Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Draft of the Past Remains on Tap in Egypt

The New York Times
21 June 2010

Egypt's Outpost of Tolerance

Like the city around it, the Cap d’Or’s better days are behind it. The bar was
opened about 110 years ago by Greek residents.

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — These two women were veiled, true. They are religious, too, or at least as religious as their community expects them to be. But do not tell them they cannot stop into Sheik Ali’s bar and sit at a table and eat fried calamari and laugh over a glass of juice while surrounded by men drinking beer and whiskey.

The women, Nelly Rafat, 52, and Magda el-Gindy, 52, are childhood friends who believe that while their religion prohibits alcohol, people are free to make their own choices. That is not the typical view here these days. But they sit, eat and enjoy, guilt-free amid the smoke-filled ambience of a hole-in-the-wall bar.

“If somebody else sitting here wants to drink, it’s none of my business,” Ms. Rafat said, as Ms. Gindy nodded in agreement.

There is a lot of pressure out on the street, here and around Egypt, to at least appear pious. For women to wear a veil. For men to have a prayer bump, a dark callous in the middle of the forehead from bowing to the ground five times a day.

And definitely, especially for women, to stay away from alcohol, and especially in a bar filled with men.

“It’s not a Muslim tradition,” Muhammad Suleiman, 32, complained as he sat in a barbershop next door to the bar. “It should not be there. I don’t like it. It’s not our religion. I’d like it closed.”

But that is not how everyone wants to live, not all the time, not even among people who agree to conform in appearance, like Ms. Rafat and Ms. Gindy.

Especially not here, in Alexandria, a city built to look out to the world, not in on itself. The arc of history has been unkind to Alexandria, taking it on a long slow slide from the center of global learning in ancient times to a rundown, crowded metropolis on the Mediterranean.

But no matter how the conservative social forces of modern Egypt press in, Alexandria cannot fully turn its back on a past so different from the present, when diversity and tolerance eclipsed conformity and tradition. The old Alexandria, the city built by Alexander the Great, set aside cemeteries in the 19th century for all its citizens, with separate ones designated for Muslims, Jews, Christians and “free thinkers.”

Those days are gone, but are still embedded in the collective memory, and desires, of many people who live here, even people who are too young to remember when the tailors were French or Greek, the cooks Italian, and the Jews a large, vibrant part of the city.

“We grew up in the hands of foreigners,” said Francis Zarif, 33. “That’s why I like it here. The feeling is the kindness of people in the past, the humanity.”

There are pockets of Alexandria where residents have held on to, or are trying to restore, a sense of curiosity about the world, a tolerance for diversity and an acceptance of the other. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a public library, research and cultural center, is such a place, where visitors are encouraged to challenge and question each other and themselves in an effort to create a modern version of the ancient library here that was destroyed in 48 B.C.

But so is this little bar, where tolerance and a nice cold Stella (the most popular Egyptian beer, not to be confused with the Belgian beer) are plentiful. Alcohol is fairly easy to come by in Egypt, sold in hotels and restaurants. But there are few neighborhood bars.

“I come here for history, I come here for a light moment,” said an obstetrician-gynecologist as he sat sipping a beer and smoking a pipe. It was after 11 p.m. and he was relaxing, he said, “like in Europe,” as he waved at friends at other tables. But he would not give his name, because out there, he said “the religious current is strong.”

“I’m a woman’s doctor, you know,” he said. “It’s not good if I come here.”

The bar is officially called Cap d’Or, and is described by the hand-stenciled words over the storefront as a “Touristic Restaurant.” It was opened about 110 years ago by Greek residents, before Egyptians reacted to decades of subjugation by foreign powers by forcing foreigners to leave and nationalizing private property.

When the Greeks fled in 1951, Ali Abdel Razeq bought the bar for next to nothing, said his grandson, Mustafa, who now helps run it. Since then, it has been known as Sheik Ali’s, although Mr. Razeq held no such title, which can imply some religious credentials. He was a man who served alcohol and seafood, and liked betting on horse races.

He may have acquired the nickname because he closed the bar on Friday, the Islamic day of prayer and rest.

In the early years, Sheik Ali’s was a gathering spot for intellectuals and artists, actors and cultural leaders. Military men with stars on their shoulders shared beers with artists and professionals.

That is not so much the case anymore, though it still remains a place where people go who want a break from the demands of the community and to find like-minded friends.

“This is a community center for the open-minded,” said Karim, 49, who also said he did not want to reveal his family name because outside of that community it is not considered so respectable to be in a bar.

“The atmosphere is great; that’s why I keep coming back,” he said. He was seated with five other friends eating small plates of salad and seafood.

The bar has 13 tables, each with a red-and-white tablecloth, and a cool, grayish marble bar long enough for about six to sit comfortably side by side. The old brass tap is still there, but has not worked in years. The walls are covered with photos of Sheik Ali posing next to racehorses and a few architectural flourishes that hark back to the faded glamour of the place. The gold-leaf letters CDB, for Cap d’Or Bar, are still on a mirror over the bar.

Like the city around it, the bar’s better days are behind it, a fact that has done little to diminish the loyalty of the remaining long-timers. “Life outside these doors is difficult,” said Osama Tantawi, 40, an accountant who said he visited Sheik Ali’s the day he turned 21 and has been a regular ever since. “The advantage to coming here is it separates you from life out there.”

As he spoke, his friend Dr. Mahmoud Sherif walked through the door. They had met at the bar about a year ago. “It makes me happy when I am in here,” Dr. Sherif said. He took a sip of scotch. And Mr. Tantawi ordered another beer.

Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting.

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