Saturday, June 27, 2009

Take me back to Cairo

Cairo is a beautiful woman who has aged with anything but grace. She has known a glamorous past...

A past when it was Paris of the Middle East and the Oriental Hollywood. A time for intellectuals and activists in Café Riche, for shopping for the best European fashion at Cicurel
, for Beer in the snooker club, for the best dinners at After 8 (which by the way is now murky beyond repair), for dressing up to savour Um Kulthum's voice with no rush, for horse races at the Gezira Club. A truly cosmopolitan city where people came to bask in culture and look for everything new in wist el balad, down town Cairo, my favourite part of the city.

Tonight, a Spanish man's love for Cairo woke up this beauty and told her to get ready to take the stage one last time before he leaves. So she got up, shook off the sadness, the bitterness over people forgetting that She was the Diva, the one and only, and wore her best red gown and smoothed her long black gloves and seduced us all.

The stage was a forgotten night club, a
cabaret revived especially for the Night. Once a place where stars shone, on Emad El Din Street, Cairo's Broadway, at a time where Cinema Femina required evening dresses and pressed suits. Now just one more local Cabareih, those tacky drug and prostitution holes flashing cheap menus in horrid colors. The place was brought to its former glory, Taheya Karioka and Samia Gamal, the prima belly dancers of all time smiled again, and Stella beer, digged out its old ads; with maps of Wist El Balad covering the peeling orange plaster; with tables clad in burgundy and arranged in a proper Cabaret setting. Girls walking around with cigarette trays added to the retro mood.

An Egyptian Jazz band and then a Spanish Swing band took the stage. And I felt at home between both my homes, greeting an old friend, the Pianiste of The Riff Band of Cairo before he went on stage, and screaming otra! otra! with the Spanish crowd, asking the Divinas to give us one more song before they call it a night. And the girls obliged, coming back on stage with their 50s dresses, hats, sunglasses and scarves and those round travel bags, before they board the train.
It was a perfect night, tap dancing, pink martinis and a crowd that just fit in. The lead vocalist of
Riff, and Cairo's Frankie, Ahmed Harfoush, told us all beforehand to wear our best 50s wear. I was there hairdo, swinging skirt, red lipstick and all (and you know me I never wear red lipstick). The audience made one feel part of a black and white movie (and wonder when will Ahmed Ramzy come through the door?), they danced the Swing so well on the piste in the middle of the Cabaret that it was hard to focus on the stage alone.

I asked Ramón Blecua, the Cultural Counselor of the Spanish Embassy (the man who loves Cairo, remember?) if this project would give us more nights like this, he says it is just those 3 nights, just an affair not a marriage (pointing to the tickets that read "a musical affair"). This was his last cultural activity, his finale, a rare tour de force, and I was lucky to witness it.

I thank all those who took us back in time and let my Cairo shine one more time before the August tourists hit the city to escape their stifling societies. I also thank the brave owner of Cabaret Scheherazade
for letting them, who knows what his current customers would think of such an act of cultural debauchery!

-For non Egyptians, the title comes from an old song, maybe a little cheesy but it just grew on us.
-Picture1: balconies down town, Mohamed Azab's lens
-Picture2: 50s advertising "prepare your lips for kisses, with Baiser lipstick" (I know for a fact that the same people who banned Cabarets on the basis that music is immoral ,banned ads like this too)

-Accompanying song Copa Cabana
-Article worth reading about the show and the downtown revival project from the daily news

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

simply Alex.

You may see them on the train from Cairo to Alexandria, thinking they are in a tea party. Dinning at the Greek Club and promising that they would come to Alexandria more often. Having coffee at Délice and imagining another era. In all those moments and whenever life throws one of them among very alien -a little too practical- souls, each of the ladies would be thanking God for sending the others her way.
They call themselves, Ladies of the Order of the Bubble.
It is at times like this that I am certain that people make the place.

Photo: Alexandria, Mohamed Azab's lens
For some Alexandria breeze read Out of Egypt: a memoir

Saturday, June 20, 2009


From time to time, nostalgia hits like a baseball bat on your head, and you realize there are things you miss.

Like drinking Lemonade with Cardamom in the sunny living room while counting the blue cable cars flying from Rosales to the zoo, and always loosing count when one of us shares his views on love
Dancing to the gypsies' beat at the bar Cardamomo and impersonating famous Flamenco dancers, Olé! We were a crazy bunch
Taking coffee breaks which end up in full breakfasts, with pan con tomate and all, taking time to pour olive oil on perfectly toasted bread without a care in the world - as if this wasn't just a class intermittance, but a morning we decided to spend in the sun.
Spending a Sunday wandering barefoot in the park or reading by the pool, then going home to prepare a decent merienda for friends.
Staring at the perfect column in Café Juan Valdéz in a restored old building overlooking La Almudena and then get back to the typical Mediterranean gossip.
Solitary walks near the Palacio or deep conversations in the Plaza de Oriente
Remembering the way to Casa de Campo and wondering, have they fixed the Manzanares yet? Will my adopted home have a proper river now, and when I'm there I'll miss the Nile less?
Comparing fiestas in my friends' houses in Cairo to Wednesday nights of Madrid Babel chattering away in a zillion foreign tongues and hybrid phrases.
Indy movies at the Cines Golem, and watching that slightly odd Chinese movie with my most cultured couple.
Going for drinks at Malu's, at the foot of the bridge, and remembering the year before with the most loved ones, and then wondering if it's all about people or places?
It ain't painful, it's just Saudade...

Photo: counting blue cable cars, view from apartment in Principe Pío Madrid.

What Lonely Planet says about my adopted city:
No city on earth is more alive than Madrid, a beguiling place whose sheer energy carries a simple message: this is one city which really knows how to live.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cairo Kitsch

The Cairo Tower with tiny glowing pink lights, against a navy blue sky (for it never gets darker in the city that never sleeps).
Crystal chandeliers in ever single floor of Abu Tarek's Koshari place
The endearing slow service in Wist El Balad's restaurants by fancily dressed waiters who have known a better era
Walking through a supermarket to reach a once-elegant now-faded and dusty bar
Styrofoam coffee cups at the Gezira Club, a place that once served tea in the finest china to a postcolonial society
Red and yellow plastic chairs on El Gam'a bridge enjoying the same view of the Nile as the Four Seasons Hotel
A hand warding off the evil eye on the back of a truck
This is the city I love and I would die if our tower were to imitate the mono-colour Tour Effeil lights one day (and I love the Tour, don't get me wrong)

Photo: reflections of Cairo lights on the Nile, view from Kasr El Nil Bridge (the Lions Bridge), Francisco Fuentes' lens