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Is “Cabaret” a Dirty Word?

Map of Downtown Cairo

Using the Terms Cabaret vs Nightclub

by Leyla Lanty
posted March 25, 2011

Heard in a conversation among aspiring dancers in the US:“Cairo cabaret or Cairo nightclub – what’s the difference?!  I thought all nightclubs were cabarets and vice-versa, but the experts are telling me they’re not!  What gives?  Is ‘Cabaret’ a dirty word?  Why shouldn’t I tell an Arab that I’m a cabaret dancer?  And by the way, if I go to Cairo, where can I find nightclubs, restaurants, cruises, and yes, cabarets that feature dancers?”  In my visits to Cairo, I’ve spent many wonderful, fun-filled evenings at almost all kinds of entertainment venues that feature Oriental dancers, singers, and other acts and have found there are definitely differences. 

Confusion of terms:
As I understand it, there are four main types of places in Cairo that feature Oriental dancers and singers: 

  1. theaters and concert halls,
  2. four-star, and five-star luxury hotels,
  3. Nile dinner cruises,
  4. night clubs. and
  5. cabarets. 

So, is “cabaret” a dirty word?  It depends on whose definition you want to use!  In Arabic, the name “cabaret” is interpreted differently from what it is in English, leading to the confusion about nightclubs and cabarets.  Here in the U.S., we think of a cabaret as a synonym for nightclub. 

In Egypt, the tiers of respectability are this: theater and concert hall shows are most respectable. They are orderly, usually involve no alcohol, and attract a well-mannered middle to upper class clientele. On the other hand, nightclubs are considered relatively less respectable than theaters, while cabarets are on the bottom of the respectability scale.  (See the table of terms at the end of this article for a summary of the definitions.)

Because they use their bodies to make money, the general public regards dancers in the same way as prostitutes.

For the most part, their level of respectability is linked to the respectability of the venues in which they perform, particularly the social class of the clientele, orderliness (How likely is it that a fight will break out in an evening?), cleanliness of the establishment, and the recognized, but tolerated, presence of full-time prostitutes in the audience who are there specifically for the convenience of hooking up with moneyed male customers.

Although I’ve never seen identifiable prostitutes in concert halls, theaters, and four and five star nightclubs, I’ve seen a number of them looking for business in the Haram (pyramid) district’s nightclubs, located on Haram Street between downtown Cairo and the pyramids of Giza.  The presence of prostitutes seems to be tolerated as a service for male customers–as long as they don’t do anything to annoy the rest of the clientele or disrupt the show.  How do I know they’re prostitutes?  If a foreign visitor (like me) is not aware that respectable Egyptian women do not go to nightclubs without male escorts, the visitor would think these women were just having a “girls’ night out” with their friends.  To a certain extent that can be true, but they really have their business goal in mind – a wealthy hookup while they’re enjoying the entertainment. 

Another indication that they are probably prostitutes is that they often engaged in short conversations with male customers with gestures and actions that looked like exchanges of phone numbers.  The same holds true for the cabarets, but the interactions of the prostitutes with male customers is often far less subtle and dancers in those establishments may also be looking for after-hours hookups, too.

Dowtown Cabaret
"Downtown Cairo Cabaret"
Still fairly early in the evening (close to midnight) in the 1990s, an hour or so later
many of those empty chairs were filled and a fight broke out.  We left as quickly as possible.

Conversing with Arabs about your being a dancer:
By now, I think you, dear reader, understand why, when talking with an Arab, if you say you’re a dancer, that is not generally an appropriate thing to say. Unless you know the person, male or female, pretty well, you shouldn’t say you dance in a cabaret or that you are a cabaret dancer because it means that you might well be both a "working dancer" and "a workin’ girl,” –namely, a prostitute.

Where are these places? 
Theaters and concert venues, along with hotel nightclubs and restaurants are scattered throughout the city from near Cairo International Airport  to the pyramids of Giza, but the non-hotel nightclubs are mostly along El Haram Street in the "Haram District" in the suburb of Giza, between the middle of Cairo and the pyramids. (Pronounced haram, El Haram means “the pyramid”.) 

Famous nightclub names include El Leil, Parisianna (Lucy’s club), Al Manar, Al Andalous, Ramses, and Sunset

The Nile dinner cruises originate at several locations along the Nile between downtown Cairo and its southern suburb Maadi. The cabarets that I know about are located downtown in the neighborhood bordering on Tahrir Square (wust el balad – middle of the city) or in districts situated very close to wust el balad, such as Bulaq
(For detailed information about locations of many Cairo venues, see the Gilded Serpent Cairo Clubs page describing them. 

Table of Terms – as you can see, confusion arises from different definitions between Arab and western culture. 

Arabic speaker
would say and think:

American English speaker
would say and think:

Theater and Concert hall,

customers well off (not necessarily wealthy), respectable venue.

Theater and Concert hall,
customers well off (not necessarily wealthy), respectable venue.

Restaurant in hotel or independent of hotel with Oriental floor show*, wealthy customers, respectable entertainers.
Niledinner cruises are generally considered in this category.

