Sadness hit Cairo’s large pool of listeners and musicians alike this month when After Eight, a popular bar and live music venue, announced it would close its doors by mid-December.
Tucked in a small pedestrian alley that also came to be known as “After Eight,” between grand buildings on Qasr al-Nil Street in downtown, the venue has been a refuge for independent-minded musicians and their audiences for years. Bands such as Wust El Balad and Salalem started their careers within its walls.
Its current owner, 58-year-old Tarek Marsafy, previously an art dealer and an avid night-owl himself, has been running the space for 15 years, but its history goes back much further.
Mada Masr has been hosting its monthly Playlist Wednesdays, where musicians and contributors have been invited to DJ for the night, at After Eight since the start of this year. This has not only been a great party with no entrance fee, but is also one of Mada’s income generating activities.
So Maha ElNabawi and Rowan El Shimi went to Maadi to talk to Marsafi and his wife, 52-year-old Karima Aboul Karim, who has been running After Eight with him for the past four years, about its closure, their love for the “downtown rats” who don’t spend much money, the 2011 revolution, what the lack of venues means for the music scene, and gentrification.
Maha ElNabawi: Let’s start from the beginning. When and why did you first take over After Eight? What was your vision?
Tarek Marsafi: It was 2002. I was looking for a small local pub in Maadi, then suddenly someone told me After Eight in downtown was for rent. Within 24 hours I had the place, and I had nothing [no vision] in my mind at all — for about six months.
Maha: How old were you when you first frequented After Eight? What was it like then?
Tarek: I was 18. It was very, very nice — the best place around.
Maha: Yeah, my grandparents and parents used to go there. It opened in 1962, right? Who were the original owners?
Tarek: In 1962 it was Raouf Badrawi, and then Mostafa El Kaseb in 1970, after Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Rowan El Shimi: How did the concept of the place change over time? It used to be the cafeteria of the cinema, right? When did it become more of a pub?
Karima Abul Karim: Before 1962 it was Goha, the cafe for the adjacent Qasr al-Nil cinema. It was accessible from the inside of the cinema. Although it was mostly a cinema, Oum Kalthoum would have concerts there on the stage, so they would call it Qasr al-Nil Theater when she performed, or Abdel Halim, but it was a cinema. You used to be able to have a drink and sandwich there in the intermission. I don’t know why they closed it and it became a separate venue. Qasr al-Nil theater was very important in the 1950s and 1960s, many live performances happened there.
Maha: So its liquor license is that old! It’s been serving alcohol since the 1950s.
Karima: Of course. It was much easier then. Every corner served alcohol. My father used to tell me — in theaters and cinemas, in the cafeteria you could have a drink.
Rowan: So in 1962 when it became After Eight, did it start hosting live music right away?
Karima: No. It used to be known as “stereo.” Before the discotheque thing. For example in Heliopolis, there was this place near the airport called “Stereo Maryland.” It was tape decks and vinyl turntables. We’d have to go through our storage, but we have the old vinyl turntable from After Eight from the 1960s.
Tarek: During the 1970s, when Mustafa El Kaseb was running it, he used to get people like [relatively well-known pop stars] Azza Balbaa and Talaat Zein.
Maha: What kind of music were they playing there in the 1960s and 1970s? Was it western music — French, Italian? And Arabic?
Tarek: Foreign music but not Arabic. Mostly well-known Italian, French and English songs.
Maha: Yes, of course — our infamous colonial complex. And were people dancing? Or was it more of a seated club?
Tarek: Both, but there was a small dance floor. One time I saw [actor] Souad Hosni dancing there!
Maha: Really? That’s so cool.
Tarek: And Roshdy Abaza.
Tarek: And Ahmed Ramzy and Omar Sharif.
Maha: In the 1970s, what was the landscape like — what other clubs or venues were around?
Tarek: Arabesque in downtown. There was also Pub 28 in Zamalek, After Eight, and Geisha in the Hotel Atlas downtown.
Karima: There was also Tamarina on Haram Street. That place was a hit at a certain period.
Tarek: And the Auberge and Jackies in the Nile Hilton.
Maha: And then you took over After Eight in 2002. What was your original vision?
Tarek: When I first started it, I wanted the same After Eight that I used to go to. But it didn’t work. All the people who used to go to After Eight in my time weren’t going out anymore, they got older and stopped going out. So then I didn’t know what to do. I started to get bands that were known, but not known everywhere.
Maha: What were some of those first bands?
Tarek: I can’t remember their names — it was musicians performing French or foreign music. Afterwards, I thought about jazz. So I got the well-knowns, and very young, new performers. For two months, they would perform one night on, one night off. I started with the big guys, such as Yehia Khalil and Fathi Salama, and at the time, the small ones like Wust El Balad. But then I started to look more and more for younger performers.
