Party Hard Like It’s Iftar in Cairo

Mahmoud, my tour guide and new friend, knows the key players everywhere we go. At the Sphynx, he knew the guard who was herding everyone else out, but instead took some awesome photos for me. At the museum in Memphis where the giant statue of Ramses II reposes on its back, he knew the shopkeeper with the best souvenirs (including the camel tapestry that I took home)

Tonight Mahmoud invited me to check out the rooftop scene at one of his favorite restaurants in the old quarter. It’s 11 pm during the holy month of Ramadan. People broke their day-long fast hours ago, and now the streets are teeming with people. All the restaurants we passed were full, especially the outdoor patio seating. Although this area is popular with tourists, tonight it’s almost exclusively locals. Here, at the restaurant, Mahmoud knows the owner and got us in even though the waitlist was over an hour long. 

The rooftop was a VIBE. Tables packed the large rooftop floor, and two raised areas flanked the central space. A singer crooned from the stage as we walked through the crowded space and up five stairs to a prime table.  Perfect for observing the whirlwind below.

Although the place is jam-packed, entertainers weave between full tables and clusters of dancing patrons. 

A man with a belly dancing puppet just the right size to wriggle and gyrate on the table.

Several men had umbrella-sized cloths that they spun above their heads. Embroidered underneath were all types of silvery, sparkly things: sequins, mirrors, fairy lights. Round and round so fast that they could tilt the black cloth one way and then the other while walking around.

And then there were the giant, slightly worn, costumed characters of uncertain origin. Perhaps from Jack and the Beanstalk? A retro horror movie? Forest elves who got into the Alice in Wonderland elixirs? How about you decide, and let me know. 

The stage entertainment alternated between singers and a dance troupe that would do an act, leave to change costumes, and return later to dance in a different style. Some costumes seemed authentic, some… less so.

Pretty sure that a coconut bra and grass skirt are not “traditionally Nubian”, even if that’s what the MC announced the dancers would be performing during that set. Did you know that between 744-656 BC Egypt was ruled by the Nubian Dynasty, Kushite pharaohs from what is present-day Sudan?

The rhythm of dancing in Egypt is different than I’ve encountered before. How exciting! I love learning languages, as many of you know, and dance is a language unto itself. Every dance culture has its own unique history, relationship to music, and moods it conjures. Dance styles even have their own lexicography. Think hand symbols in Bhangra, arm movements in Hula, and jumping patterns in Scottish sword dancing. 

I stare into the crowd and observe on which beat people are flipping open their fingers and extending their arms. When they retract them. The unfamiliar-to-me timing of their hip tosses. The transition movements are sharp, not swaying like in Salsa or Bachata. 

Sitting at our corner table, I attempt to match what I’m seeing. It’s fun and challenging. I’m totally engrossed. 

After a couple songs of me squinting hard and flicking my fingers midair in what can only be described as gawky, stunted jabs, Mahmoud touches my shoulder, concern in his eyes, and asks me if I’m ok.  

Hmmm… seems like a good time to give my sweet, sweet dance moves a rest.

Besides, it’s now 1 am and I’m hungry. It’s well past iftar, the post-sunset break fast meal. The kitchen had already begun serving suhoor (سحور), the light meal before fasting. 

Savory items make up my plate: a deep-fried hard-boiled egg, labneh, bread, and fuul (a fava bean stew with cooked peppers and onions). The man with the belly dancing puppet heads our way and we get tableside suhoor entertainment while I use the bread to scoop fuul and labneh into my mouth.

At 2 am my yawns are constant and not subtle. It’s time to head home. The place is still hopping. I look back before descending the stairs and see a waiter quickly clear off our table so that the next group from the waitlist can come up here and take their place in the vibe.

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