This story was written just after returning from one of my many pre-Revolution trips to Egypt. I was in Cairo after the Arab Spring, and there was a feeling of elation in the air, but since then, many things in the country have changed politically, socially and as far as tourism goes. It was a different world, a different Egypt, and the subculture I experienced and describe in this story may not exist any more... or at least the way it used to. This was originally published in Zaghareet Magazine in 2009.
“I’ll sleep when I get home!”
For years, that’s been my motto when I’m on the road. But nowhere does it apply more than when I’m in Cairo, where people stay up all night long and the belly dance shows in the Five-Star hotels don’t get rockin’ until well after midnight. I always come home extremely- and quite happily- sleep deprived, but my most recent trip gave me an insider’s view into the surreal world of Cairo’s seedy late-night cabarets…. The equivalent of one of my favorite American institutions, Dive Bars. Oh, I’d been to Cairo’s less-glamorous, off-the-beaten path nightclubs like Cave De Roi and The Sunset before, but the places I experienced this time made those venues look positively tame!
My immersion into this underworld started innocently enough… it began with a movie trailer, of all things. One of my oldest Cairo pals is Russian belly dancer Katia, who began her career in Egypt over twenty years ago, as a protégé of world-renowned choreographer Raqia Hassan, and is now a star in her own right.
Catching up with Katia, she showed me the trailer for a new Egyptian film in which she was featured called “Cabaret”. No, it’s not a remake of the 1972 Bob Fosse film starring Liza Minelli. Directed by Sameh Abdel-Aziz and featuring a number of Egyptian stars, “Cabaret” is a high-budget action drama with a huge cast, centering on-you guessed it- a sleazy Egyptian cabaret club.
The trailer featured hooded thugs with automatic weapons, implied prostitution, kidnapping, drug use and showed risque love scenes…along with-of course- plenty of singing and dancing. I’m no authority on modern Arabic cinema, but “Cabaret” looked so dark and transgressive that I was quite intrigued! The trailer ran constantly on Egyptian TV stations, but unfortunately, the film opened the day after I left, so I never go to see it. What I did do was start bugging Katia non-stop to take me to a cabaret like the one in the movie so I could see what it was really like. Call me crazy, but I’m a gal who really appreciates a good dive bar- even in Cairo!
At first, Katia demurred, because in Egypt, a dancer of her status being seen in a “low class” place could cause tongues to wag in an unfavorable way. But she finally relented, and took me to one of the “best of the worst” as it were, to Amoun, in the Mohandeseen district. Katia chose Amoun because, in her words “It’s no so bad”, and because an acquaintance of hers, Egyptian dancer Dahlia, was performing.
We walked in at 3:15 am, and the vast, dark, low-ceilinged club was only about a quarter full. A few Saudis in white robes and traditional shumaq headdresses sat against the walls behind tables groaning with mezza, smoking sheesha pipes. The thirty or so musicians and singer onstage out-numbered the audience, and then some Western-garbed twenty-somethings jumped onstage and for some dirty dancing that raised even my jaded eyebrows. Katia gestured towards them and screamed over the music,
“Thees nothing! Thees place do not really get going until around 6:00 am!”
Dahlia breezed in with her band, stopping by our table to say hello, and seemed slightly surprised to see Katia. As the bands changed (every dancer or singer brought their own orchestra, and most had over twenty five members) a trio of waiters began fluttering about our table.
I have never experienced anything like the service at Amoun-ever-it was beyond attentive to the point of being almost ridiculous! Because the music was so loud, we began rolling up paper napkins to use as makeshift earplugs. As soon as we did that, a waiter proffered a box of Kleenex and began folding the sheets into little triangles, dealing them onto the table like a deck of cards, precisely fanning them out at each place-setting. With a flourish, he conveniently positioned the box against our wine-bucket, in case we needed to use it again. Katia’s cigarettes were on the table, and at one point, a waiter took one out of the package, placed it in my mouth, and lit it for me!
Dahlia’s orchestra in place, she began her show. It was a good show, but unremarkable except for the fact that she danced through the audience flirting at the tables in the back, getting showered with cash, something that would never happen at a Five Star club. Her orchestra was incredible. And the music only got better with the next band change. To my amazement, the vocalist who appeared was my favorite singer, Mahmoud El Leity! The place was filling up now and his set was as sublime as it was raucous, the stage packed full of sweaty people getting down. As El Leity strode into the audience like a younger, swarthier Tom Jones, he grabbed my hand and yelled something to me in Arabic.
“He wants you dance onstage for the next song!” Katia translated at the top of her lungs, “ He will do Om Kalthoum.”
As the strains of “Weh Deret Al Ayam” filled the smoky club and the audience waved their napkins in ecstasy, I checked with Katia to make sure I wouldn’t embarrass her if I got up and danced.
“Go!” she hollered, “Have fun!”
When I returned to my seat, a Saudi guy dancing in the aisles slipped fragrant strings of fresh jasmine around my neck. Sweaty and with my hair full of loose flower petals, I headed to the Ladies Room to freshen up. The scene there was even more mind-boggling than what was going on outside. The air was actually humid with hair spray and perfume. Young women crowded around the mirror applying gobs of lip-gloss and heavy eyeliner. The door opened and shut constantly with a steady influx of girls.
“Come, lady, English Toilet !” the attendant declared, her arm snaking around my shoulders, ushering me in.
She swung open a bathroom stall and made a huge display of liberally spraying the entire stall and commode with enough aerosol disinfectant to cause a Hazardous Chemical Disaster. She quickly wiped off the seat, laid sheets of Kleenex down upon it, handed me the box and made a sweeping presentational gesture as though she’s just created a masterpiece. As I washed my hands, I was astounded to see fully veiled women coming in, peeling off their dark robes and headscarves, and depositing them nonchalantly into a wicker basket. What was underneath their wraps was a pastiche of lurid make-up, glittery costume jewelry, and pierced noses, tube tops, mini skirts and insanely high heels. After a quick mirror check, these chicks made a beeline into the club, and I spotted many of them later, dancing on stage or on top of chairs!
On previous trips to Egypt, I’d been alone in a room full of females, and seen veiled women disrobe when they’d discerned there were no men around…but this was definitely something else.
Katia explained that these nightclub habitués normally didn’t veil, but used the garments as a disguise so that when they were leaving the cabaret in the glaring sunlight, they wouldn’t be hassled on the street.
We left well after sunrise, and just as predicted, the very long line to get into Amoun was as crowded and chaotic as the admission line outside of any American rock club or concert- except, that is, for the predominance of the “conservatively” veiled patrons!
I’ll be doing a spoken word appearance- and reading Tarot cards pre-show on Sunday, March 8, 2015 at the Library Girl Reading Series at The Ruskin Theater 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405 . Joining me will be authors Lauran Hoffman, Kristin Dwan, and Susan Hayden 7:00pm-10:00pm for more info on this show, please visit
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