Wednesday, February 11, 2009
CAIRO AFTER HOURS PART II
After having whet my appetite during my mind-boggling evening at Amoun in Cairo’s Mohandeseen District, I was on a mission to experience as many “locals only” type late-night Egyptian cabarets as possible!
The next night, my friend, Ahmed, a merchant from The New Khan Al Khalili Bazaar took me to The Lido.
“You will LOVE this place”, he promised, making me swear that if I did, I wouldn’t go there on my own, because “Sometimes bad people go here”.
He also told me that on one occasion, he’d brought the legendary Egyptian dancer Fifi Abdou to the Lido and she had a great time, although none of the regular patrons thought it was really she…
”You will see why!”, he said, arching an eyebrow.
We took a cab to Pyramids Road, and the Lido, which is located in the lobby of a slightly run-down hotel. Walking through the dark, open-air lobby/patio, many people greeted Ahmed, while I took note of the surroundings: groups of men and veiled women sat around smoking shisha, their attention directed towards two television sets: one a modern big screen TV mounted near the ceiling, the other a static-ridden vintage black and white model with “bunny-ears” antennae sitting on the counter of an un-manned front desk.
It was a little after 2:00 am when we nipped through a doorway into the club. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I noticed a sea of crowded tables and chairs, gargantuan shisha pipes cluttering the narrow aisles, their hoses providing an obstacle course for the waiters bustling around holding chairs over their heads, or darting precariously through the crows with pans full of glowing orange live coals for the pipes. The walls, some of them carpeted, were decorated with swags of disco lights tacked up in swirly patterns. The decibels were almost deafening in the tight space, but the band on the stage that dominated the room was great, consisting of an organ player, a violinist, two tabla players and a riq (tambourine) player. Whoever was singing the mournful shaabi had an amazing voice with a break in it - not unlike Hakim’s- but as I scanned the stage, I couldn’t seem to find the singer. I assumed he was walking around performing from the audience until I happened to look down. My jaw dropped when I realized the booming voice was coming from a tiny, barely two foot-tall dwarf! Clad all in white, he smiled and joked with the audience, clambering up on chairs between numbers to shake hands and high-five the patrons at their tables.
Seeing my reaction, Ahmed laughed and assured me I would also not believe my eyes when I saw the dancers. As if on cue, the tiny shaabi singer’s sister, also a little person, joined him onstage. In a red and gold beledy dress and coined head scarf, she danced exuberantly as her brother sang, performing an energetic drum solo as women from the audience joined in to dance along with her, towering at least three feet over her head!
Amidst the din, Ahmed ordered drinks and food, which arrived on an elaborate aluminum-foil-covered platter, resembling a cross between a spiky metallic UFO, and a miniature Mosque fashioned from tin foil, minarets and all.
Between the thick smoke in the air, the loud music, insane food display, the hot coals constantly brushing past me behind my back, plus the sheer amount of bodies pouring into the cramped club I almost felt as though I had entered a an alternate dimension, like Alice through the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland… or an Egyptian version of a John Waters movie- but things got even crazier.
Identical twin teenage dancers entered, their eyes and lips lined like Los Angeles-style “lowrider” gang-banger chicks. Both eschewed traditional bedlahs, clad in Western-Style “hoochie girl” dresses and high heels. At first, I thought they were audience members, but Ahmed assured me they were not. They appeared bored as they danced, cracking their gum in time to the drums and basically keeping their eyes on their own reflections in the mirrors lining the stage. At this point, the owner’s pre-teen daughter made the rounds of the club, serving beers. When I commented that this would NEVER happen in the States, we had laws against minors being in bars and nightclubs, I was told she had literally grown up in the cabaret! Indeed, she worked the crowd like a pro, laughing and joking with the customers, dispensing gum and candy to her favorite customers. She threw her arms around Ahmed’s neck as though he were a beloved uncle and greeted him affectionately.
The belly dancing twins were followed by a singer with two-toned bleached hair and long hair extensions, who was in a white 1980’s style fringed leather jacket, many studded belts and over-the-knee boots. She belly danced as she sang, and many female audience members joined her onstage to dance, including the owner’s daughter. More house dancers in crazy nightclub wear, not the traditional bedlah, followed the singer. One finally came on in an actual costume, and Ahmed buried his head in his hands.
“ Oh, no…” he moaned, gesturing towards the owner’s daughter, “She HATE this dancer!” he exclaimed, “Watch this!”
The little girl bounded onto stage, and began performing along side the oriental dancer, imitating every move - down to the dancer’s facial expressions. The little girl knew the dancer’s whole set-only she performed it better. Whenever the dancer looked away, the girl would stick her tongue out or make a hideous face in the dancer’s direction, lampooning and exaggerating the dancers seductive moves much to the delight of the audience! Apparently, this impromptu “show” was a regular occurrence at the club.
Once again, by the time we left, the sun was rising, and the Lido showed no signs of slowing down.