There isn't a Cairene, young or old, who hasn't spent an evening chit-chatting over a few drinks at the notorious downtown cafe. Here, Farah Hosny speaks to a man who's been working there for nearly 50 years to find out the secrets to its success...
When you walk into notorious Downtown bar, El Horryia, among the sea of faces, all of which are gripping green beer bottles while seated on rickety chairs verging on collapse, there are certain visages which are staples at the spot. The El Horryia staff has survived for years, remaining largely unchanged – much like the spot itself, incidentally.
The infamous bar was founded in the 1940s by Egyptian Copts. It’s endured the era of World War II, when British soldiers living in the city decades ago used to frequent the boozy halls, and not much has changed since then. Foreigners still flock to the place, as do Egyptians and the venue remains virtually untouched since its inception. Though it may be decaying, devoid of its former glory where it used to house some of the most prominent individuals in the country, the grunge factor is part and parcel of the bar’s charm and it has lost none of that.
The staff are still a mainstay of the spot, almost intrinsically bound to it – the newest amongst them having worked there for no less than 15 years. There’s Milad, a legend of sorts among patrons of the bar, who weaves between tables seamlessly, tossing a beer into your hand when he deems fit, casually – wordlessly – pulling a cigarette out of your pack when he feels like lighting up. Then there’s Saeed, who enthusiastically tells me, “I love to drink! I drink all the time!” then proceeds to pour himself a glass from my bottle and concedes that he absolutely drinks on the job as long as he can conduct himself properly. And then there’s 3am Saad, who has been a fixture at the bar since 1966; he’s seen an endless stream of patrons pass through the doors of the beer soaked bar and, with that, the evolution of both the country and its people. Here, he tells all...
What was El Horryia like back in the 60s when you started?
Back then the average age of the patrons was 50 or 60. There weren’t kids sitting at cafes at that time…it was considered 3eib. It was all very respectable people back then. I mean…you struggle to hear each other these days. Look how we both have to sit right now in order to hear each other speak. It didn’t used to be like that. It used to be much quieter – if you dropped a penny you’d hear it. It was like…this table belongs to this person, that one to another person. Regulars. And high profile ones too.
What other changes have you noticed in El Horryia between 1966 and now?
In the 60s, it was pashas that came here. The men, way back when, they would ask you politely – and keep in mind he was a pasha and I was a child at the time – and he’d say 'Please would you mind bringing me a glass of water? Please could I trouble you for some cigarettes?' Now some kid waves his arms and goes, 'What, can you not see me?' Or you’ll walk over to a table of five young guys and ask them to see their IDs, and they respond with, 'Do I look like a child to you?' Manners have changed. And I can tell you how much I made in 1966 and you won’t believe me; I made 3 and a half pounds a month.
Did women used to come here back then?
No. Around the 80s…and maybe in the late 70s, older women would occasionally come by. But it was very rare. Now though, you’ll find a girl coming in and she’s like 14 and she wants a drink! Fine, drink, but when you’re 21. Now you’ll find girls chain smoking and drinking away. In the time that I could smoke two or three cigarettes, she’ll have finished the whole pack.
You guys have a section for drinking and a section that’s non alcoholic – a tea area. The former has boards on the windows, how come? Surely you have a license, so does it have anything to do with people drinking alcohol and the public perception of that?
We have a license. Look, back in the 60s, the 70s, it was all open. Customers would be sitting by the window and leaning their arms out of the window. All of these doors would be opened. Back then a customer would sit and he’d leave the waiter the money on the table. Now, the customer runs away from us! He can just jump out the window. And besides that, there are young guys sitting here and they find a girl passing and they start cat calling her. We don't allow that so we had to board up the windows. You know, long ago there were tables out on the street itself. Back in the 60s, that was normal. But now a girl will be passing and a guy will make a comment, try and stick his hand out the window…
How did the revolution and its aftermath affect El Horryia?
We had everything shut down during the revolution. Look there’s bullet holes right there. And during Morsi’s time, traffic dropped significantly. There were no foreigners, there were no Egyptians – there was no work. Egyptian youths, well, 99% of them work in tourism. During Mubarak’s days, they were working well in tourism and they’d come here and stay out late. And they were good kids. And they were making money. Lamma geh Morsi ba2a nayyel el denya. But it’s started picking up now.
How come you just serve beer and no other alcohol? Even wine?
We used to serve hard liquor and wine. More than ten years ago maybe. But then it caused problems. Some kids would be drinking a beer and they’d spot an older gentlemen drinking liquor and as soon as they’d see that they be like no we don’t want beer, bring us hard liquor. And then they’d drink and get wasted. So we banned all other alcohols. Beer is a light drink.
Do you drink yourself?
I used to drink. Now if I drink I’ll have like a couple of glasses of beer. I used to drink everything. But now, with age, I cant. My children are all grown up – it’s not nice to go home drunk. Like one time I drank and I wasn’t doing too well, and I went home and my children’s friends were there…and it doesn’t look good.
Do you think alcohol is haram?
Well look…It’s haram. I won’t deny that. It’s haram in terms of money, in terms of your body…anything that is harmful is haram. But I've been here so long, it's too late for me to switch careers.
Why didn’t you decide a long time ago to stop working here?
Back in the day, we're were young and we drank; it wasn’t on our minds whether something was haram or halal. Until I was 40 or 45, I drank regularly. But age crept up on me. And the kids had grown up. What was I going to work as? And then when I approached my 50s – who’s going to hire someone at the age of 50? So yes, I’m telling you it’s haram. But then again, sheikhs have said that the man who drives a woman in a taxi to El Haram Street, that’s haram. They tell you the makwagi is haram! Why?! They say because he irons the dress for a woman to go to a party. I’ve heard so many things. So many.
At the end of the day, I harm myself when I do something wrong, but I won’t harm someone else.
What are some of the strangest things you’ve seen in El Horryia?
Every day you see something. Every day there are problems from the kids these days. Just spend some time here and watch what happens. You’ll see a couple of guys sitting down, and one guy goes to the bathroom, and his friend pockets some of his cigarettes. Literally just puts them in his pocket! And what can you do?
One time a kid – the youngest one of my children is older than him – he hit me; punched me in the face. He had brought in a drink from outside. I told him this isn’t allowed. He told me to leave his table and punched me. Just yesterday Milad got in an altercation with some kids. I have dealt with pashas that are sons of pashas. A legitimate pasha. And they did not act this way.
You come and tell a guy to remove his hand off a girl, he gives you attitude. We arrange the chairs a certain way, but he’ll take the chair and pull it up so that their chairs are stuck to each other. It causes problems for us. He’ll put his arm around a girl, so another group of guys looked at them. So she tells him 'look, they’re staring at me' so the two tables ended up fighting and beating each other up. Who loses? Us.
It’s such a famous spot, still incredibly popular these days, especially with foreigners. What do you think makes it so special?
There’s a good spirit here, a good vibe. And we have to close the doors on Thursdays! I swear. Pass by here at night on a Thursday and you'll find a line outside. With foreigners, it’s all word of mouth. They love it and they tell each other. And by the way, El Horryia is the most famous spot in this area. Our prices are good – we have the lowest prices around. And if we find that a customer’s a bit tipsy, we don’t give him any more beer. Some stores will leave the customer until he’s so drunk he’s falling all over himself and then they’ll cheat him on the check and toss him out on the street. We don’t do this. If I find someone drunk, I get him coffee.