Gilded Serpent presents...

Nights Out in Cairo

Part 2: Sunday through Tuesday

by Nicole
posted April 28, 2010
Part 1: Wed-Sat, here

Author NicoleI am asked often what life is like in Cairo by everyone–from friends, to family, to strangers who have stumbled across my blog.

The beauty of Cairo is often in the every day things, the small things that we wouldn’t consider so worthwhile, but in fact, make up the real substance of what it’s like to live here. I don’t go to museums or monuments or see famous Belly dancers every day, but I am here in Cairo every day and that is special in and of itself.

Here are some examples of what I end up doing out and about in Cairo each evening. I have chosen them as examples from the past two weeks so that I look extra busy and not like someone who, in fact, hangs out at home every other night, and so that the reader isn’t bored with my avid life of writing papers and practicing Arabic. This is what life would be like if I went out every night, which is more or less how the summers evolve when the weather gets very hot. Cairene style involves not even waking up before noon when there isn’t work or school, so the nights are when all the action happens!

Sunday I go to work with Hallah Moustafa after school, and she is out in Giza so that’s the day I most of the time hang out with my Giza and Dokki friends: (another) Sherif and Jimmy. Sherif lives very close to Haram street, the famous Pyramids Road that stretches from a midan in central Giza not too far from The Nile all the way out to the edge of the plateau where The Pyramids are. It’s a huge street, and the hub of the "cabaret" night-life where you can supposedly go see some horrible Belly dancing but sometimes hear good music. Lucy‘s Club is on this road as well as a couple other famous ones: Al Lail and Andalusia. I haven’t properly gone out on Haram Street yet, but when I do, I’m sure there will be an article!

Sherif and I, instead, opted to head to Dokki and meet up with Jimmy who was hanging out in his usual cafe. There’s a turn of phrase here where if you frequent one cafe to the point where if they recognize you and greet you by name, you pretty much referring to it as "your" cafe.

So we headed over to "Jimmy’s cafe", where we smoked shisha, played backgammon, and I devoured a sandwich. Admittedly, I was having ridiculously good rolls with backgammon as we sat playing and puffing out clouds of red-bull scented smoke, but the waiter said it all when he wandered over and said, "I swear, this girl has the luck of a Belly dancer!" He then looked puzzled when my friends first roared with laughter and then translated for me. (I caught "Belly dancer", but not "luck" so I was very confused) at which point we all began gasping for breath and wiping tears from our eyes. In the end, Sherif won the game though; although I hear no one at the cafe believes him about that since they only witnessed the first half of the game. Trust me, he got his revenge!

Later that night, I ended up back in my lovely apartment, well-ensconced on the couch, writing by 1 a.m. when another friend, Ramy, called saying he was passing through Maadi and asked, "Did I want to come for some cheesecake and tea?" Well of course! Ramy is the proud driver of the same model as my car: a Toyota Corolla in white. However, let’s just say mine is over 10 years younger than his, so we got to bump, rumble and giggle our way about ten blocks away to a branch of the Egyptian version of Starbucks. Cilantro is a little chain of over-priced cafes that feature food and American style coffee drinks as well as a decent cheesecake, which is all well and good, but I don’t go in much unless I am in search of a clean bathroom. However it was a nice place to plop down at in the middle of the night, grab some desert, and have a good chat. I love hanging out with Ramy because we get into really deep controversial topics while still remaining fairly casual and relaxed. That’s cultural exchange at it’s finest when you can share and have differences without judging, and so I like to indulge in some quality conversation when I can catch him.

Birthdays are a fun affair here, although Egyptians seem to place less emphasis on it as a birthday so much as an occasion to party as a group! They aren’t much for gift-giving but my friend Asser’s birthday definitely warranted the whole crew getting together at a restaurant in Al-Manyal for dinner and cake. The boys picked me up after I caught the bus downtown from AUC, and suddenly, I found myself in a car crammed with 4 young Egyptian guys high on life as it was their friend (and the driver) who was the birthday boy! As one can imagine, much hysterics and joking occurred in Arabic as we made our way over to Al-Manyal (an island in the middle of the Nile south of Zamalek). We finally located the place after getting lost down the twisty, tiny streets, and found parking. The boys continued to joke around as we gathered more people, Mohamed Saiid, taking my big school bag to be polite and ending up deciding it just looked "so shiiiic" on him.

