Wednesday, February 11, 2009
CAIRO AFTER HOURS PART III
I was looking for a new accomplice in my quest for adventure in Cairo’s seedy cabarets because my travel companion Jim Boz was suffering from severe jet lag, so I was delighted when my friend Aleya showed up. Aleya and I both cut our teeth in the Los Angeles belly dance scene in the early Nineties. A great dancer, and always tons of fun, Aleya had come from Hurgada, and took me by surprise, announcing she was in town to apply for her dance license and was moving to Egypt! Aleya quickly became my “partner-in-crime”- we made a date for the next night. Her friend Mr. Mohammed, a costume exporter, agreed to escort us to the clubs in Cairo’s Downtown district.
Downtown or Central Cairo is a lot like the inner-city areas in many major US cities, in that it’s a sort of a forgotten neighborhood. Densely built up and populated by with over-crowded apartment buildings, three-star hotels and businesses catering to local- not tourist- trade, Downtown Cairo’s streets are teeming with activity, but as a tourism area, it seems to have been all but abandoned in favor of suburban flight. Areas like Giza, Mohandeseen, Zamalek and Heliopolis now house the modern hotels, trendy restaurants, boutiques and souvenir shops. Nevertheless, the city’s 19th Century, European-style Belle Époque architecture, though in need of a major face-lift, is still lovely to look at, and Downtown Cairo is full of history. It was the stomping grounds of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who celebrated Cairo and its labyrinthine inner-city streets in many of his highly acclaimed books. Compared to Dickens or Tolstoy, Mahfouz ‘s writing is so much a part of Egyptian culture he is a literary equivalent to Om Kalthoum. The Downtown district was also a hub for Egyptian intellectuals and ex-patriots from Europe, and Sharia Alfy specifically was known in the 1940’s as the nerve center for theaters and nightclubs, which featured Arabic music and belly dance. I was eager to see what-if anything- was left standing.
The first club we went to, Shahrazad , was located on Sharia Alfy. It was a little after 1:00 am as we climbed a flight of stairs, and as we did, Mr. Mohammed informed Aleya and me that it had been one of the most famous clubs in the city, and that Naima Akef and Samia Gamal frequently graced the stage. As soon as our eyes adjusted to the dark, it seemed pretty clear that he wasn’t making that up. Though it had definitely seen better days, Shahrazad’s interior reflected the faded grandeur of a bygone era. Under a ceiling easily thirty feet high, there were intricate gilt Arabesque motifs on the walls, and it was not hard to imagine the grande dames of Cairo’s Golden Age whirling on the large proscenium stage, which was edged in golden, hand-carved wooden mashrabiya. Unused and decked in twinkling fairy lights, it served more as a backdrop, because a smaller stage with a catwalk was set up in the middle of the room, surrounded by tables populated by a few veiled women and men attired in Western garb. A small band played, and there was a competent dancer, who was joined onstage by many audience members, but the club’s most impressive feature was definitely the architecture.
We ventured across Sharia Alfy and down a narrow dark alley off Sharia 26th Of July and found ourselves in Palmyra, which has been mentioned numerous times in guide books as a “must see” Cairo dive. Located in the lobby of a low-rent hotel, Palmyra seems to have last been renovated in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. Crudely painted, luridly colored Pharoanic murals covered the crumbling stucco walls; buckets of Stella beer sat on the paper-clothed tables. On the large, low stage, a five-piece band was playing through tinny speakers, but managed to sound great in spite of the bad equipment. A parade of severely made-up, gum-cracking dancers attired in bell-bottoms and halter tops and clear Lucite-heeled stripper-style platform shoes took the stage one after another. Though most of them appeared bored or lacked stage presence, many of them danced well and they definitely all perked up when fistfuls of Egyptians pounds were thrown at them! This happened often, and a stagehand frequently swept the money off the stage, depositing it into a locked wooden box kept near the Western-style drum kit. Many of the belly dancers pranced through the audience (as did the singers) stopping at tables to perform, and a string of tipsy-looking club patrons- both male and female- jumped up on the stage to dance in wild abandon while the dancers performed.
I snapped many photos of the dancers in their outrageously tawdry attire, and soon a hulking man in a traditional Saidi galibiyyeh, wearing a backwards baseball hat like a hip-hop thug, came over to our table and began roaring in a threatening manner at Mr. Mohammed. The argument escalated alarmingly, with both men yelling and gesticulating wildly, but it was over as abruptly as it had started. I guess I wasn’t too off-base in my assessment of the thug-like fashion statement of backwards baseball hat…it turned out that, like shifty characters the world over, the man got angry when he assumed he was being photographed! Wiping his brow in relief, Mr. Mohammed explained he had to tell the guy repeatedly that Aleya and I were dancers from America, and I was taking pictures of the dancers, not him. The man lightened up considerably a short time later, when Aleya was pulled up onstage by one of the singers. The singer grabbed a wooden dowel and handed it to Aleya to use as a cane while the band launched into “Al Ein”. As Aleya performed a flawless raks assaya, the baseball hat guy eventually cracked a reluctant smile, and even got up to dance with her!
Soon we headed back to Sharia Alfy to hit the New Arizona nightclub for the dancer Dunya’s show. According to Mr. Mohammed, Dunya is not only a popular performer, but also an entrepreneur. She rents out the New Arizona and puts on her own show, rather than being hired as an employee of the club itself. Though it was after 4:00 am, she hadn’t yet started. Even though it was June and we were in Cairo, the stage was festooned with strings of Christmas lights, and a large plastic Santa Claus was mounted on the wall above the drum kit. Though a band was playing a top volume, a number of scruffy cats lounged casually on the stage, while others wandered up to the seats in front, begging for scraps. Patrons enjoying mezza platters obligingly threw bits of cheese to the kitties. The club’s owner, who had stopped by our table to say hello to Mr. Mohammed, saw us watching the cats and told us that many of- as he put it- “the most famous animals of Egypt” had lived inside the New Arizona for generations.
Finally, Dunya arrived. Heavily made-up and wearing a skin-tight cat-suit, she took the stage and sang, danced, joked with the audience and emceed as other dancers- once more wearing outfits that looked more like street-wear than dance costumes- performed. Many of the dancers not only made the rounds of the audience, but jumped up on chairs and tabletops to dance. One even picked up a half-full bottle of Heineken from a customer and danced the rest of her set with it balanced on her head!
Once again, by the time I got back to my hotel, it had been daylight for quite some time. I was dead tired from my night of crazy clubbing but amped from my wacky experiences. I was leaving Cairo early the next morning and still had to pack and say my goodbyes… so, as the saying goes, there would be “ no rest for the wicked”!