In the end, another driver gets out and does some impromptu traffic conducting to ease our way. When we pull up alongside him at the next junction, he and Asem exchange friendly banter across the tarmac. "If people in Cairo are being nice to each other, it's going to be a good day," Asem says. An affable guy in his late 20s, he handles artist liaison for VENT, the club he runs with his old friend Zuli. This involves showing visiting DJs the city's sights—including, inevitably, the Pyramids at Giza, the last standing ancient wonder of the world, and our destination today.
Zuli is in Berlin doing sound for a theatre project this week, but Bosaina, the club's in-house PR and social media manager, is riding shotgun. A former fashion student, she has ample capacity for glamour, but today she's dressed for a tourist daytrip, a prospect at which neither of my hosts seem particularly thrilled, though they're genial and accommodating to a fault. They trade casual insults while Bosaina dangles her cigarette out of the passenger-side window, the smoke mingling with the traffic noise and polluted air of an early Egyptian spring.
With VENT, Asem, Zuli and Bosaina are executing their own hair-raising manoeuvre on Cairo's music scene. Now in its second year, the 250-odd capacity club fulfils a need that, as yet, the city's inhabitants don't know they have.
Its program of international bookings is adventurous and ambitious. It's the first permanent club in the city to book underground figures like Huerco S., Terekke and Ben UFO. Rhythm Section's Bradley Zero routinely flies over to play on one of the few vinyl-friendly setups in the city, and techno producer Aurora Halal, who played at VENT with Ital, has spoken glowingly of it. These names attract crowds in Europe and America; in Cairo they can be a hard sell.
VENT's latest guest is Justin Carter of New York's Mr. Saturday Night, who will play at the club this Thursday. (Thursday is the start of the weekend in Egypt, and it's VENT's biggest night.) Such bookings aren't a weekly occurrence. Even working with reduced fees, international DJs can be a financial stretch for the club, so VENT sustains itself with a lively schedule of local artists.
Yesterday, a Tuesday, I'd flown in late and headed to the club to catch a live set from Hussein Sherbini. In front of a few dozen friendly faces, Sherbini, a young-looking guy with unruly brown curls, rummaged through a grab-bag of electronic styles, touching on grime, UK bass and even some breakcore. He may have spread himself too thinly—he later tells me he was experimenting with new material—but the richness and breadth of his ideas was impressive. He seemed to be taking part in a musical conversation that stretches beyond Cairo, to Europe, the US and elsewhere.
Sherbini, along with VENT's organisers, is part of Kairo Is Koming, a collective of Cairene musicians who formed a couple of years before the club opened. KIK forms the core of the community that VENT is trying to build into a fully-fledged scene. As we hack our way southwest on one of Cairo's many congested roads, I ask Asem and Bosaina how they met.
"He was giving me opinions about my music," Bosaina says, mock-affronted. "Like, 'Yeah, that stuff you're doing is cool, but …' But! It was outdated." Bosaina's band at the time, with Hussein and his musical partner Ismail Hosny, is later described to me as "Lady Gaga pop"; there's also a streak of '00s electroclash in there. (It was called, at various points, Heavy Metal Socialites and Dirty Bourgeoisie.) The three of them, still working together as Wetrobots <3 Bosaina, went on to form half of KIK's membership, the other being Asem and his friends Zuli and Nader. The latter three had also been in numerous bands together over the years, experimenting with techno, shoegaze and R&B-tinged pop. One of them was called Vent.
The two camps were brought closer together by Awesome, an ad-funded print magazine run by Asem and Zuli. The pair threw a few parties under the name and, for a period around 2011, became something of a focal point for part of the Cairo music scene. "It was really unprofessional," Asem says of the magazine. "It was just me and Zuli doing everything because we had a really tight budget." The pair went bankrupt after six issues: Cairenes, it turns out, had little interest in reading reviews of Shlohmo and Evian Christ.
Going through digitised copies of the magazine now is a curious experience. The irreverence and up-to-the-minute music coverage will be familiar to readers of publications like Vice. Less so the head-on political engagement—an adversarial Q&A with a representative of Egypt's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, or an op-ed on intervention in Iran and the civil war raging in Syria. This pungent mix reflects Egypt's recent history, in which the political has routinely spilled over into the everyday. The country's January 2011 revolution, and the subsequent ousting of the longstanding Hosni Mubarak regime, appeared to be a positive outcome of the Arab Spring. Since then the situation has become increasingly murky.
