News of romance
The nightingale gone sleazy
Nile casinos have nothing to do with gambling. They constitute a unique genre of café-restaurant, the one where you take your sweetheart, treat her to a non-alcoholic cocktail, tell her all about your "feelings" and bask in the heavenly warmth of her Platonic company. At least that's what they used to be, judging by, among other things, the movies. So quintessential was the Nile casino setting to films featuring the romance icon Abdel-Halim Hafiz, otherwise known as the Dark Nightingale of Arab music, that up until the late 1980s no love interest in Egyptian cinema could have been conceived without it.
But the times have changed and so have casinos. Now the most you can hope for is an expensive dinner in one of the five-star Nile boats, an unequivocal restaurant where the atmosphere varies from hip to executive but never recalls the swooning, cheesy earnestness of true love. Through the 1990s all that remained of the Nile casino were the sordid details of amour-oriented money making in an age of conservatism and religiosity -- an atmosphere that persists in what few non- "tourist" venues remain -- with hawker-like waiters insolently winking at you, as if to tell you that they know what you're doing, that they could bring in the vice police any moment now and you'd better pay up for their silence.
News of refurbishments and a new style of service at Casino Qasr Al-Nil, one of the pillars of the sentimental movement, was therefore of particular interest. One wanted to find out how deeply submerged in sleaze the place remains in post-millennial times, how deplorably affected it has been by the rise of popular Islamism on the streets of Cairo and how much Nightingale could prevail under the circumstances. In point of fact the Nightingale's one and only voice could be heard clearly throughout the duration of our brief stay -- except that he was singing not all-time love favourites but July Revolution-inspired patriotic songs, to mark the Free Officer takeover's 52nd anniversary, a somewhat paradoxical coincidence, which could only have added to the atmosphere of mystery that prevailed.
First there was that very peculiar usher who, dressed in no particular uniform at all, looked like the spitting image of the hawker-like waiter I was thinking of earlier. Apparently preoccupied, he made but a half-hearted attempt at persuading us to sit by the open-air terrace, where the late afternoon sun blazed too painfully for comfort, pointing out that food could be served there too. "Restaurant? Oh, the restaurant" he said when we insisted, pointing to the stairs where a small sign indicated, in harsh admonitory tones, that no part of Casino Qasr Al-Nil will serve alcohol, however much you plead with the managers.
The indoor restaurant is a vast air-conditioned space where the barely passable furniture and décor recall the 1960s, predictably enough, even despite the complete absence of that sense of period you experience on walking into the Tu Va Bien Bar in Ataba, for example. More discomfiting was the number of idle waiters eager to welcome and help, though clearly not trained in the fine points of "tourist" service. The one saving grace was an enormous window that occupied one whole side of the room.
It couldn't have been easier to find a seat next to it, but the jet skis flitting by left no room for reminiscence, and although well under control, the sleaze oozed through the incompetence of the waiters and the grandiose appearance of the menu. Now -- it is this that I'd rather not say at all -- whatever you do, don't be deceived by that menu. It has many exciting names in it but what could be simpler than fried fish and a steak. Both were just barely edible.
Casino Qasr Al-Nil, corner of Tahrir Road at the foot of the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, opposite the Opera House main entrance, open daily from 3pm. A deeply disappointing dinner for two came to the absolutely unjustifiable figure of LE180.
Nabil Shawkat is on holiday.