Cairo: Where You Can Get a Beer, Even During Ramadan
Only once have I ever been kicked out of Horreya. One of downtown Cairo’s busiest and grimiest drinking spots is rarely closed. But sure enough one night this fall, as the clock was pushing past three in the morning, the barkeep, who is in turns cantankerous and jolly as he swings at least a half dozen oversized beer bottles from his hands and drops one in front of you before you’ve finished the last, counted the empties on the table and pushed a few of us into the street. We all smiled. In the world of downtown drinking in Cairo, getting the boot from a saloon like Horreya as it shuts its door is rare.
You probably wouldn’t know this from reading the New York Times, which last weekend ran a long travel feature, strangely enough, on visiting Cairo during Ramadan. The Islamic month of fasting ended more than three months ago; it won’t come again until the second week of August, the exact day depending on the moon. Stranger still, timeliness aside, was the story’s hook about booze. The writer, Jennifer Conlin, noted the difficulty of drinking in a Muslim country like Egypt, during the holy month of Ramadan no less, but worked in an aside about the joy of sipping overpriced gin at a Western luxury hotel, where we are told a non-Egyptian can still get a drink during the holiday, passport permitting.
To be fair, drinking during Ramadan is a bit difficult. Horreya stops serving Stella and Sakkara, Egypt’s illustrious lagers, and reverts to being a tea, coffee and board game spot. But downtown Cairo has a bevy of drinking dives – and not all of them are shuttered for Ramadan. The Greek Club, the Odeon Hotel and the Windsor Hotel (the former colonial British officers’ club) all serve alcohol throughout the month, as does Drinkie’s, Cairo’s busy beer and wine delivery service. The latter will only deliver to foreigners, further sign that the voice on the other line can tell if your Arabic is local or not. The rooftop Odeon Hotel, which offers little in the way of a skyline view, is known to charge for more beers than you’ve ordered, since its waiters, lacking Horreya’s pragmatism, insist on clearing empty bottles off the table. Café Riche, where the Free Officers planned Egypt’s 1952 revolution and where Cairo’s literati once held court, was serving beer this past Ramadan, but that’s hardly consistent since the place seems to close whenever its manager likes. In these ways and others, Ramadan is a drinker’s hassle and people are known to stock up for the month or have an overpriced arrangement with the guy at the local bodega-equivalent. But the city is hardly parched, even if the New York Times believes that “nearly every restaurant and café becomes temporarily dry,” and Downtown Cairo will prove the point.
Downtown has so many drinking spots throughout its faded belle époque streets and alleys that Stella, which is now owned by Heineken, published the “Baladi Bar Flyer,” a map of 51 drinking establishments throughout the area. There’s a website too. Once upon a time many of these were elegant watering holes, where you probably heard as much Greek or French as Arabic and the floors were clean. But today most of downtown Cairo’s bars are either too weathered and cheap, too sketchy, or too “baladi,” which means local, to attract the gaze of the New York Times. Today English is heard plenty, French and German too, considering the glut of foreign language students, ex-pats and tourists in Egypt’s capital. Times have changed, as a misplaced nostalgia for the city’s cosmopolitan, colonial past competes with free market economic policies that now promise to gentrify the smog-stained area by revitalizing its historic, quasi-Parisian architecture.
You’d probably hear that last bit in conversation in a downtown bar in Cairo. Like bars anywhere, they are neighborhood spots where patrons meet and air their concerns, whether they are intellectuals, students, journalists, shopkeepers, or just old-fashioned drunks (none are mutually exclusive). The Baladi Bar Flyer lists the price of a Stella, of course, plus other important indicators for a night out in Cairo: “Shisha available… Open for Ramadan… Belly Dancing… Women friendly.” Individual bar write-ups are faithful to the city’s drinking scene, in which most Egyptian patrons are men well over the half-century mark (though the sight of a women in a headscarf drinking a beer is not uncommon), everyone smokes, and beer (Stella usually) is the sole drink of choice, unless you fancy Egyptian brandy, which isn’t advisable. Of Horreya, which means Freedom, the guide writes: “Lively, popular and spacious, Horreya is ideal for those first few drinks. The chess section and the blurry reflection from the dirty mirrors also make it one of Cairo’s more photogenic locations. The toilet is invariably a mess.”
In any Western city, Cairo’s best half dozen dives would have been shut down or become too popular to warrant visiting, not to say it’s always easy to find a seat at Horreya or Stella Bar, two favorites. But the moment I imagine either one in New York, I immediately expect that Western sensibilities (or the profit-seeking motives of its owners) would repaint the place, redecorate, ban smoking, fix the toilet (God forbid), raise prices and otherwise ruin the place. In Cairo, where drinking is far more common than the average headline or travel feature might suggest, whether among Muslims or Coptic Christians, bars stay as they are, which is to say they decay. But that is their abundant charm. I’ll avoid leaping to any greater conclusions, like drawing a metaphor to Egypt’s aged ruler Hosni Mubarak, because that’s a conversation better suited to one of this city’s baladi bars.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Amanda Bynes’s Behavior Revealed to Be Elaborate PSA
- 2 Obama Horrified by the Grammar in Our Emails
- 3 Monster Fart Prompting Management to Rethink “Open Office”
- 4 NSA Demanded Access To Un-Filtered Instagram Photos
- 5 Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson Ambushed By Alan ‘The Paper’ Rubinstein
- 6 Vice Magazine Now Only Hiring Writers Who Fail Drug Test
- 7 ‘Licensed to Kim Jong Il’ Records 27th Straight Year Atop N. Korean Charts
- 8 Henry Cavill to be Replaced by Stack of Pancakes in “Man of Steel” Sequel
- 9 Taco Bell Now Just Dumping Bags of Doritos Into Everything On Menu
- 10 Stanley Cup Final One Blowout Away From “Boston Massacre” Headline Outrage