The Muslim Brotherhood, who in 2012 won the first democratic elections in Egyptian history, lasted just over a year before being deposed in a coup amid growing unpopularity. Now the army, long one of the major power-players in Egyptian politics, holds all the cards. The new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, an ex-general, is enacting authoritarian laws at a rate not seen in Egypt for half a century. The night before I arrived in Cairo, bombs went off across the city. VENT cancelled their planned hip-hop night due to their proximity to one of the blasts.
The theory I hear casually tossed around is that these bombs, a routine occurrence, are a government ploy to give shape to the bogeyman of Islamist terrorism. The consensus seems to be that things are now as bad as they were five years ago, if not worse. Still, Asem, Bosaina and the other young Egyptians I speak to are keen to demonstrate that this political unrest doesn't loom large in their lives. In fact, I soon come to feel that my bringing up the revolution is quite crass. It's a subject to be broached cautiously and with apologies, for fear of implying that people's lives here are reducible to a few grisly news clips.
Driving through the city's crowded streets on a sunny afternoon, it seems melodramatic to bring up these distant-seeming tragedies. Cairo, in its chaos, goes on—like any city perhaps would, and must—and so do its citizens, whatever their aspirations might be. "We were all lost and we all were experiencing the same kind of thing," Asem tells me of the group's efforts prior to Kairo Is Koming. "We'd play a gig and get booed off. We were always being taken off the stage by the promoter. Like, 'Oh sorry. The crowd isn't liking it.' And we weren't aware that there were other people in the same city doing the same kind of thing we're doing. So it felt good for all of us to find each other. It was a good source of motivation."
Asem and Bosaina identify the turning point as a European tour booked by a Swiss fan of the Wetrobots. All six of the musicians who would go on to form KIK flew to Switzerland to play half a dozen dates. The warm reception from audiences—worlds away from the indifference of the Cairo crowd—gave them the conviction that what they were doing was worthwhile. If there was no existing crowd for their music, they reasoned, they should create one.
VENT rose out of the ashes of Awesome. Asem's lawyer, meeting with him to work through bankruptcy paperwork, mentioned that another of his clients was looking for people to run a club. The venue was Arabesque, a traditionally-styled restaurant that had fallen on hard times because of its proximity to Tahrir Square, the focal point of the revolution. The leaseholder needed somebody to breathe new life into the space. "I made him a deal," Asem explains. "'Me and my partners have this concept. This is how much it needs to start. All you have to do is just give me the venue."
The VENT I saw on Tuesday night was quite different from the one that opened in late 2013. Back then it was a utilitarian space, with bare, grubby walls and minimal furniture. Now, its tasteful lighting, brick-lined bar and leather seating give it an air of chic exclusivity. Bosaina, who had flustered into the club after sorting out a guestlist crisis, was faintly apologetic about this. It was a compromise with the club's new partners, the owners of the building, who took over from the previous leaseholder after VENT's first year.
Complicating this slick presentation are the acoustic diffusion panels, which adorn the ceiling and the pillars dotting the dance floor. The organisers claim that VENT is the only acoustically treated venue in Egypt, but the cladding, paid for by the club's new partners, wasn't intended as a selling point so much as a necessary corrective. Untreated, the high-ceilinged, awkward-shaped room produced seven seconds of natural reverb. For Hussein's set, the sound was rich and balanced.
All of this points to a gradual streamlining of VENT's identity. At first, the plan was to be an all-purpose cultural venue, with multimedia art exhibitions, film screenings and a theatre programme supplementing the music. This met with some confusion from audiences; an opening-night review in local news outlet Mada Masr asked, "Party Den or Culture Venue?"
Asem and Bosaina insist that the criticism was premature. The Cairo scene, they say, is quick to knock people down. But they slowly realised there was some truth in it. Bosaina, who began to work for the club at the beginning of its second year, brought a reality check with her. "After the first season, we all sat down and had a meeting," Asem says. "And Bosaina was like, 'You know what, guys? I think it's time to let go of the dream of being an all-around, complete art space, and just focus on what we're really good at.' And that's music."
Roughly speaking, VENT's music policy stems from that of KIK. The collective is contemporary-minded and electronic-leaning but diverse in style: in such a small scene, there's little to be gained from genre tribalism. Bosaina might be the best-known of the lot, owing to her spot at the Red Bull Music Academy Tokyo last year. (During my visit, the application deadline for this year's Academy is looming, and she has been fielding questions from Egyptian hopefuls.) For a long time she was primarily a frontwoman, both with Wetrobots <3 Bosaina and her now-defunct downtempo pop project with Zuli, Quit Together. Having taken a production course at New York's Dubspot a couple of years back, her solo work still seems to be finding its voice, roving from glowering electronica to thoughtful soundscapes.
