Memories of Mohamed Ali Street

Memories of  Mohamed Ali Street

Sharia Al Fann - The Street of the Artists

By Amina Goodyear (2012)

 While reminiscing about the belly dance clubs that used to be in San Francisco from the sixties to the eighties, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and go to Broadway in North Beach to see what had survived Urban Renewal. Of course I knew that none of those clubs were left but I wanted to see how the street looked with objective eyes. That is, if I could be objective. Now only the Pasha remains. But it is just an empty building...deserted, lonely and making a valiant effort to fight off grafitti. Luckily there are no windows to be boarded up, but its majesty has seen more royal days.  

So what I saw was a street with a past that was fast moving in another direction. Yes, there are still a few similar cafes and clubs, but really, the "girlie" ones remain only for the tourists on the street longing to find the fun and excitement of Broadway's Golden Days. These remaining clubs are just hanging on for nostalgia's sake just like the "Beat" museum that lives between two  "strip" clubs. They're there for nostalgia's sake and tourist money, but the spirit is gone. 

And while walking on Broadway I am reminded of another street...a street in Cairo with a not quite but an almost parallel universe. This is Mohamed Ali Street. This is  the street where artists, dancers and musicians from the 19th and 20th centuries congregated and created. Now Broadway in San Francisco is not Cairo's Mohammed Ali Street, but there sure are a lot of similarities. The first being both streets were large in fame and notoriety but were actually quite  small in physical area. Additionally they both experienced a Golden Age with glorious entertainment and visionary innovation. And lastly, the past is the past and is no longer here.

Mohammed Ali Street was known as Sharia al Fann - the Street of the Artists. It really was a small village within a great city. It literally housed musicians and dancers and the qahwa or cafes would double as a meetinghouse or office for performers waiting to be contacted and contracted for moulids, weddings, haflas and even concerts. Mohamed Ali Street was home to musicians, dancers, composers, poets, nightclubs, musical instrument shops, costume shops and all the peripheral activities that were involved in the entertainment business.  If one wanted entertainment for a festival or a wedding, why, all one would need to do was to go to Mohammed Ali Street. And this has been happening on Mohammed Ali Street for the last two hundred years.

Although Cairo is a huge city, - it is 175 square miles huge -  Mohammed Ali Street and its environment is actually a pretty small area. It's very walkable and the historical entertainment area surrounding it is also in the walkable range.  Of course, I'm talking about winter and not the dead hot summer days or nights. Then, it would only be walkable with a portable air conditioner attached to the body.

However, today if one walks the street, one would have to walk with an imagination. The street is just not the same anymore. It is alive and vibrant and has the hustle and energy of any important Cairo neighborhood street but, for the most part, gone are the clubs and most of the cafes and many of the instrument and costume shops. And, where are the clubs? Now they exist in the imaginations of our minds and have moved on to other locales. The musicians and artisans who remain are mostly of another generation or are there because of that other generation. It is a street with a past and the present is moving in another direction.

Thinking of Mohammed Ali Street, I'm reminded of my life working as a dancer in San Francisco. I worked for over 20 years on Broadway in North Beach in an Arabic club during what could be called the Golden Age of Belly Dance in the United States. Broadway was a great street and North Beach was a great neighborhood. Broadway was my life and it was the life of all my friends who were dancers and musicians. We had no other life and we had no other job. Only the job of entertaining. It was the meeting ground for many of the best entertainers and entertainment in the U.S. Broadway's fame was worldwide and the area, just like Mohamed Ali Street, was very small and walkable.

Musicians, dancers and instrument craftsmen migrated to Mohamed Ali Street to live and meet in the cafes, theaters and cabarets. Near  Ezbekiyya Park and nearby Emad el Din Street is where Badia Masabni opened her clubs, Casino Opera and Casino Badia where she featured and introduced to the public such stars and artists as Samia Gamal, Taheyya Carioca, Naima Akef, Ibrahim Akef, Naguib el Rihani, Ismail Yassin, Farid el Atrache, Mohamed Abdel Muttaleb, Mohamed Fawzi, Mohamed Abdel Wahab and more. 

Other clubs in the area such as the Alf Leyla, the El Dorado, the Kit Kat Club and El Sala el Masreyya featured famous performers including Bamba Kashar, Shafiqa el Qibtiyya, the Sultana Monira el Mahdeya, Bebba Azzedine, Hekmet Fahmy, Hoda Shamsadine and even Om Kalthoum. Thusly, Mohamed Ali Street became known as Street of the Artists (Sharia al Fann) and it was a privilege to be connected with the artists of Mohamed Ali Street. 

But times change.

This central clearinghouse and hub for dancers and musicians gave way to other venues such as hotels and the clubs along Sharia al Haram (Pyramids Road) in the 1970's and Mohamed Ali Street began its decline in prestige. The people living in and around Mohamed Ali Street for the most part seem to have moved on and today it has become a well-traveled street hosting other arts and crafts including woodworking and furniture shops at one end and metalwork at the other end.

Although Mohamed Ali Street (aka El Qalaa) is a couple of kilometers long, the Mohamed Ali Street of artists' fame is only a few short blocks long. At the northern end, this small one way street, Mohamed Ali Street should really be called  Mohamed "Alley" Street  as it is barely wide enough for a single car to pass through. At the end of the street, the buildings are arcaded and open onto Opera Square and Ezbekiyya Park which was known as the theater district. These important few short blocks are where the history, the music and the dance were made.

By the time I visited Mohammed Ali Street for the first time, it was already starting to be a street of furniture and metal plate stores. I first visited Mohammed Ali Street in the early 1980's. My friend Reda Darwish, a drummer who is now the owner of a shop called MultiKulti in San Francisco took me there when I was looking for a fish skin tambourine.

