At 6:10 sharp I come down from my decrepit room at the Windsor Hotel in Cairo, down the freezing stairs wound around an elevator shaft of such perilous ancientness that the heart does a little two-step at the thought of actually getting into the elevator itself. Nevertheless Mustafa is there waiting with the filthy iron doors held open for me, a ghost in a dark blue uniform that has probably been worn by generations of elevator boys since the days when the Windsor was the British Officers’ Mess in Cairo. His yellow eyes light up expecting a tip. “Sir?” he cries, raising a hand to invite me into his little carpeted cage. It is his duty, after all, to carry drunkards up and down from their tawdry rooms to the famous bar on the second floor, and no matter if they are afraid for their lives; he must carry them.
He does this by means of a manual brass switch. “How punctual you are, habibi,” his eyes say as I walk past him refusing. (The hand-operated car is surely a death trap, though I will likely need it later.) I come down to the bar, and as usual in these days of trouble and strife in Egypt, it is empty. The never-extinguished TV, however, continues to bravely relay a stream of belly-dance shows to synthesizer music. The barrel chairs look sinisterly inviting. But one cannot forget that Tahrir Square is only a short walk away. The streets are filled with a strange, seething anxiety and self-hatred. This winter the tourists have stayed home or ventured to the Seychelles instead.
An ancient and venerable bar must have a barman exuding those same qualities. The Windsor has Marco. Marco is about five-foot-four but musters the firmest and most intimate of male handshakes. You immediately wonder whether it might be possible that a very young Marco once pulled pints for Lawrence Durrell back in the day. Cairo is a city where nothing, but nothing, is forgotten. The walls of the stairwell, for example, are darkly rich with travel posters—hand-painted, one would say—issued from the offices of Swissair in the 1920s. The scenes are of cobbled squares in Germany long obliterated by the Royal Air Force. Of Saint Moritz filled with Weimar-era millionaires. The hotel was originally built as a bathhouse for the royal family around 1900. It then became an annex of the famous Shepheard Hotel, which was burned down by a mob during the Revolution of 1952.
The Windsor is my favorite bar in the Middle East. It is, when you first enter it, still an officers’ mess equipped with all the expected decorations of a male space: dozens of large and small antlers protrude from its walls, some so small they are like the bones of tiny extinct species unique to the Sahara. The chandeliers are rings of enmeshed antlers. Antelopes, gazelles, ibex, dark wood, low bookcases, shaded lamps, and bar shelves filled with dusty bottles of Omar Khayyam wine and Stella, the Egyptian national beer. It is a perfect anachronism. It must have been one of the bars of Fermor and Durrell in 1942.
It was here that Lawrence of Arabia stormed into the bar after taking Aqaba and returning in triumph to Cairo, a scene famously re-created by David Lean in a grander setting probably inspired by the Shepheard, which lay two blocks away at the edge of the Ezbekia park and that has now been replaced by a miserable gas station.
Lawrence at the Windsor bar in 1917, scandalously dressed as a Bedu and demanding a drink: what other bar would you want to drink at?
The Windsor sits unnoticed within the backstreets of Cairo’s downtown, the core of the 19th-century city that has for decades decayed like compost until it is almost unrecognizable as the downtown that was once magnificent, the city of King Farouk and Omar Sharif and Om Khaltoum. A city of Parisian boulevards and balconied apartment blocks lifted from the Rue Réaumur. The city of the Café Riche and wondrous hotel bars and a life of flâneurs rarely inconvenienced by religion. The Paris of the East, pace Beirut.
I order a gin and tonic, but alas there is no tonic. There is no explanation for this dire lacuna. Instead there is soda, so I can have a whisky soda and a plate of slippery yellow thermos beans. I notice then, as I sit there with three or four Egyptian gentlemen of the elderly and bohemian variety (the two things now being virtually synonymous), that Egyptian cell phones sometimes erupt with a tune I know well but that takes some time to pin down—it is, quite unbelievably, Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending.” How has this fragment of English classical music found its way into the repertory of the contemporary Egyptian cell phone? There is no one to ask, since no one knows what it is.
Looking over now, I see that these gentlemen are of the vaguely literary kind. Suave Egyptian men now in their seventies who wear those enormous sunglasses that are perfectly oval, with pale safari suits and pocket squares. The noses blunt and squat, the skin heavily scarred and blotched, the manners exquisite. Men of another era, the era of Sadat, I suppose, and by legacy of the golden 1960s, when this part of Cairo was a paradise of conversation and erotic dalliance. One of them comes over to the bar on unsteady legs to order another shot of Biulli’s Egyptian whisky. It’s a pretty raw drink, but what is familiar soothes.
“British?” he says, shaking my hand for some reason. The eyes are quite beautifully mad behind the tinted ovals of glass, and he leans toward me as Egyptian men sometimes do, suddenly a little too intimate but nevertheless unconcerned by one’s stiff-necked reactions. He whispers heavily in my ear: “Tally ho!”
