicization of Egypt during the 1970s and 1980s made enjoying a pint in public verboten. Indeed, at Huriyya (freedom in Arabic), my favorite bar in Cairo, the boisterous and mostly male clientele, with a healthy mix of Egyptians, travelers, and expats, consume their beverages in a formerly eloquent salon, behind cheap wooden boards thoughtlessly nailed to the windows.

In his 2002 novel "The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany described Egypt's social transformation, and how it affected the Cairo cityscape.  Below is a passage from the book:

An inexorable wave of religiosity swept Egyptian society and it became no longer socially acceptable to drink alcohol. Successive Egyptian governments bowed to the religious pressure (and perhaps attempted to outbid politically the opposition Islamist current) by restricting the sale of alcohol to the major hotels and restaurants and stopped issuing licenses for new bars: if the owner of a bar (usually a foreigner) died, the government would cancel the bar's license and require the heirs to change the nature of their business. On top of all this there were constant police raids on bars, during which the officers would frisk the patrons, inspect their identity cards, and sometimes accompany them to the police station for interrogation.

Thus it is was that, as the 1980s dawned, there remained in the whole of Downtown only a few, scattered, small bars, whose owners had been able to hang on in the face of the rising tide of religion and government persecution. This they had been able to do by one of two methods – concealment or bribery. There was not one bar downtown that advertised its presence. Indeed, the very word “Bar” on the signs was changed to “Restaurant” or “Coffee Shop,” and the owners of bars and wine stores deliberately painted the windows of their establishment a dark color so that what went on inside could not be seen, or would place in their display windows paper napkins or any other items that would not betray their actual business. It was no longer permitted for a customer to drink on the sidewalk in front of the bar or even in front of an open window that looked on to the street and stringent precautions had to be taken following the burning of a number of liquor stores at the hands of youths belonging to the Islamist movement. 

At the same time, it was required of the few remaining bar owners that they pay large regular bribes to the plainclothes police officers to whose districts they belonged and to governorate officials in order for those to allow them to continue.  Sometimes the sale of cheap locally produced alcohol would not realize them enough income to pay the fine, so that the bar owners found themselves obliged to find "other ways" of adding to their income.  Some of them turned to facilitating prostitution by using fallen women to serve the alcohol, as was the case with the Cairo Bar in El Tawfikiya, and the Mido and the Pussycat on Emad el Din Street.  Others turned into manufacturing alcohol in primitive laboratories instead of buying it, so as to increase profits.  This happened at the Halegian Bar on Antikkhana Street and the Jamaica on Sherif Street.  These disgusting industrially produced drinks led to a number of unfortunate accidents, the most celebrated of which befell a young artist who lost his sight after drinking bad brandy at the Halegian Bar. The public prosecutor's office ordered the bar closed but its owner was able to reopen later, using the usual methods.

Consequently, the small remaining downtown bars were no longer cheap, clean places for recreation as they had been before. Instead, they had turned into badly lit, poorly ventilated dens freqented mostly by hooligans and criminal types . . .  

1 comment:

Josh said...

Another great series of books on social change in Egypt is Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy. Superb, and a lot of mention of the ebb and flow of social norms in early 20th century cairo