Sunday, December 15, 2013

The City at Night (Cairo)

Becket, December 15, 2013

If you look at a map of Cairo from the second half of the 19th century (*) you'll easily recognized the Ezbekiya Gardens, a large rectangle with chamfered corners to the northwest. These gardens were a centerpiece of the transformation of the city during the rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805-48) and his grandson Is'mail Pasha Khedive (1863-79.) Right to the south of the Esbekiya Gardens is Opera Square marked by the equestrian statue of Ibrahim Pasha, the eldest son of Muhammad Ali and father of Is'mail. The monument was erected shortly after the completion of the great Khedivial Opera House completed in 1871.

In spite of the rather highbrow origin of this district, by the 1880's the whole area around the Ezbekiya Gardens became the heart Cairo's nightlife. It was populated by "salat" (nightclubs or cabarets,) such as El Dorado CafĂ©, where singers, dancers, acrobats and other entertainers performed for both local and foreign patrons. By the early 1920's, the most famous of these entertainers was the legendary Badia Masabni, a Sirian dancer credited with the transformation of  belly dancing into an art form. In 1926 she opened her own nightclub, Casino Badia, the first of a string of hugely successful venues that culminated with the famous Casino Opera, along the southern edge of Opera Square. It included a nightclub with a circular stage, a restaurant, a dining terrace, a cafe, a bar and a cinema. Masabni's Casino Opera opened in 1940 with great fanfare and for the following decade was the undisputed cornerstone of Cairo's nightlife.

(*) You can find an image of the 1874 "Grand Bey" map of Cairo in an earlier post:

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