As for the rest of the collective, a free KIK compilation and an RBMA mix by Bosaina offer a solid primer. Ismail and Hussein explore various kinds of electronica, while Asem's "The Birds Are At My Afterparty," under the name $$$TAG$$$, is half post-party zone-out, half sludgy house a la Madteo. Then there's the subtle beat-trickery of Nader (as N/A\A) and Zuli. The latter's technoid XULI project, which has been getting radio play from Lee Gamble, might be KIK's most exciting proposition.
The younger 1127, a VENT resident though not technically part of KIK, makes futuristic club music of the Fade To Mind school, as well as dubbed-out techno as Cellar Door. There's also a hip-hop contingent, represented by the woozy instrumentals of the non-KIK Smash Beats and Zuli's Swag Lee alias, under which he supplies productions to Egypt's flourishing Arabic hip-hop scene. VENT represents all of these styles and more; its local bookings reflect the terrain of the Cairo scene more than any particular aesthetic. But there are aspects of Egyptian music that are conspicuously absent from the club.
By this point we've arrived at the Pyramids, and navigated the pushy vendors and their camels to reach the Sphinx. Its massive stone visage, battered but recognisably human, seems extraordinarily mysterious to me, but I don't do a great job of looking impressed. It doesn't help that, for the other guys, this is business as usual. There must be something tiresome about entertaining the wonder of a rolling cast of visitors. For me, these sights are exotic; for them, they're a daytrip.
While we take a break in the statue's shadow, I broach the subject of Electro Chaabi. For readers of the Western music press, talk of contemporary Egyptian music will probably lead to this brash, hyper-synthetic style, also known as Mahraganat. An update of a music long played at working-class festivals and weddings, it has made impressive inroads abroad, with artists like Islam Chipsy and MC Sadat becoming fixtures on the European circuit.
Asem confirms that Chaabi is huge in Egypt. These days, he tells me, you'll hear it blaring out of taxis and shops, and even in the odd advert. But you won't hear it at VENT. To him and his KIK cohorts, the style has failed to develop in the years since its appearance, and its international success is mostly thanks to its exotic appeal—that, and a tenuous link with the revolution. "It's cool for a while, but it all sounds the same," he says bluntly. "There's more interesting stuff happening that just doesn't have that orientalist appeal. It doesn't have the appeal of, 'Oh, look at this. This is really foreign. This is exotic. It's Middle Eastern, it's Egyptian.' And everyone in the West—you said the same names, like Sadat and Islam Chipsy. It's a big hype machine, and it keeps getting bigger. I'd like to see the same happen for the local hip-hop scene, for example. There's a lot of things that are happening, but they just don't have the same hype, or same appeal."
It seems significant that the first thing Asem and Zuli did to the former Arabesque venue was strip out its traditional Egyptian decor. When I meet the softly-spoken Zuli in Berlin the following week, he'll echo Aurora Halal's suggestion that VENT, in those early days, wasn't so different from grassroots venues in other parts of the world. "A lot of people would say, as a compliment, 'When I walk into VENT, I don't feel like I'm in Cairo. I feel like I'm in Berlin or London or something.' That is a compliment—I hate it, but it is!"
The club certainly looks overseas for cues, as evidenced by its international bookings. (There is also a VENT sister night in London, organised by a friend of the club.) It occurs to me that the relatively well-off, liberal Egyptians I meet might, in some respects, have more in common with me than with the poorer residents of their own city. All of the KIK members have lived abroad at some point; Asem and Zuli spent large chunks of their childhood in the US and the UK respectively. Their English is flawless.
But they're not trying to shake off their Egyptian identity, so much as shake off limiting ideas of what that identity might be. In music from the UK or the US, for instance, national character tends to be of secondary importance to scene, community or personality. The very qualities that make a style like Electro Chaabi exotic and interesting to Western listeners don't necessarily appeal to Egyptians. They might even come to feel restrictive.
A few weeks after my visit, Hussein sends me a demo version of his forthcoming album, along with a carefully translated lyric sheet. It's called Electro Chaabi, but its stark, aggressive tracks are anything but. Hussein, rapping in arabic, rails against the bankruptcy of Egyptian culture and mocks successful Egyptian musicians. On "Etneed Arba3a" he declares, "If I cared about the Western world's opinion I'd have made Chaabi and called it Electro Chaabi so they'd like it and buy it / Would that be authentic?", before blasting a few seconds of Chaabi, a garish interjection in a sparse, brooding landscape.
