Beer, cabaret and politics in a Cairo 'baladi' bar

File photo of people drinking in a bar in Cairo

Cairo nightlife is not as lively as it was half a century ago, but Egyptian beer is still on sale, traditional snacks of nuts and chickpeas are still served, and even belly dancers can still be seen. And of course there is still politics to discuss.

At the end of a short passage is the door to a small smoky, windowless room, crammed full of wooden tables and chairs.

Crushed glass and nutshells crunch beneath our feet on the sticky floor. It smells strongly of beer.

We have arrived at a "baladi" bar - a traditional Egyptian take on the drinking establishment.

With red brick walls and simple furnishings it is a rustic, no-frills watering hole for locals.

Despite an overwhelmingly devout Muslim population that largely shuns the drinking of alcohol, the baladi bar has survived as an Egyptian institution and is one of the gems of Cairo nightlife.

During the 1940s and 50s the bars and nightclubs of downtown Cairo bustled with crowds of revellers. Many feature in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, the acclaimed Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author.

(File photo) A woman dances on stage while musicians play Belly dancing still takes place in some of Cairo's baladi bars

Yet their numbers have since steadily declined following a growing wave of religious conservatism in the 1980s and a tightening of alcohol licensing laws.

Faint music can be heard coming from upstairs, where I am told a cabaret performance is underway.

I picture an Arabian Moulin Rouge. The city's cabaret scene, once teeming with well-known belly dancers, has also dwindled - after being branded the seedy underbelly of Cairo nightlife.

The bar's simplicity has a seductive charm. Red and gold tinsel hangs half-heartedly from wooden beams on the ceiling.

The regulars, middle-aged men wearing flat caps, are seated at the bar.

They sit transfixed by a television screen broadcasting news and sports bulletins.

Occasionally they pick at the selection of nuts and steaming chickpeas on the plates before them, washing them down with gulps of Egyptian Stella beer.

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I am with a group of young revolutionaries, artists, students and office workers who were out spraying anti-military slogans across the city's walls earlier that evening.

We are somewhat younger than the usual crowd but are given a warm welcome.

As we take our seats, a street vendor wanders in clutching a handful of peeled boiled eggs between his grubby fingers.

They practically glow white in the darkened room. He thrusts the eggs and Egyptian bread beneath our noses, in an effort to tempt our appetites.

In the corner, an artist from our group starts sketching the scene at our table.

Clenching a yellow felt tip pen between his teeth he concentrates on the strokes, his eyes moving up and down repeatedly.

A young man and a striking woman with thick black hair are having a heated debate in Arabic about the virtues of Pink Floyd versus the Beatles and swapping names of recommended music albums.

The conversation beside me is not quite so frivolous.

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You're going straight from the bar to the barracks? ”

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To my left sits Ali, a photographer and pro-revolutionary demonstrator with frizzy hair.

He has lost his voice and talks only in a rasping whisper. Exposure to tear gas in the recent riots I assume.

I soon find out that is not the reason.

When he smiles a circular scar forms in the middle of his right cheek. At a quick glance it seems like a dimple. A closer look reveals it is a little too perfectly round.

He stretches his neck to show me the scar from his operation - a clean line where the incision was made can be traced across the side of his throat.

He was shot in the face when a protest near the Egyptian state television building at Maspero last November turned violent.

The army opened fire and ran over demonstrators with tanks, killing more than 40. Ali spent two months in hospital.

He has barely been out one month but he was back down at the front line, braving tear gas and birdshot during the latest clashes.

Bottles of Egyptian Stella beer Egypt's Stella beer has been brewed since 1897

Asked if he has not been discouraged after all he has suffered he shrugs, and says: "I have to continue. I am documenting the revolution."

Across the table from him sits another young man named Ali, in a bright multi-coloured yellow, green and red kufi hat.

His trousers are tight and a little too short for him. He wears a white bag across his shoulders and retro style glasses, with thick black frames.

He has the air of an artist who has wandered out of Greenwich Village in New York. In fact, he is a newly recruited military conscript in the Egyptian army.

He has just spent his week off throwing stones at soldiers guarding the interior ministry he tells me.

"Military service is compulsory in Egypt," he says. "There are many others like me."

In a few hours he will go home and swap his ordinary clothes for military fatigues and report for duty.

It seems ironic and incongruous that these two young men, chatting idly at a downtown bar represent the two sides of a bitter struggle between military and civilian rule, following the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak last year.

"Right got to go," Ali says, draining the dregs of his beer.

It is nearly 03:00. His shift begins at 05:00.

"You're going straight from the bar to the barracks?" I ask.

"Aaadi," he says, Arabic for "like usual".

"To be honest," he adds, "it makes it all more bearable."

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