He introduced me to a family who owned a shop called Music Center. The owner Mohamed Sarsa had passed away and his sons Sharif and Khaled Sarsa under the supervision of their mother Farida ran the shop. The shop was next to a French gilded Louis the something furniture store, another percussion shop owned by Ahmed Ahmed and a qahwa or cafe. Music Center was about 20 feet in from the street.  There was open space between the other shops with chairs and tables on the sidewalk adjoining the qahwa and this space was used as an extension of the shops; the qahwa was part of this outdoor living area. 

As this was before cell phones and landline phones were not plentiful because only rich people and government offices could afford them, there was a phone in a kiosk on the street that served the entire neighborhood.  The qahwa was only for men but the waiter was of the roaming kind. The minute I was seated on a chair in the outdoor space, he would come over with glasses of tea and dusty bottles of Pepsi. In that manner I was allowed to enter the qahwa.

At moulids or other such events I would see the waiters from the qahwa on Mohammed Ali Street. It seemed that they doubled as singers, emcees or otherwise.  Sometimes they were the ones at the weddings who yell into the reverbed and echoing mikes demanding taheyyas. Taheyyas are greetings; gifts of money - usually for the dancer or the musicians and not for the wedding couple. People giving the money are always acknowledged and announced over the overly loud and distorted loudspeakers multiple times.  These waiters doubling as Shaabi entertainers oftentimes  had somewhat questionable behavior and morals.

For some reason the Sarsa family adopted me. Or, maybe I adopted them. I spoke very little Arabic and they spoke less English but we all got along. Their children seemed to understand me the best and would translate my lim ited Arabic to their mom who was my age.  She wore black, black and more black covering her hair and we became close friends. I covered my hair also. I don't know how we managed, but I learned a lot about her without much verbal communication. She had been a dancer. Her friends who would show up too, to sit and hang out, had also been dancers and were considered awalim.  Farida's relatives were dancers, some of them pretty well known and respected such as Naemet Mukhtar. And when they became older, they also became shopkeepers. They too wore the requisite black on black with more black  and many were older than her. 

Between the women, there was a lot of smoking and yelling. In Egypt, women yelling isn't necessarily bad. It's a style. It's a show of strength...especially if you are woman in the role of head of household. 

Nothing ever happened on the street until about sundown. The street was pretty empty of transactions and life until then. Of course some of the shops were open in the late afternoon and the fruit and vegetable carts did a great morning and daytime business, but Farida never came until after sundown.  Another drum maker told me that Farida's shop had the monopoly on fish skins. 

Sometimes I would hang out with Sharif who I believe was her husband's son and not hers. He was a little older than her other children and other people on the street told me that he wasn't really her son.  It's really amazing what you can learn without speaking the language. Sometimes Sharif would take me places to see something interesting. These would be moulids or street weddings or even parties where drugs, alcohol and police raids would happen. Farida would always yell at him to take care of me.  These events would often take place after 11 pm until sunrise.

But times go on and things change.

About ten years ago Farida died. Her eldest son Khaled became the drummer for Ehab Tewfiq and travels worldwide. The little children Farouk and Hind grew up. At one time there was an attempt to merge the two stores - Music Center and Ahmed Ahmed by a marriage. This lasted long enough to produce a child and the two offspring, Hind and Ahmed, eventually divorced. After Farida died, her children left their apartment, which was above the Qahwa with a balcony that overlooked their shop and moved to Feisal Street. Little Farouk, now an adult, made a valiant attempt to keep the shop open - by teaching drumming and producing clay fish skin drums. But he was forced to sell the shop by his sister and brother who wanted their share. The market no longer really was looking for fish skin or clay drums. It is now all plastic and metal. Although I bought my first airplane aluminum drum with a plastic head from Sharif, I found I preferred the ones from Hasan Ali who was a drum maker a block away.

Sharif eventually left the shop and Farida's children wouldn't talk about it. Hasan Ali the drum maker up the street and across the street from Music Center told me that Sharif now owns a Qahwa on Feisal Street.

When I would visit Hasan we had many great conversations - mostly in Arablish - and he would tell me stories about the street. I am sorry I didn't take notes.  I enjoyed watching him fix tambourines and other percussion instruments.  I am left-handed and he made me some special left-handed tambourines. I was always at risk when I would visit him because even though I was careful and would try to make myself invisible while on the street, Farida would always know when I was with Hasan. 

Little Farouk, now the adult Farouk, fell in love and married a French belly dancer. He and his wife Maya moved to France to make ends meet. They divorced and she moved back to Cairo. He stayed in France and works there as a drummer.  His sister Hind left Feisal Street and now lives in Dubai.

When I wanted tambourine lessons, Hasan Ali took me to a couple of music studios on and near Faisal Steet. Faisal Street in Giza seems to be the place where a lot of the musicians and dancers have relocated. They are abandoning Mohamed Ali Street and moving closer to the clubs and Qahwas on Sharia Al Masri Haram Street or Pyramids Road as it is also known. Recently Hasan Ali died. His family still runs his shop, but I wonder for how long.

I believe this history of one extended family typifies its diaspora - a Mohamed Ali Street's entertainment community. It's with great sadness that I note that as they disappear, they take with them a wonderful oral history of a different time, and view, into a different world.

And now I am back in my parallel universe and recollecting the days and the nights on Broadway in San Francisco. I'm starting to realize that the Golden Age of Belly Dance in the United States is really the past also, and the present is moving in another direction. But in this case, I hope we dancers and musicians who lived and worked back then understand that it is our duty to document those times. l know I will.

So, I promise there will be more to come.