Not everyone in Cairo shares this perspective. Pivotal in breaking Chaabi to the West was Mahmoud Refat, owner of the label, recording space and venue 100Copies. Refat comes from the generation before VENT's founders, and was one of the few people bringing experimental music to Cairo in the previous decade. His 100Live Electronic Music Festival, which has been running since the mid-'00s, has featured the likes of Jan Jelinek, Conforce and Kode9. Lately, Chaabi has become his main focus. Artists from the scene use his studio, and he helps orchestrate overseas trips for them, such as the recent Cairo Calling project, which paired Rinse FM artists like Mumdance and Kode9 with Chaabi MCs.
Most of the members of KIK have played at the 100Live festival, and they speak of Refat in reverential tones. The small 100Live music space was a central inspiration for VENT. "We went to a couple of gigs there, and we discovered a lot of new artists and new talent," says Asem. "But there was something wrong. It was really small. The sound was a bit weak. There's no booze. So me and Zuli are standing there: 'Imagine if this place was just a little bit bigger, better soundsystem and a bar.' And that was the birth of the initial idea."
Refat is a central figure in the arts scene of Cairo's Downtown, a bustling area that enjoys the cheap rents and large living spaces common to bohemian neighbourhoods the world over. It would be tempting to describe VENT as a part of this scene: its Downtown address is minutes away from the 100Copies studio, and it has relationships with local organisations. On the week of my visit, the venue had planned to host a fundraiser for arthouse cinema Zawya, though it ended up being postponed. Last year, VENT was the official afterparty space for the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), a neighbourhood-wide event for which Refat programmes the music, and whose success since its launch in 2011 is symbolic of the Downtown scene's recent growth.
But there are differences between VENT and its neighbours. For one thing, the Downtown scene subsists mostly on grants from international culture funds like the Goethe-Institut. This means free entry to events and the chance to make riskier bookings, but also that no alcohol can be served, and that the tastes of the funding bodies—mostly, Asem claims, for those "oriental" styles—holds sway. (Later, Bosaina will complain of the recipients of one major music fund, "everyone plays the Oud!")
This model also leads to a sober gig atmosphere, Asem tells me, in contrast to club culture's more relaxed pleasure seeking. "For them, art has to be people standing there, watching something, really fucking bored, and not moving," he says. "I've seen people perform music that really makes you want to move. But no one's moving. They're just standing there. And they finish, and they clap. If I'm the artist in that position that's not what I want. I'm playing dance music, so I want you to actually dance." Zuli says this points to an ideological difference between the two camps. "To the Downtown crowd, DJ culture is synonymous with, you know, bad artists. They don't get that dance music can be art."
Presenting dance music as an art form is something VENT and KIK are deeply committed to. Later that evening, after I've had a few hours to recover from the Giza dust, Hussein picks me up and takes me west over the Nile to Epic 101. Since 2011, he, Ismail and a third partner, Mahmoud Shiha, have done all manner of media oddjobs from this small studio. These days, their chief focus is their production course.
Partly modelled on programmes like Dubspot, this "crash course" works from the premise that laptops are now widely accessible but many musicians don't know how best to use them. Across nine hours of weekly tuition for six weeks, students learn the nuts and bolts of Ableton, the basics of mastering and are given an outline of the contemporary music industry. "At the beginning, it seemed like a good business opportunity," Hussein says. "But now when I look at it, it's actually a way forward for us as musicians. Because we realised at some point that the problem in the Egyptian music scene is that there isn't enough artists doing this new thing. There are a lot of guitarists and a lot of singers, but not a lot of people experimenting with computer music, or whatever you want to call it."
The studio is on a quiet residential road in the ad Doqi area—a welcome respite from the clamour of Downtown, though Hussein tells me they sometimes have to stop recording to wait for fights to die down outside. The complex, which takes up the first floor of an apartment block, is busy this evening. The mild-mannered Ismail is here along with three or four others, some of them helpers at the studio, others friends who've dropped in.