Alex arrived as the sole person with a gift, albeit rather odd: a two-foot high bright yellow inflatable bunny which squeaks when squeezed. We decided that was also pretty chic, and proceeded to take over half the restaurant for dinner, having been a 15-person party. While everyone seated themselves and poured over the all-Arabic menu, a bunch of the boys ran downstairs to the attached bakery to purchase cakes for desert. Dinner wound down and the enormous cakes they had selected were placed on the table at which point I had to stifle a giggle, as the nearest one said: HAPPBIRTH" on a little white chocolate banner. A huge knife was produced, and small plates, but the cakes were not to meet their fate yet. The restaurant was supposed to be closing, and in a fit of pity, we decided to pack up the two giant cakes and go elsewhere to eat them, perhaps by the Nile.

As things tend to happen in Cairo in the middle of the night with a big group of people out celebrating, we ended up on a boat! Arabic music was played through a crappy speaker system turned all the way up, wired next to garish neon lights on the framework of the felucca, and we plied the Nile while dancing like crazy. The weather was perfect to stand on the bow of the boat and feel the breeze rippling across your face while taking in the lights of the city on the shore. We broke out the cake shortly after setting sail, then we realized that we had only plastic forks and paper plates–but nothing to cut the cake. After looking around at each other for a minute, we dove in with our forks instead, creating frosting and fruit ruins before even a photo could be taken!

The dancing went on and on, us dragging everyone at some point into the circle of people to try out their shimmy. The young Egyptian guys here are really good dancers, and it’s hilarious to see them dancing and joking around with each other doing a sort of pseudo-Belly dance style. I would say what most of the boys dance here is not shar’i and definite not Oriental, it’s a masculine shabii style that uses moves colloquially thought of as "Belly dance moves," but the posture and styling is both more masculine and casual than formal Belly dance.

It’s a social, fun, party dance style that you see at weddings here when people are just joking around with each other. Thus I have to use "Belly dance" as a sort of shorthand for what they are actually doing, but it’s very different from what most of us are used to seeing. Not that these guys don’t have stage attitude and aren’t dramatic, but when doing so, they’re often jokingly imitating famous dancers instead of doing it for the sake of performance or putting on a show.

Feluca Party Larger image names needed!

So far we’ve danced the night away, in a couple different flavors, sailed The Nile, hit a variety of cafes and famous places for good measure, and now we’re back to the middle of the week, so what’s a girl to do? Go out for a hip hop night at a club, of course!

I don’t think it’s important to go into details about going to a club for a hip hop night, because it’s pretty much what you would expect when going out in the US. We arrived after midnight on purpose, the music was loud, the drinks were expensive, there was dirty dancing, –the usual thing. The only difference was very significant eyeing-up by a few Egyptian boys, which made me glad we brought our own guy friends along. In a way it was nice to come full circle here by enjoying a slice of American life, but I found myself a little bit unsatisfied by the end of the night. For Drift, my room mate, this is a part of the culture she comes from and it feels familiar to her, but Egyptian music and culture has been my adoptive culture in the US. I don’t feel "right" dancing hip hop, so it’s still awkward mentally for me, even if I can fake the moves–I am a dancer after all.

I realized that I’m more at home on a felucca sounded by Egyptians with Shabii music blasting than in a hip hop club, with girls in short skirts rubbing up against guys. In my life in San Francisco, my friends and I were living a combination of both, but we had to have Arabic music at the end of the day, because that was what moved us.

Tonight, I’m sitting on my balcony enjoying the first hot, sticky night of the season. I just finished some dance practice so I’m feeling nice and limber and stretched out. I’ve got my spindly potted trees; their luminous blooms glowing blue-white with twinkling Christmas lights, my cup of tea, and Oum Kulthoum playing. No matter how much I go out and enjoy the night life here, nothing quite compares to being able to take a night to relax and enjoy some Egyptian music in the quiet of the night at home!

Back to Part 1: Wedensday through Saturday

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  1. Leyla Lanty

    Apr 28, 2010 - 11:04:10

    Thank you Nicole for describing in your 2-part article the flavor, savor, and rolling along like a tumbleweed nature of Cairo nightlife.  As usual, your writings take me back there in a very real way!

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