Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The bartender’s predicament

Gamal Nkrumah tests the feelings of Egyptian bartenders

Al-Ahram Weekly

With nuances from the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Evil Adored (1936), set in ancient Egypt, and yet full of references to drunken revellers and the enervating impact of alcoholic beverages, the typical Egyptian bartender fills the empty periods until the customers fill their glasses. The dipsomaniacs are not oblivious to the undercurrents of guilt and shame the bartender exudes.  
Cockeyed, they scrutinise the bartender. The bartender knows where this adventure is taking him — in his mind, straight to hell. He watches the euphoria, temper tantrums, and occasionally mal de ventre of his customers. He is frustrated as he does not have the conviction that there is nothing wrong with drinking. Yet, in a curious sort of way he understands the passions involved in it.

Bartenders like to get to know their customers and socialise with them. Egyptians from all walks of life continue to frequent bars in Cairo, Christians and Muslims alike, as well as the expatriate community, and especially during the current festive season.

It is not as if people fear there could be bombs planted everywhere — that would be like being frightened of pomegranates as if the fruit’s juice were blood. The customers still come. The bartender receives a steady stream. Sometimes, the bartender knows exactly what they want to drink, and they come to listen to his tales of encounters and friendships with the heavyweights.

Examining the emotions of Egyptian bartenders can be difficult. “I hate this job. I know it is haram, forbidden, in Islam, but what can I do? I get plenty of tips, and I have a better salary than if I worked in dreary eatery,” Mohamed, a bartender in Zamalek, confided. “I know I must quit this job eventually,” he said.

Months later, he was working as a waiter in a restaurant. “I am happier now even though I do not make as much money as I used to when I worked as a bartender,” he said. Mohamed’s torment was palpable. He has a young family to feed. “But I want to feed them in a halal way,” he repeated. Halal, meaning permissible in Islam, as opposed to haram, is an expression heard from many bartenders.

They want to make a living, an honest living, not a haram one.

Ahmed, another bartender, experiences the same disorientation as Mohamed did. Yet, he insists on remaining in his job. “I have no other choice, and God will forgive me,” he said, his body language and nervous gesticulation perhaps signs of inner confusion. He grew up in a religious and conservative household. “My parents do not even know that I work as a bartender,” Ahmed said.

The bartender in predominantly Muslim Egypt typically does a job he does not particularly enjoy, and he probably feels guilty for serving customers alcoholic beverages.

Throughout Islamic history, from early Islamic times through the mediaeval era and to contemporary Muslim culture, many liberal-minded Muslims have also been notorious alcoholics. Perhaps the most famous of all was the Persian poet, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher Omar Al-Khayyam. One of Egypt’s most popular contemporary wines is named after the Persian poet.

Omar Al-Khayyam was a brilliant mathematician whose theories are relevant to this day and have greatly influenced ideas about mathematics. He was an accomplished scientist and astronomer whose early heliocentric theory was a landmark in mediaeval times when Europe still languished in the Dark Ages.

But Omar Al-Khayyam is today mostly remembered for his poetry, including his Rubaiyat, or quatrains. He revered the Prophet Mohamed, as is evident in his poem “The Master of the Prophets”, and yet his poetry is also replete with verses praising wine and alcohol consumption. His “Treatise on Being”, Al-Risalah fil-Wujud, begins with Quranic verses and asserts that all things come from God and that there is an order to all things. He also praised wine and his drunken friends.

“Drink wine. This is life eternal. This is all that youth will give you. It is the season for wine, roses and drunken friends. Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life,” sang the Persian bard. One of his quatrains reads
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness, 
And oh, Wilderness is Paradise enough.

ALCOHOL IN EGYPT: In contemporary Europe and the United States there are few teetotallers. In Egypt, some Coptic Orthodox Christians abhor drinking. Samir, a Christian bartender, particularly disapproves of being boozed up or plastered. “I hate to see people dead to the world,” he said.

Alcohol is freely served in the shantytowns of Cairo, especially at weddings, there are several brands of local Egyptian beer, the favourite being the best-selling Egyptian beer Stella. In upmarket nightclubs and bars, whisky, vodka, gin and tonics and cocktails of different sorts are also served. Unlike in some other predominantly Muslim countries, alcohol is readily available in Egypt, except during the holy month of Ramadan, when the consumption of alcohol is strictly forbidden in public.

