By Heba Elkayal
Chuckling, a friend in Lebanon once used a phrase to describe his hometown, which I have comfortably appropriated to describe the Egyptian post-revolution experience: Beirut Syndrome.
While this is not a medically recognized affliction of the physical or psychological sort, it explains an attitude to life: Fight in the morning and party in the evening because you don’t know what’s coming next.
Today, many Cairenes will say the same thing: Egyptians have become quite good at living a dual life of protesting and partying, sometimes simultaneously.
So what became of the lifestyle scene in Egypt as we recovered from 18 days of protests in Tahrir? The assorted clubs, bars, boutiques and restaurants that dot only a few of Cairo’s districts, kept functioning after the revolution. Some venues in Zamalek were operating during the 18 days as people chose to make it their gathering point after a day in Tahrir or to while away the afternoon with friends, choosing to ignore a very different kind of gathering just across the river.
Amici, a bar that opened in late November 2010, set its hours to open earlier and started offering a brunch menu. Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a coffee shop on the corner of Aboul Feda Street, was packed daily, piquing the interest of a few foreign journalists who published articles about the lounging patrons.
Some small businesses went back to work when the dust began to settle. One week into the uprising in February 2011, NOLA Cupcakes began making cupcakes draped with icing in the colors of the Egyptian flag. The owners faced both derision and amusement for what they explained as an expression of their patriotism.
The curfew during the 18 days was defied by many people and more so when it was scaled back to midnight. Those early days were a reality check to Cairo’s party animals.
What came after the revolution was a surprise: The party picked up from where it was abruptly paused on February 12, 2011. And despite the curfew being extended until mid-June, people became more courageous defying it.
But best of all was the creative and entrepreneurial scene that simply flourished in Cairo in the wake of the revolution. The initial sentimental attitude of nationalism that prevailed led many young people to turn to the art scene.
Lasting only until summer, it seemed every musician, artist and designer worth his salt was producing and selling something with an Egyptian flag.
It was tiresome seeing all those flags on scarves, shirts and handbags by April but more so were the outrageous prices tags. Thankfully as the romance of the revolution wore off for most and few kept going back to Tahrir, Ramadan had rolled around and people’s attention shifted to outings that were centered on food outlets for iftar and sohour meals.
Restaurants and coffee shops became gathering points for political discussions and despite the doomsday premonitions by economic forecasts, these businesses tell a different story: the production wheel is turning, at least anywhere where food and beverages are involved.
Though fine dining outlets at five-star hotels are noticeably emptier, restaurants downtown are brimming with customers on any given day.
Multiple coffee shops opened up along 26th of July Street in Zamalek alone: Café Mex and Wel3a, a shisha café, have customers blocking the sidewalk.
One new dining outlet has relied solely on the concept of culture and politics to set up shop. Left Bank opened up this past Sunday by the owning company responsible for Sequoia, aiming to fill the void of pleasurable open spaces specially catering to the notion of food venues as cultural hubs.
Two large malls have opened in 2011 as well. Mall of Arabia in Sixth of October and Sun City in Masakin Sheraton, and I am told by residents of both areas that foot traffic is steady as people shop and dine.
What about the party venues? Music, dancing and drink venues such as the Cairo Jazz Club and Tamarai are still operating, and popular as ever. Whereas the ever-expanding live music scene keeps Cairo Jazz Club thumping six nights a week, Tamarai, an upscale venue with expensive drinks, is the scene for Egypt’s socialites.
Celebrating it’s third anniversary last week, Tamarai’s success stems from its management’s business acumen and their selection of guest DJ’s and themed music nights.
Yet public opinion was staunchly critical of the party scene on two occasions: during the opening of Opium, a club on a floating deck attached to the Blue Nile boat, and during New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Opium, a bar that appeared to have been built with no concept in mind from its interiors to drink offerings, opened the night of December 16, as bullets were shot at protesters outside Cabinet. Opium’s management should have postponed the opening, many said with displeasure via social media channels.
That disgust extended to some of the New Year’s Eve celebrations and parties organized in hotels and resort towns such as Gouna. Never was New Year’s Eve more anticipated by Egyptians collectively, as if the New Year was going to realign the stars in a more fortuitous direction for Egyptian politics.
On multiple occasions, at least one person brings up the subject of New Year’s. “What did you do?” and “Did you hear…” — people wanted to be reassured that you didn’t plan anything too insensitive and it was public knowledge that extravagant parties organized in resort towns reflected poorly on both organizers and attendees.
Personally, the most emotionally moving experience second only to being in Tahrir on February 11 when Mubarak stepped down, was being in Tahrir at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The religious and social harmony was sincere and it felt as if people were emphasizing that to serve as an example to others outside the square: See what happens when we’re allowed to get together in Tahrir?
Yet as one colleague explained, people want to get on with their lives both personally and socially. The revolution is dragging on, she explained, and putting our life on hold won’t benefit anyone. Some Tahrir activists might disagree but the message to me is this: How does one balance the internal confusion of being loyal to the cause while getting on with your social life?
Seemingly, Beirut Syndrome has set in. Some of us choose to protest, dine out and party. Some of us even do all three on the same day.