Restaurant in hotel or independent of hotel with floor show, wealthy
customers, respectable entertainers. (Many examples in Hollywood, New York and other large American cities.)

Nightclub (nadi al layl in Arabic),
wealthy customers,
respectable entertainers (but not as respectable as those in the above group). 

Nightclub, supper club, cabaret (synonym for nightclub in English),
wealthy customers,
respectable entertainers but not as respectable as those in the above group.

Cabaret” (they use our word), synonym for “dive” or very low class place, customers well off, not necessarily wealthy, women on stage often are “workin’ gals”, available for after-hours gigs in private places. 
Less orderly,
a fight could break out among
customers at any time.

Dive” or very low class place, not a nightclub or cabaret in English.  customers well off, not necessarily wealthy, women on stage often are “workin’ gals”, available for after-hours gigs in private places. 
Less orderly,
a fight could break out among
customers at any time.

Disclaimer:  I don’t know how British and other dialects of English use these terms.
*“Oriental floor show” means a floor show featuring mostly Arabic style entertainment. 
This term is used in Cairo’s English language newspapers in their entertainment listings.

This photo is from 2008 taken at El Leil nightclub.  The dancer is Kholoud.

Dina at 5-star Haroun Al Rashid nightclub at the Semiramis, 2005
"Hisham Leyla Nile Hilton"
Singer Hisham Abbas show at the Nile Hilton Hotel nightclub in the 1990s. 
Leyla got up to dance, and he invited her to stay and dance to another song!
"Outi on Pharaon"
Finnish dancer Outi performing on the Pharaon Boat, a nightly
Nile Dinner Cruise in 2008.
"Samir Sabri Linda Grondahl"
Hugely popular singer and entertainer Samir Sabri show at the Marriott Hotel’s Empress nightclub
in the 1990s called for audience participation and Linda Grondahl of San Francisco answered.



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  1. Jalilah

    Mar 26, 2011 - 10:03:09

    Thanks for great article Leyla! I was just recently  explaining why I hate it when Arab-Egyptian style dancing gets labled “Cabaret style”.

  2. Sadira

    Mar 26, 2011 - 07:03:44

    Thanks Leyla…you are a wealth of important information.  When I was in Egypt and I would dance improv…to Saidi music..I only said I did Raks Beledi, or Raks Shaabti.  They all seemed very happy, even storeowners that were traditional muslims.  They could also tell the difference between how I danced and what would be occuring as a nightclub style.  One man came up to me and said he could’t understand how I knew how to dance like the people in his village in Luxor. 

    As I was walking along the streets near Harem, A store owner stopped me and wanted me to look at something, I nicely told  him in Arabic….no thank you.  He looked at me and said, “You are very different from the others, I’d like to talk to you more”.  I said I was in a hurry and did he know where I could find music/dance music to buy.  He directed me to Pyramid Alley where he said was where all the nightclubs and musicians etc. were located.  For some reason I didn’t feel comfortable with going t here alone and I didn’t…I also had two male strangers ask if I wanted to go to a real Egyptian nightclub with them to see dancers.  They would be glad to excort me as I needed to go in with a man.  Needless to say that never happened and during my trip the dancers at the hotes were played down a lot and I never saw a show.  Saw all of Egypt but not one Female entertainer dancer.  I danced with Saidi men and children and other women from villages though and I loved it.

  3. Tourbeau

    Mar 27, 2011 - 01:03:59

    Leyla, could you clarify how “customers well off (not necessarily wealthy)” for “Theater and Concert hall” would differ from “customers well off, not necessarily wealthy” for ““Cabaret”/”Dive”?  In the American model, I expect that theaters or concert halls usually have a wealthier clientele–not always, but when they aren’t, the non-wealthy tend to be educated-but-poor (e.g., students) or aspiring to elevate themselves (e.g., immigrants).  At the other end of the spectrum, I don’t expect to see wealthier people in a dive unless they are “slumming,” either because they are looking for a more “grassroots” experience or because they are using mingling with the lower classes as entertainment in itself.  I’m having a difficult time porting the US model to my understanding of what happens in Egypt. 
    How much aspirational benefit does the average Egyptian attach to going to a concert hall?  I’ve been conditioned to think that the lower classes tend to be more religiously conservative, which would limit how much status/lifestyle improvement engaging in decadent, secular entertainment would confer.  I’m also not really imagining there is a lot of this Western hipster mentality of rich people playing at being poor for kicks.  Do “honorably” wealthy Egyptians go to dives for any reason other than engaging in vice?  Would a middle-class or wealthier person ever say, “Let’s go to this low-end place, because that’s where the ‘real’ action is, not this phony, plastic entertainment for tourists”?

  4. Bonny Fotia

    Apr 21, 2011 - 08:04:53

    Great article.  I think it’s interesting that if a woman uses her body to entertain, she is considered a prostitute.  Do they think the same of men who are athletes – are they prostitutes too?  Because they also use their bodies to make a living.

  5. Jalilah

    Apr 22, 2011 - 08:04:26

    When people start with  “They” regarding the status of dancers in the Middle East, I always like to point out the fact that ballet dancers were also considered prostitutes in the 1800s.  The status of actress in the old silent films was no better.

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