It was 25 February when the doors and windows to Cairo's most popular beer-drinking venue were barred. At the beginning we thought it was a few days' move in deference to the Moulid, the anniversary of the Prophet Mohammad. A week on, however, my downtown friends and I were already engaging in guesswork.
"It has to do with the terrorist attack on the Synagogue," Alaaeddin says, suggesting that iron bars should be installed in the windows to reduce the threat of explosions. "They need to provide better security because the place is full of foreigners." Taha has another idea: "They are just closed for renovations." Then again, as Ahmad points out, why did they not undertake them during Ramadan (when alcohol-serving venues are closed anyway)?
Crossing Falaki Square, we can all see that renovations really are underway. I went inside and, sure enough, the walls had a new coat of paint and there was new furniture installed. I spoke to one of the owners. Once again I was told, "Next Sunday, or next Tuesday." Once again, as I predicted, it didn't happen. Tarek said, "They want to show the best possible face of Horreya, because Osama El-Shazly's book on the cafe has been published." Ihab disagreed: "All they say is false. Their alcohol license expired and they haven't renewed it, that's what it is."
While they await the reopning, the customers of Horreya are spread around the bars and cafeterias of downtown Cairo. The Stella Bar is too small a space for the tourists and khawagat or expatriates, actors, brokers and the unemployed who have joined in with the regular customers.
In Horreya old men would be playing chess in one corner while the drinkers sat inadequately shielded by wood planks. The kherteyya, those who make it their business to weedle as much money out of foreigners as they can by whatever means, would be out in force. I heard one suggesting to three Germans to accompany him to the casino where he worked for LE4,000.
But there is a different kind of kherti : artists, actors, musicians, directors, intellectuals who are less interested in money than a kind of spiritual exchange with foreigners. They would like to live abroad but they can't, so foreigners are their best friends. They are the only way to realise a real or a vague dream. They don't like their country so much, they want practise their English. Of course they like to drink wine and beer. In general they act like foreigners, looking for friendships with the real deal. "We are looking for foreigners as bit players for our next movie," says Wael. "Will you come to Mohandessintomorrow to take a photo?"
Those people used to spend their time in cafès like After Eight in Bassiouny Street, or the Tak'iba in Champolion Street, and the hidden cafè behind the garage in front of Rawabet Theatre. Of course Horreya remains their favourite place. Normally, they would gather there every evening. The third kind of kherti is different again: foreigners who pretend to be Egyptians, who practise their Arabic and look for friendships in the same settings.
It is as if they have become homeless.
Where do all these people go while Horreya is closed? The downtown bars are more crowded than usual: other than the tiny Stella on Hoda Shaarawy Street, the Cap d'Or on Gawad Hosni Street, an old wooded place with mezzeh that includes lupini and tomatoes, the Odeon and Carlton hotel terraces, and Alf Laila wa Laila on Gomhouriya Street. So are the ahawi or traditional cafes, but there beer cannot be had. People order sahlab, koshari teas, cold ennab, lemon juices, Turkish coffee, zabadi (a yogurt drink) or aniseed. They listen to the continuous reading of Quran' verses looking at the old customers smoking shisha maassel or tuffah andlistlessly playing chess, domino and backgammon.
But when of Horreya reopens it will suddenly change the look of Falaki Square. It will give back the nights of those Egyptians and foreigners the same ephemeral sensation of freedom.