Raiders of the Last Bar

I got back from Cambodia a little over a week ago, reluctantly packing away my sundresses and my shoulders. (More on Cambodia to come.) Despite Phnom Penh’s presence on the world stage as a developing nation, things seemed to progress rather smoothly there, so returning to Cairo was more jarring than it should have been. The four hour flight from Abu Dhabi starred a slightly insane woman seated to my right and ended with a crowded airport shuttle ride where the back of the vehicle dragged along the asphalt because the driver had packed in too many passengers. We all shuffled comically to the front of the bus while I envisioned the shuttle rolling back onto the runway and being flattened by a jet. Welcome in Egypt, as they say.

But the real kicker came on Monday when we learned that our favorite expat watering hole had been raided on Sunday evening. I know, you’re shocked. Authority in Egypt? Where have they been hiding?

Since the revolution, police have become far less visible. But it’s good to know that they’re still around. I have certainly had my doubts. Reckless driving, speeding, roadside brawls, driving while intoxicated, sexual harassment, gun and sword juggling (yep, I’ve seen it) – all fairly dangerous, all largely ignored. Selling alcohol? Rally the troops!

To be fair, not all of the alcohol was confiscated. Local beers, wine, and champagne are still permitted, but all imported alcohol has been seized. Some suggest that since the economy has taken a dive, perhaps the government wants to eliminate competition and siphon money into the local markets. If imports are gone, foreigners will turn to the local brews. But the majority of people seem more convinced that the move is a dig at westerners. Close up the pubs and the expat population will slowly trickle out.

There aren’t many places to hit the bottle in Maadi to begin with; of the three local spots, two have recently been raided and the third is hunkered down awaiting its turn. And of course the rumor mill has started spinning. Some say even the Duty Free shop may be closing its doors in the future. But the real fear surrounds Sunday’s raid, because from what I’ve gathered, folks never thought it would happen. Popular opinion is fairly polarized: some are certain its doors will close while others think a little baksheesh might refill all those empty dispenser racks. But with a fine set at over one million Egyptian pounds, most are skeptical.

Some of the more fretful expats worry that Egypt is headed the way of Saudi Arabia, and this doesn’t seem entirely unlikely to me. Jamie and I once went to dinner at a sushi restaurant on the Nile where he unsuccessfully attempted to order a beer.

“They always served alcohol here,” he told me.

“Well they must not anymore. Neither does Fridays,” I replied, with a nod at the popular chain restaurant to our right. The times have changed – and Jamie had only left Egypt two years ago.

And the focus of reform here isn’t always targeted at what actually needs to be changed (like traffic laws, environmental awareness, education, eliminating sexual harassment), a fact that was particularly poignant in the months leading up to last year’s election when one of the more publicized concerns surrounding Morsi’s campaign was its potential impact on tourism if Morsi decided to ban bikinis in popular resorts like Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab. Priorities, priorities.

Members of the old guard, men who’ve been around for years before some of these clubs even opened, are skeptical but resilient.

“Someone asked me what I’d do if it closed,” said one yesterday, “and I told him I’d just get more pissed*. You find a way. You all go to someone’s house, and it’s cheaper.”

Another man I met on the boat yesterday spent nearly ten years living on a compound in Kuwait, and seemed indifferent to whether or not Cairo has a bar scene.

“You learn how to brew your own alcohol and have house parties,” he said with a shrug. “That’s all we did.”

In fact, all this musing and postulating probably makes Cairo’s expat population look like a pack of alcoholics, but in a culture that is so radically different, the social scene is really just a tight-knit group of foreigners hanging out together in a space that’s large enough to hold them. So before I turn my bathtub into a gin distillery, I’ll stick to keeping my fingers crossed that our pool tables, dartboards, quiz nights, and alcohol supply will be left alone.

And if not, I’m quite happy to tap into my inner F. Scott Fitzgerald and conquer prohibition through Gatsby-esque festivities. Speakeasy anyone?

*This is pissed in the British sense of the word, not its angrier American cousin. Here it means intoxicated.

Categories: Egypt

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