During the festive season, the western Christmas, the eastern Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the Egyptian elite, whether Muslim and Christian, may be tempted to celebrate with alcohol. Even in provincial towns, people may drink even though it is frowned upon by the more conservative rural population. During a recent trip to Aswan, the southernmost city in Egypt, I was surprised by taxi drivers at the airport upon my arrival who asked me whether I would like to try some of the local brew.

Drinking is not restricted to large urban centres such as Cairo and Alexandria. The taxi drivers at Aswan airport were brash, pragmatic opportunists. But they were peddlers, not bartenders. For the latter, customers with hair-trigger tempers may abound, and the bartenders must deal with them.

Yet, attitudes have been changing. With the return of Egyptian workers from the conservative oil-rich Gulf Arab states, the dress code of some Egyptians has changed, women donning the black niqab that covers the body from head to toe, leaving only the eyes visible, and men growing their beards and sporting white gallabiyas, Gulf-style. Saudi Arabia’s Wahabist ideology has spread like wildfire, as have new groups with various names that have espoused the Wahhabi ideology of the mediaeval religious cleric and scholar Ibn Hanbal who founded the Hanbali School of Sunni Islam.

The Sunni Islam practiced in Egypt has traditionally been varied, and Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest religious authority, taught all four schools of Sunni Islam, namely the Maliki, Shafei, Hanafi and Hanbali.

Yet, the trend towards rising religious zealotry that became apparent in Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s has been unmistakeable, and attitudes have been changing. In the 1960s and 1970s and earlier in the past century, alcohol was served in many company cafeterias.

Not any longer. Times have changed, and with the rights of religious associations being strengthened during the era of ex-president Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, took full advantage.

Bars were closed in Ramadan, and bartenders began to feel the economic pinch. Some preferred to relinquish their trade. Why compromise your principles and religious convictions for the sake of money?

There have also been other reasons why bartenders may be thinking twice about continuing their profession after the attack on 4 December at 6am, on a nightclub Al-Sayyad in Agouza, for example, when 16 people were killed.

AFTER THE ATTACK: Greater Cairo, including Giza, is the second-largest city in Africa after Lagos in Nigeria. Like in any other mega-city, there are hundreds of nightclubs and discos, bars and less ostentatious watering holes.

“I was an amazing bartender and a great waiter. I think, in a way, that was my acting school,” Nick Frost, an English actor, comedian and screenwriter, said, recalling the emotions of many Egyptian bartenders who are obliged to play the part of the clown on Christmas Eve and the New Year celebrations.

“By the time a bartender knows what drink a man will have before he orders, there is little else about him worth knowing,” Don Marquis, a journalist and author, observed. He knows the feelings of a bartender, but does not have the Egyptian bartender in mind.

Today, it is more important than ever for a bartender in Cairo to know his regular customers. Bartenders are suspicious of strangers.

This was particularly underlined in the recent attack in Cairo, since the young men who carried out the Agouza attack, denied entrance by the bouncers, were not terrorists — they were simply frustrated.

After the 25 January Revolution, many Egyptians started owning guns for protection. Licencing laws were relaxed. This may explain the death toll in Agouza, as guns were fired and people were caught in the crossfire.

A lawsuit was issued against the four young men suspected in carrying out the attack and according to the law they might be facing death sentences.

But the attack still pose a predicament for bartenders and others working in Cairo nightclubs and bars. Bouncers habitually stop women wearing the Islamic hijab, or headscarf, from entering bars and nightclubs. Women in the niqab are out of the question.

Mustafa, a bartender at Al-Sayyad nightclub, explained what had happened on that fateful evening. “I hardly knew what was going on,” he said, explaining that the incident had become a blur. “I don’t remember sleeping a wink. I was exhausted and traumatised.” However, Mustafa was back at his job for the festive season, and two days later the nightclub had reopened. “We are now living from moment to moment,” Pierre, a bartender in Zamalek, added.

While the festive season has not been affected by the attack and Cairo’s nightlife is in no danger of vanishing, questions still hang over the city’s bartenders.

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