Tarek: They were different. Yahya Khalil for example was already performing in many other places, so having him continue to perform in After Eight wasn’t adding anything new to the mix.
Karima: That’s what live music was then. You’d find a guy or a girl in a bar singing covers. Or a band of three or four singing covers. Then underground musicians came up.
Maha: It’s happening more and more that we are losing spaces, and venues are so important in launching musicians. I’m sure Wust el Balad would have been big in either case, but having a regular space to perform regularly and building an audience base really benefits the artist. Whenever we hear of another space closing, it’s devastating.
Karima: But there still are new spaces opening. Look at The Tap.
Tarek: You should have seen 15 years ago. Cairo Jazz Club only began before us by a couple of months.
Karima: Even El Sawy Culturewheel hadn’t started yet. So there are more venues in comparison. There’s also café arts spaces like Elbet Alwan and Sufi Cafe in Zamalek, ROOM in Garden City. But to open a venue with an alcohol license here is a big problem. If they opened up the ability to get licenses, you would find dozens and dozens of places opening and they would give opportunities to underground musicians. The underground wants to say what it wants to say, so to protect that, they don’t want to go through the normal commercial channels of production and of course they need to be live too. So if they’re performing two or three times a month, they can have enough to secure their ideas, lyrics and music.
The thing is, they can perform at El Sawy, but that’s not going to allow them to grow or make a living. When you perform in a small place, you’re practicing and improvising. Rather than always needing to pay money to rent a studio, they get money for performing once a week.
Tarek: Wust el Balad’s first performance was at Sawy. They emailed us to perform at After Eight, and were a great example of a band growing out of a space.
With the younger generation, when they started to listen to underground music, the ideas changed. Even a wedding would become a venue. Suddenly wedding parties were calling for Wust El Balad and Salalem, or even Crash Boom Bang. After Eight and Cairo Jazz Club helped open up these booking opportunities for them. Before that there was Geisha, who had Cairo Jazz Club’s space before it became the Jazz Club – without the new extension.
Maha: Alcohol in music venues can help people engage with the music and get in the flow. But I also notice when I go to concerts in alcohol-serving venues, because it’s a social space the audience isn’t always there to listen to the music. They are often there to socialize. Sometimes it even happens right on the edge of the stage, in the front row, just under the musician’s face. Has it always been this way?
Karima: I don’t do that and I can’t stand it. It depends. In Egypt, for people to really listen attentively, it helps to be in a concert set-up. With an elevated stage, or a separation between audience and stage. Once the stage merges with the dance floor, it becomes more difficult.
Tarek: At After Eight for some years we had a policy for our matinee performance. The band would go on at 8 pm and finish by 10 pm. We did that when it was music that needed more attentive listening. Once a band started their performance during the matinee, it wasn’t permitted for people to move around — both staff and guests. No phones were allowed. People would have to place their order before the band would go on, it would be brought out before they started. The people who were coming were there to listen to the music — they’d go home afterwards. The age group was very different then though.
Maha: So now with the closing of After Eight. From my understanding it’s a new building owner who owns the whole block?
Tarek: The owner doesn’t own the whole building — just After Eight, the Qasr al-Nil Theater and Arabesque [now Zigzag].
Karima: The guy doesn’t want to renew the contract. Probably he wants to do something with it — we didn’t even talk to him. And Tarek is tired and bored.
Maha: I can imagine — 15 years of night life.
Tarek: I prefer to find something simple. 15 years is more than enough. A young person can continue with a new concept, and we can go there and leave when we want.
Maha: There is a symbolic loss in it. Not just the loss of a space or a club or whatever, but a larger feeling of loss.
Karima: I love the idea itself, but for me it’s not business. It’s a passion. Unfortunately I didn’t start the whole thing with him, I came when he was already winding down, bored and facing lots of problems, especially dealing with the government. But for me the point is that I love the people coming, especially those coming on Tuesday and Sunday — the downtown rats, and we’re the hole that they love. They don’t spend a lot of money, which we don’t mind. This makes us compromise on spending on the place, but we love this scene, we like it this way. That’s what I will really miss, our crowd. A small band comes and gets an opportunity, then you find them really successful. It’s not just a job.
Rowan: You feel part of something bigger.
Karima: I feel that my career has a meaning. It’s not just a coffee shop or a restaurant giving me a number.
Maha: Speaking of numbers, even when we do our events, dealing with the Musicians Syndicate’s unreasonable monetary requests is unbelievable. It’s one of those things that we collectively can’t get to the bottom of.