Hussein and Ismail take me through to the recording studio, which they built themselves. They tell me there's no other course like theirs in the city: you either have to commit to a four-year music tech bachelors at The American University in Cairo, or else rely on the occasional one-off workshop. As such Epic 101 attracts a diverse bunch, from teenagers to thirty-something hobbyists. Interests include deep house, rock and, in the last course cycle, a guy who wanted to make soundscapes. They've only had one student making Electro Chaabi; at 3,500 Egyptian Pounds (€430) for 54 hours of tuition, the course is cheap by Western standards, but remains inaccessible to Cairo's poorer citizens. Hussein has big plans, though. "We wanted to move the course out of the studio and into another place. A building of its own where it could be a 24-hour institute. And I wanted to reach out to more different segments of society, and probably even take the course price lower. I see a huge market for it."
Interest, they say, is growing steadily. It's helped by their relationship with VENT; Epic 101 do regular workshops at the venue, in return for granting VENT a couple of "scholarship" places on their courses. In the last cycle, Zuli and Bosaina each chose one young artist whom they felt would benefit from the experience.
Many of their students, getting to grips with Ableton's dance music-friendly interface, gravitate towards techno, something that Hussein isn't entirely pleased with. In the final part of the course, he delivers some hard truths about the situation for Egyptian musicians. "It's like a reality check thing. If you're making deep house or techno, and you're talking to promoters in London or Berlin, just understand that they have a lot of house and techno producers, and it would cost them a lot more to get you than this guy who lives next door."
But he sees this situation as cause for optimism. "Everybody who's taken the course, I keep telling them, 'You have as much knowledge, maybe even slightly more, than most producers out there in the world. Not just in Cairo. And the difference is, you are in a scene that's completely fresh. There's nobody doing this around you. And you just have to really go out there and do crazy stuff that you think is good. You have to make a fresh sound.' That's what we need, honestly. We don't need another deep house or techno."
Talk naturally turns to Cairo clubbing beyond VENT. Ismail and Hussein tell me that a scene of sorts has been chugging along since the late '90s. There's the Cairo Jazz Club which, at well over a decade old, is by their estimate the city's longest-standing club. Its bookings used to be relatively adventurous, but these days they mostly host "bad house and cover bands." Then there's the revolving cast of peripatetic promoters who were throwing upscale house music nights through the '00s, or else one-off mega-raves featuring the likes of Paul Oakenfold. It was only at the beginning of this decade that promoters began to focus less on scale or exclusivity and more on production values: sound, lighting, a spacious dance floor." All of a sudden, this new thing happened where you had promoters who were serious about it," Hussein says.
Foremost among them was Nacelle, a roving party founded in 2010 by a Canadian-born Egyptian called Tito. Nacelle is probably Cairo's biggest dance music phenomenon right now. Their weekly "House Sessions," taking place on a cruise boat moored on the Nile, attract up to 800 people every Friday. (VENT agreed to have their big nights on a Thursday so as not to split the city's small clubbing crowd.)
There's a Nacelle night tonight, one of their lower-key B-Side sessions, a weeknight event for funk, soul and disco. Asem, ever the fixer, rings to ask if I might like to check it out. A few beers later we're winding through Garden City in Hussein's dusty hatchback, trying to find the venue while avoiding the armed checkpoints that riddle the district's genteel, embassy-lined streets. Eventually we reach the Cairo Capital Club, a tiled rooftop bar usually open to the elements, though a marquee now keeps the off-season cold at bay. The misted plastic offers an alternate view of the city: only Cairo's luxury hotels, tall and sleek, can be made out in the murk.
The crowd is relaxed and friendly, and obviously wealthy. The music veers from dependable funk and disco edits to some more questionable moments (a mashup of Gorillaz's "Clint Eastwood" and Bobby Hebb's "Sunny" snags on the ear). Hussein and Ismail, and Asem when he turns up, are constantly being approached for handshakes and hugs. They've clearly spent a lot of time at Nacelle parties over the years. I'm introduced to Tito, a small, effusive man on the cusp of 40. He came to Cairo about five years ago, he tells me, and has been pushing Nacelle ever since. He also runs a sound company, and holds the Egyptian license for Funktion-One; VENT have Tito to thank for their soundsystem, and Asem will later sing his praises.
By the standards of Cairo's bottle-service club culture Nacelle is no-frills and musically adventurous, even if House Sessions bookings like Crazy P, Catz n' Dogz and M.A.N.D.Y. don't seem hugely daring to the outside eye. But the location and atmosphere of B-Side suggests that the allure of exclusivity still plays a part in its success. This is something Zuli later confirms. "It's classy to go to Nacelle. You're too cool for Tamurai, which is a super-chic club where all the big businessmen go, so you go to Nacelle." This leads, he suggests, to a crowd with a slightly different outlook from that of VENT's organisers. "They're a bit elitist. They come to VENT—the same people who go to Nacelle—and they're like, 'Why are these people here!?'"
