As the clock struck midnight, announcing the start of a new day in Cairo, I quickened my pace as I headed to my next destination. I turned into a narrow alley, passed through a small door, attended by Gamal, the stocky middle-aged man who has guarded this doorway for two decades.
As I stepped in, I was overwhelmed by the smell of cheap perfume and the pulsating neon lights. Women of marginal degrees of attractiveness swung to the sounds of a popular chaabi song, which by then had become the anthem of cabarets across Egypt.
I was warmly welcomed by a young man in his 20s, as though I may well have been the most important VIP in the room. He sat me on a table, surrounded by four chairs clad in cheap red satin, before setting down a small bottle of watermelon flavored vodka.
A statuesque woman in her mid-50s sauntered around me, her face bearing the remaining signs of a careworn beauty that was feasted upon by previous generations. Her wide hips undulated as she swayed through the corners of the establishment, surrounded by a posse of girls whose eyes wandered through the crowd, calculating their opportunities and seeking out their prey.
Throughout my visits to several such establishments, I discovered that the average patron of these cabarets is likely to be a blue-collar worker or a former convict, as well as the occasional rural visitor with some business to take care of in Cairo. There are also the nightclubs frequented by Cairo’s well-to-do, located in its various upscale neighborhoods and suburbs.
The patrons of these nightclubs are of a different species entirely, and day after day, you are likely to run into the same faces. Indeed, strangers are unwelcome in those establishments, unless they are loaded foreigners, while there is a no-tolerance policy for any type of shenanigans.
My Cabaret Girl for a Night
Back in the cabaret, a graceful hand landed on my shoulder, belonging to a woman whose hair glistened with the moisture from splashing drinks. Her breath reeked of liquor as she showered me with a string of salutations and compliments, before asking me if I needed any help. “But what kind of help can you provide to someone like me?” I asked myself.
The night began with Sanaa’, a woman in her 30s, whose true face was masked by a kaleidoscope of colors strewn across her features. Sanaa’s purpose in this establishment was to lure in customers and do whatever it took to make sure that they remained generous with their wallets.
In Egypt, these professionals have been dubbed the reklam, a Turkish word that means "marketing". A film entitled Reklam was released in Egypt in 2012, following the lives of four women, whose circumstances had forced them into the sex industry. In the Cairene underworld, with its own set of impenetrable rules and traditions, the reklam is ever-present.
“What’s your deal?” Sanaa’ demanded to know as she eyed me inquisitively.
“I should be asking you that… What’s your deal?” I retorted.
“I can leave with you whenever you want to, but the night’s going to cost you 1,000 pounds [$55],” she said.
Sexual services are determined according to the customer, where foreign customers, particularly those from the Gulf, are charged the highest rates, and as such can claim the most attractive women. The average rate for one night can be as high as $300, though the sex worker only receives 25% of this sum, while the rest is distributed among the cabaret owners and the pimps.
As for local customers, the treatment is much more informal, and the majority of them request basic, swift services—a quick kiss, or a fleeting touch, in exchange for a few folded notes, according to Sanaa’.
In Cairo's underground world of cabarets, the rules are as impenetrable as the women's stories.
Her job is to do whatever it takes to make sure that a customer remains generous with his wallet.
I folded a 100 pound note ($5) and slipped it to her under the table, and she quickly concealed it in the folds of her garments. She smiled warmly, then moved on to the next table to resume her duties with another client.
No sooner would my glass empty than another one would replace it, as the older, statuesque hostess circled my table, her mouth contorted as though attempting to suck out the last ounces of flavor in a piece of chewing gum that was long past its prime. She leaned in closer to me, resting against my shoulder as she took the bottle from my hand and ordered another one. She took the last remaining swigs from my bottle, laughing flirtatiously as she said, “Oh, how sweet it tastes!”
After some time, Sanaa’ returned, clinging to me in hopes for another 100 pound note. It is said that a person is at their most candid when they are in a drunken stupor, though I cannot entirely vouch for the veracity of this saying.
“I’ve been working this job for three years, after my divorce, everyone I knew abandoned me, even my sisters treated me like I was a burden. I have two children who I have to feed, clothe, and send to school after their father abandoned them too. In this situation, what kind of work do you think I can do? I had no choice but to take up the world’s oldest profession,” Sanaa’ told me.
Before she could finish her story and pick up the bottle in front of me, the waiter produced yet another bottle, adding to the tab that was likely to cost me the remainder of my salary by the end of the night.
The Desirable One
Nagat, with her petite, nimble physique, zips through the cabaret as though there were several of her, moving from table to table, picking up tips in exchange for her services.
Her swift movements intimate that she still feels the need to escape, the way she escaped from a hyper-conservative family who, if they had had their way, they would have seen to it that she never escaped from domesticity. When she rebelled against the status quo, she was subjected to brutal abuse by her family, forcing her to escape to Cairo with dreams of a bright future, only to end up in a seedy cabaret.
I gestured toward a young woman, who couldn’t have been older than 20, her face still bearing a childlike guilelessness, often breaking into shades of red out of embarrassment. Sanaa’ broke into a high-pitched laugh that jolted the surrounding patrons into sobriety.
“This is Gigi. Her real name is Gihane, and she came here about two months ago. She’s a very hard worker. She ran away from home, and we don’t know her story. The only person who knows is the cabaret owner, since he’s the one who brought her here. Do you want her? It’ll cost you though. A night with her can set you back 4k [$220],” Sanaa’ told me.
Meanwhile, a frail girl—Dandan, as she liked to be known—used to work as a dancer on a Nile boat, earning five pounds per trip, with each trip lasting about 20 minutes. It was there that she met Sameh, whom Sanaa’ described as “living off the sweat of women”—that is to say, a pimp who introduces women to sex work and cabarets, in exchange for a percentage. Through him, Dandan landed her current job, where she has been trying to earn some cash in order to start afresh.
Sanaa’ took another sip from my bottle, and asked me if I needed her services after I was done at the cabaret. I shook my head, and before the waiter could open a fifth bottle, I asked for the bill, which charged me at an altogether different rate than the one I had read on the menu.
I didn’t push it, and I even tipped the waiter who showered me with bottle after bottle, though I never did get drunk. Before I left the club, I found Gamal, the bouncer. I fumbled in my pockets for a 10 pound note to give him, which he received with a grateful grin and a stream of prayers and supplications in my favor, that went on until I was no longer in earshot.