Karima: We don’t mind if it’s logical — the problem is that it’s not. If they’re charging a percentage of what the band is getting, fair enough. But don’t tell me to pay more than I will make for the whole night.
Maha: It puts people off from opening these sort of venues.
Karima: A city like Cairo, with a minimum of 15 million inhabitants, only has five or six venues? You need hundreds to really have a movement and for it not to be tied to a certain class. It used to be more like this. You can see music in the movies, the local bars in poorer neighborhoods would have music and dance. It doesn’t even have to be tied to alcohol. If you look at the people who run art cafes, they also face similar issues with the Musicians Syndicate.
Tarek: The first time I thought of starting a pub, I used to live between Beirut and Cairo. In Beirut, if you decide to go out, you have a problem — there are at least 20 cool places to go, and the problem is in the choice. When I came here, I made a good deal and wanted to take my wife out to celebrate. We toured Zamalek and Mohandiseen and found nowhere, so we ended up going home. So I thought why not start something? I originally just wanted to start a pub. When I went back to Beirut, a friend of mine told me there were now 20 new pubs in one street, Gemeyzeh. They’re all so nice, and the staff are lovely, and the people are lovely. Here it’s just issues and threats, one after another.
Rowan: Aside from dealing with the government, which we all know is a disaster, what kind of other challenges existed in running a pub and music venue? Was it difficult at this point in time to find customers, new performers?
Tarek: The hardest aspect — if you want to maintain the customer service and quality — is that you have to be there daily until 5 am. You have to be part of all the details and decisions. With the governmental issues, the system for that gets settled eventually and some sort of deal is made. The rest you tend to sort through.
Maha: You guys must have gotten crushed during the revolution. You must have closed for a while.
Karima: Tarek was at the square [Tahrir], so it didn’t matter for him. Definitely the year after he was broke. After the 18 days [uprising in 2011], no one wanted to go back to downtown. It took a minimum of two years for business to come back.
Tarek: On the 18th day, we had a massive party at After Eight. There were no staff, I just had the key. We opened the bar for free, nothing was left. Those who lived nearby went to bring bottles they had at home.
Maha: I liked those spaces who risked it and stayed open during the curfew.
Karima: During the curfew, people were complaining. They wanted us to open, so Tarek agreed with the regulars that they could come but only leave at 5 am. It worked once or twice, but then someone gave a waiter good tips and left early. He went out at like 3 am and found the tanks and army and they asked him where he was coming from. He told them After Eight so the military stormed in and took all the staff into custody until the morning.
Rowan: In 2014, you redesigned the place. What made you do that?
Karima: In 2013 Tarek had given up on the place. Of course also most people didn’t want to go to downtown, except for the downtown leftist crowd who were there anyway. The staff started to let anyone in. I don’t care about class, but I care about attitude. I don’t want someone to come in and harass women or get drunk and start fights — it would harm the reputation of the space. So you want to do something to show people that you’re still there, that you’re reviving the space. The bands used to perform in this tiny room and hated it, as it was too tight. The artist had to be comfortable, so we decided to bring the stage onto the dance floor. It made people realize we are still there.
Maha: Are there any legendary After Eight stories?
Tarek: Many of my father’s friends fell in love in After Eight. Several old couples used to come celebrate their anniversary, and complain about the noise.
Maha: I wanted to get your opinions, as a long-time arts space in downtown, on Al-Ismailia for Real Estate Investment’s interjection in the neighborhood by buying lots of properties. On one hand they’re supporting the art scene by offering subsidized rent and festivals like D-CAF. But we know their ultimate goal is to make downtown look like Steigenberger [the owner of a resort in Hurghada and a new hotel next to After Eight]. I’m torn about it. I want to see maintenance and development, but not gentrification or unaffordability.
Karima: I can’t have an opinion yet because there isn’t a concrete accusation. So far they haven’t taken something old and made it a Starbucks, so I can’t be against what they’re doing now. On the contrary, they’re exerting a lot of effort so far in maintenance. I don’t think they want to change much, because downtown’s power is in preserving it not changing it. But it will turn into a place for big investors. Small businesses will be driven out. Prices will get very high. This is the issue.
Rowan: They won’t change things like Cafe Riche or Groppi, because that’s where the value of the real-estate lies. They’re going for clientele who have economic power and nostalgia. The victims will be the mechanics next to Townhouse or the lingerie shop on Qasr al-Nil or the ironing service on a side street.
Karima: Just like Road 9 in Maadi. That’s what happened there — all the small businesses are out. And you can’t blame the building owners, who failed to make an income due to old rent laws.