Set in the heart of an ever-evolving Downtown Cairo, After Eight has historically witnessed Egypt's nightlife scene like no other. Founders Tarek El Marsafi and Karima Abdel Karim recall the myths and celebrities that lit the place alive, from Umm Kulthum to post-revolutionary Wust El Balad.
We’re sitting in a cosy corner wrapped with rusty brick walls, sprinkled with the seemingly cosmic lights of a pierced hanging lamp. This little room, as comfortably involving as it is, once echoed with the mesmerising voice of Umm Kulthum, saw the birth of post-revolutionary sensation Wust El Balad, and protagonised the Golden Era of cinema in the 1950s as the cafeteria situated just inside Qasr el Nile Cinema.
“This is where people would have a shot in between two or three Umm Kulthum songs up until 1962, when After Eight was founded,” says After Eight’s owner Tarek El Marsafi, as he takes us on an imaginary tour of the pub’s history as a privileged witness and protagonist of Cairo’s history. Minutes before, we’d entered through a small, dark alley located on the side of a street koshk in the heart of Downtown Cairo's Qasr el Nile street. The contrast as we walked through the door was a staggering reflection of a multi-faceted Egypt.
Inside the pub, blue lights emerge from the bar to highlight the rugged brick wall that uncovers what was once the wall of a prestigious cinema bar. Right in front of us, in a room we decided is the hottest spot in this classy yet raw venue, a DJ begins to spin with sounds reminiscent of a Techno-Reggae fusion. This bar, situated somewhere between a cavern-like pub and a flashy disco, which seeps culture and change through its every corner.
“During the 1960s, celebrities like Soad Hosny, Omar Sharif, and Roushdy Abaza would hang out,” El Marsafi continues, drawing an invisible timeline that would see an all-time peak between 1970s and 1980s, when the place was taken over by Gigi - a nightlife personality known by all the movers and shakers of the nightlife scene. “He was like a Godfather for people coming here. He had a special connection, and everyone knew each other back then; we moved in circles, so if you were from Heliopolis you would know everyone in your area,” adds his partner Karima Abdel Karim.
Abdel Karim and her husband ,El Marsafi, were themselves part of that crowd who attended the pub until Gigi’s exit from the market – and without him, the place collapsed. “It became a cheap cabaret for a couple of years until After Eight came back to the scene in 2002,” Abdel Karim recalls. After Eight was a place to hear live bands and discover new talents, such as Wust el Balad, who saw in After Eight one of the first venues to perform live. “They played here until the 24th of January, 2011. It was a Monday, and their last night,” she says.
The 2011 revolt, which radically changed the face of Downtown Cairo, would bring along a period of silence. Filled with military tanks, barbed wire, and protest camps, Downtown became a highly politicised space where many people did not feel safe. “Nobody was interested in Downtown but the activists, who celebrate Mubarak´s stepping down here,” Karim recalls. But, in 2015, the couple steering this Downtown gem decided it was time to revive the pub and, with it, the area flourished.
A refuge from the hustle and bustle of a sizzling city whose conservative community looks down on alcohol and pubs, After Eight witnessed societal change like no other nightclub in Egypt. Today, Karim says she can see promising changes: “You can see different categories of youngsters that, instead of living in their ghettos, came out and are expressing themselves. The way they dress, they talk, they relate to the opposite sex,” she says.
And with the cultural revival that emerged from the debris of tumult and social revolt, an incredible amount of bands sprang in a very short time span.
Loyal to its origins and eager to push the cultural scene forward, After Eight aims to incorporate that scene, exploring different genres and maintaining no attachment to social labels. On Sundays and Fridays, Aswan-born musician Basheer plays with a mixture of African beats and southern folklore, while on Thursdays they host Salalem, an Indie-pop groovy sensation. Other artists such African Aïcha Makeba Project and Tashkazar often perform at the pub, but it is especially on Tuesdays – when female DJ Dina has her gig – that the place gets packed; just as much as the everyday Happy Hours - from 8 PM to 10 PM - where drinks are half the prize and people devour affordable yummy bites.
“To me, this is a place where you can see real people, wearing their real clothes, who decided to drop by – people who didn’t spend six hours of their day in front of the mirror,” she says, as we take our last sip of beer and head out to the dark corridor that will lead us back to Downtown Cairo’s ever-changing microcosm.
Photography by @Mo4Network #Mo4Productions.
Photographer: Ahmed Najeeb.