A Guide to The Bars of Cairo, or: How to Conduct Participatory Research and Enjoy It!

As the dust settles in Cairo, I am reposting, below, a blog from last year on the bars of Cairo, with hopes that they are currently being utilized in similar ways,  in speculating on the future of Egypt.

(‘Bars’ is inclusive of ‘tea houses’)

——————-

Several decades ago, while going through the joys and agonies of Ph.D field research in Egypt, I was part of a small coterie of like-minded colleagues and bon-vivants who set out to conduct participatory research in the old bars and bistros of Cairo.

This was a very ‘hands on’ experience; participant observation of the highest order, which nicely complimented our daily forées into ottoman archives, museum basements, ancient library sources, village byways, and other arcane places where we individually went about our official research business.

In these ramblings about Cairo, we not only solved world problems, but also batted about our mutual research dilemmas, seeking solace, or at least a bit of advice, from our colleagues. This, accomplished to the accompaniment of Stella beer and bitings. Our ramblings usually began at Café Rich – one of the most famous and oldest bars of Cairo, which for decades was a political and writers’ gathering spot.

Interior of the Café Riche; photos of past luminaries line the walls.  Source: ambassidors.net

Interior of the Café Riche; photos of past luminaries line the walls. Source: ambassidors.net

The Café rich is located just down the street from Cairo’s central Midan Talaat Harb whose colonial buildings provide a glimpse into decades past.

Midan Talaat Harb.  For a time, I took a room in an Italian pension located on the top floor of the building straight ahead.  I enjoyed it very much.  Source:  Wikipedia

Midan Talaat Harb. For a time, while looking for alternative digs, I took a room in an Italian pension located on the top floor of the building straight ahead. I enjoyed it very much. Source: Wikipedia

After the Café Riche we usually walked about 20 minutes up the street to left-center, above, to a very baladi (country-style) fateer place. Fateers are a kind of pancake that may be sweet or filled with cheese or mince, and this particular hole-in-the-wall made the best in central Cairo.

A sweet fateer.  Source: Wikipedia

A sweet fateer. Source: Wikipedia

Thereafter, we might visit one or two other bars, continuing our debates, finally ending up at the famous bar of the Winsor Hotel, which was frequented by British military in times past.

The famous 'Barrel Bar' at the Winsor Hotel.  Relaxing atmoshere for a late night coffee or final beer.  Source:  booking.com

The famous 'Barrel Bar' at the Winsor Hotel. Relaxing atmoshere for a late night coffee or final beer. Source: booking.com

A few weeks ago I was delighted to see that Mike Dunn, the Editor-in-Chief of our underground Guide to the Bars of Cairo had recently put up a blog about our adventures. I should mention, that the document produced was specifically not directed to tourists or ‘hesitant-residents’…

Below I quote a little of Mike’s take on our adventures, followed by several links to recent articles on the old bars of Cairo.

Mikes Blog

During a post-doctoral research year in Egypt in the late 1970s (1977-78 for the record, the year Sadat went to Jerusalem), several fellow scholars (who have achieved some level of professional success and might not want me to identify them by name) and I actually wrote up a little underground guide to the baladi bars of Cairo. There were, as the article notes, a lot more of them then; the 1980s and 1990s were devastating to the baladi bar scene as religious pressures closed a lot of the bars lower-class Egyptians could afford, even while more five-star hotel bars were sprouting for the tourists and the nouveau riche. We explored the old, declining bars of the downtown and its outliers…

We disdained the big hotels and the upmarket areas such as Zamalek and Heliopolis. Our guidebook, typed up in the days before personal computers and circulated as a xeroxed samizdat, is pretty much gone with the wind (I may have a copy in a storage room somewhere, and a few mid-to-late-1980s updates on a 5 1/4″ disc), but the memories endure, and are rather like those evoked by this story. [Readers: If you have an original complete copy post a comment and let me know.] Most of the bars we explored are gone now; some of those we patronized were known to Naguib Mahfouz and others of the literati, but most were holes-in-the-wall where foreigners were a decided oddity…

There’s a secondary class of bar worth remembering: the mid-level colonial bar. The old Bar Cecil on Midan Tawfiqiyya (Urabi) was a stupendous one: once a hangout of the British officer class, but not the senior ranks who hung out at Shepheard’s, it was glorious for its big windows on the circle, its brass rails, and so much more, but it died, became a branch of the Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI), itself of later scandalous infamy, and is forgotten. Another mid-level British officers’ bar survives I think (last I heard) in the Barrel Bar of the Hotel Windsor, which was an overflow for the original Shepheards burned in 1952. But the old colonial bars have their own fan clubs, and this post is really aimed at remembering the baladi spots…

BBC – Sad goodbye to ‘cosmopolitan’ Cairo

Religion, decrepitude threaten downtown Cairo bars Huffington Post

The decline of the Egyptian Bar Scene

The Windsor Hotel

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About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Colonialism, Cuisine, Egypt-Recent, History, Middle East, Research & Development, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to A Guide to The Bars of Cairo, or: How to Conduct Participatory Research and Enjoy It!

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