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Sad goodbye to 'cosmopolitan' Cairo

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Cairo

Marileez Doss at the Windsor Hotel
Marileez Doss mourns the passing of Cairo's sophisticated cafe culture

These days the centre of Cairo is a dusty, polluted, overcrowded metropolis. But in the 1940s it was a city full of style and culture, the beating heart of an Arab renaissance.

Downtown the bars and nightclubs flourished along the sweeping boulevards attracting all sorts of adventurers from around the world.

Since then many of the bars and cabaret clubs have fallen into disrepair and disrepute, as the Egyptians grow more observant of conservative Islam.

Some do survive; the Windsor Hotel is one of them. Built at the turn of the last century as the baths of the Egyptian royal family, it later served as a colonial club for the British officers.

Today the hotel's Barrel Bar is still popular with Europeans, even though it is now a picture of faded grandeur.

The old telephone exchange has survived in the reception. The cage elevator is still there, as are the Lufthansa posters which have adorned the hallways since the 1960s.

The hotel is run by the Doss family - largely by two brothers, Wasfi and Wafiq, and their sister Marileez.

You no longer go out to a nightclub and sit with your friends, put a bottle of whisky on the table and smoke lots of cigarettes
Max Rodenbeck, Author

"I remember these very chic cafes," said Marileez. "Downtown Cairo was the place to be seen. Everyone dressed up - I was still a young girl, but I remember that I felt so proud in my little dress and white socks.

"My parents would sit in the open-air cafes drinking a glass of wine or a glass of Ricard. It was all so very sophisticated."

"This area was full of clubs and cabarets," said Wafiq. "The Opera was just around the corner. This was very much the place to be seen.

"But most of these places have since disappeared, particularly those that faced out on to the street - people didn't want to see that any more."

City reinvented

Sharezad club
Sharezad clients and employees keep tradition alive, but how long can it last

The Sharezad club has survived the cull, but this belly-dancing venue is a far cry from its glorious heyday.

Inside there are heavy red velvet curtains and on the walls the photos of the some of the world's best belly-dancers, who once came here to shake their stuff.

Max Rodenbeck, journalist and author of Cairo, the City Victorious, says belly-dancing has faded out in the last 10 years.

"It has really suffered from the wave of conservatism that has passed over this place," Mr Rodenbeck says.

"You no longer go out to a nightclub and sit with your friends, put a bottle of whisky on the table and smoke lots of cigarettes. That's not what people do any more.

"In a way downtown Cairo has degentrified... but then if you look back at the long, long history of Cairo, you see that it is always reinventing itself.

"It's a cyclical pattern, where the rich have always moved to new places, somewhere fancier, abandoning whatever is old. If you unpack the city you will find one district after another that used to be fashionable."

Another writer who looks back with fondness on the Cairo of old is the author of the best-selling novel The Yacoubian Building.

Dr Alaa al-Aswany blames the slow death of downtown Cairo on the encroachment of conservative Islam.

"From the beginning of the 1980s it became very hard, sometimes impossible, for the owner to pass on the liquor licence to a son or a new owner," he said.

"I think it is all part of the government's attempts to counteract the fanatics - but they are doing in the wrong way. The government's trying to make the point they are as religious as the fanatics. It is silly really."

Unstylish, free, but sad

The Hawaii
The Hawaii is a place to escape from restrictions of everyday Egyptian life

The one-time cosmopolitan flair of downtown Cairo has largely disappeared. The adventurers moved on and the middle and upper classes moved to the suburbs.

The bars and nightclubs of the 1940s and 1950s are consigned to history, as Egypt turns its face from the pleasures - some might say the vices - of the West.

You have to work hard to find the bars that survive.

There are no shimmering lights. Most are tucked away from the street in nondescript buildings without any windows.

One such club is the Hawaii, where each night people sneak down a darkly lit alley to drink beer and listen to the local pub singer.

One of those who drops in from time to time is journalist Sameer Atrash.

"People here really like to let off steam and have fun," he said.

"It is not very stylish. But remember these people live with so many restrictions in their lives - in here there are no restrictions. Anything goes."

In truth, the Hawaii experience all felt rather seedy - and sad.



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SEE ALSO
Sheikh bans alcohol at Cairo hotel
23 May 08 |  Middle East
Egyptian belly dance 'in crisis'
30 Mar 05 |  Middle East
Country profile: Egypt
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