The British left their mark on this city, on this faded and rotting downtown. They left their bars, for one thing. They left a memory that has taken decades to fade out, of a hard-drinking military elite that mostly despised the place to which it had been posted. But then they were the last wave of the Europeans who washed over Egypt beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of 1798. That so-called “Army of Scholars,” among other things, ushered in a revival of Egyptian liquor. But it eventually led to the aforementioned boulevards and to the incredible buildings of downtown Cairo and Alexandria. It led to the creation of a unique city now famous, if it is famous at all, through the works (if we exempt the incomparable Mahfouz) of the novelist Alaa Al Aswany. And in particular The Yacoubian Building.
In his foreword to the English version of that book, Aswany—who was originally a dentist—describes going with a real estate agent around downtown looking for a place to house a new dental clinic. To him, a middle-class Egyptian, this decaying core of the city was unknown, a revelation.
“This experience did, however, bring me an important thought: what was the secret of the significance of Downtown? Why wasn’t Downtown just like the other districts of Cairo? In fact, Downtown is not just a residential or commercial center; it is a lot more than that. It represents a whole epoch, an epoch during which Egypt was characterized by tolerance and an amazing capacity to absorb people of different nationalities, cultures, and religions. Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Armenians, Greeks, and Italians—all of them lived in Egypt for long centuries and considered it their true home. Downtown was tantamount to an embodiment of Egypt’s great capacity to absorb different cultures and melt them in a single human crucible. Downtown was also, in my opinion, an example of Egypt’s project of modernization, which extended from the Muhammad Ali years up to the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970.
“It was inevitable that Downtown should wither away thereafter. Its importance declining with the ending of the qualities that it represented. The culture of co-existence came to an end and, beginning with the eighties, Egypt fell into the grip of Wahhabite-Salafite thinking, in the face of which Egypt’s open, moderate reading of Islam retreated.”
I go out into the streets that form a warren between Al-Alfi Bey and 26th July, streets of somnolent trees that look like fossils of ancient forests, of the cafés that are spread out under white strip lights with rows of shish pipes and their baskets of coals smoking in the cold. Al-Alfi leads toward the Midan Orabi, an open space around which the shish cafés are scattered in carless alleys that also sustain a few last baladi or local bars. The gaudiest is Scheherazade, which lies at the top of a flight of ominous steps whose walls are covered with the peeling pictures of belly dancers of yore.
The club is a single room with a stage at the far end and a decor of yearning Arabian nightmares. I sometimes come here and drink my Stellas and watch the tubby girls having their bras filled with pound notes—paltry sums compared to what you would see in a belly dancer’s bra in Beirut or Dubai. There is now a slightly harassed, furtive atmosphere in these sorts of places, as if the slutty girls hired by management to induce heavy consumption in their guests can never quite forget that out in the streets all the girls are now in headscarves. Their uncovered, inviting hair is now more than ever an anomaly. A sign that inside the Scheherazade they are fair game.
Nearby, on the far side of 26th July—and even off the high-wattage sidewalks of Talaat Harb, where thousands of mannequins stand in windows displaying modest fashions for newly modest women—there are other, even more discreet baladi and belly-dance joints that have now withdrawn their more obvious signs and that exist inside a consensual secrecy.
On 26th July, among the clothes stores, there is a tiny alley named after the Scarabee Hotel, which stands at its entrance. The Scarabee Alley leads past yet more fashion stores, past the down-at-heel lobby of the hotel, past cafés built into walls where the backgammon games are always at fever pitch.
I come here when I want a shish in the courtyard cafés that lie at the end of the alley, in spaces that are squeezed between the vertical grandeur of old apartment blocks. The Scarabee Alley is a secret place that has not yet been gutted and sanitized, but its days are surely numbered.
Even deeper into its bowels there lies a cluster of girly bars: to the left, the LaVie Hotel and a club at ground level, and to the right the Meame and the Miscellany, which advertise themselves on a horizontal sign above the passageway that leads to them: Casino and Theater Miscellany. At dusk, as the small mosques all around—and a dozen televisions and radios—break into the muezzin’s song, the lights are switched on by the café owners, and the passageway leading to the clubs comes alive with groomed hustlers and tall, swaying girls in lace-up heeled leather boots.
I have often seen the scarfed matrons puffing at their pipes in the courtyard café watch these creatures arrive with expressions of wide-eyed horror, which at the same time accommodates a sly curiosity. The club girls are aware that they are no longer protected by invisible hands. The tide is turning against them, and all they have to rely on is the sad immortality of male desire. It might save them.
I sit here not just to escape Cairo but to escape the rest of the world as well. Unlike Aksaray, this tiny enclave of bedlam is filled with Egyptian anarchy and humor. The Scarabee Alley is amateurish. On top of strange poles hang stuffed tiger toys, their tails and paws dropping earthward.
The café’s plasma screens show American wrestling shows, keenly enjoyed as far as I can see by the same scarfed matrons whose disapproval does not extend to large men in bikini bottoms. I can drink Lipton with sugar and smoke for hours, and Stella is served without much discretion. When I ask about this, a neighbor tells me that Egyptians do not really regard beer as sinful alcohol. “After all,” he says, “we invented it. We cannot ban what we invented.”
Excerpted from Lawrence Osborne’s forthcoming book The Wet and the Dry, to be published by Hogarth Press in 2013. Osborne is the author, most recently, of The Forgiven.