This points to the biggest challenge facing VENT, one at which the headline "Party Den or Culture Venue?" was hinting. The club falls exactly between the twin poles of Cairo's musical landscape. On the one hand is Nacelle's upscale hedonism, on the other the more earnest bohemian vibe of Downtown. "That's the line where we fall," Asem tells me. "Being in Downtown, we're trying to give something that has some sort of artistic content, but in a context where the consumer is more of a club, going out, kind-of-table-service customer. We're trying to cater to two different customers, and we're in the middle ground."
In their attempts to nurture a new kind of music scene—or a new "consumption habit," as Asem puts it—VENT draws custom from both worlds, but neither is entirely happy with the way it operates. The club crowd dislikes the more adventurous aspects of its musical programming and the organisers' insistence on putting DJ before crowd. (Among a set of house rules spray-painted on a column pre-refurbishment was, "The DJ is not a jukebox. We don't take requests.") They're also uncomfortable with the club's door policy. Dress codes are the norm at Cairo nightspots, but Asem and Zuli have fought against them, in spite of pressure from their partners. Women wearing the hijab are welcome, too. Typically they're barred from alcohol-serving spots where they might make the more moderate Muslim clientele feel uncomfortable.
The Downtown scene, meanwhile, disapproves of the venue's entry prices. On Thursdays, VENT's most expensive night, the door fee can range from 100 to 200 EGP (€12-24), depending on whether the DJ is local or international. This is similar to the price scale followed by clubs in, say, Berlin, which seems unremarkable until you consider that the monthly minimum wage in Egypt is €146, ten times lower than that in Germany. Drink prices, too, are considerable, and have risen since the club opened. The bar is operated by Asem and Zuli's partners, the building owners. To get a feel for the enormous wealth gap dividing the layers of Cairo society, consider that a (heavily taxed) beer in VENT costs about €4.30, while a 15-minute taxi ride through the centre of the city costs less than €1.
VENT has yet to have a lossmaking month, and the organisers say that the door prices, in particular, are essential to its operation, particularly if they want to keep booking international artists. But the cost undoubtedly limits the range of Cairo residents to whom the club is accessible. The Downtown crowd, accustomed to subsidised, free-entry events, are acutely aware of this problem.
While this in-between status provokes criticism, it has also made VENT a home for communities that fall between the cracks of the Cairo scene. Following our Nacelle visit, we head to the club to catch the tail end of one of its "pop parties." These nights are masterminded by Sidy, a Moroccan artist and graphic designer whose DIS Magazine-like aesthetic has given the club a strong visual identity in its second season. Bosaina is joining him on the decks tonight, and during the afternoon she had joked about finding tracks for her "bad bitch" folder.
I soon find out what she means. When we get to the club at around 1 AM, she and Sidy are blasting a taste-baiting mix of '00s R&B classics, trance-pop and the odd sugary curveball. ("Hey QT" goes down a treat.) They sing along to more or less every lyric and cling onto each other in the choruses. The sweaty crowd of about 100, mostly male, is loving it.
As a club in Egypt, VENT faces large obstacles, not least a "debauchery" law that criminalises public displays of affection. (Among the house rules: "No PDA's—we would like to stay open.") But people enjoy themselves all the same. The dance floor periodically bleeds out to the surrounding booths and tables, but it always refills when a particular favourite is played. I leave around 2 AM, though Bosaina later tells me that the crowd hung on until 4.
Thursday starts slowly. A hungover Bosaina picks me up after lunch, and we spend a couple of hours at the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square. On the way out, we run through several terrifying lanes of traffic to get to the grimy roundabout that marks the centre of the square, and of the 2011 uprising. After the army deposed the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, they erected a memorial here to the "martrys of the revolution"—though few soldiers or police officers have yet been prosecuted for the thousands of civilian deaths since 2011. These days, that empty gesture is concealed beneath a grander one: an enormous flagpole bearing the Egyptian flag, ringed with ugly tarpaulins and the odd pile of litter.
We head down Talaat Harb street for a drink. We're in hectic, grubby Downtown, a few minutes' walk from VENT. Before we duck into a cafe we spot a gathering crowd across the street, one man leading the others in angry chanting. As we sit down, Bosaina looks exhausted. "If that gets any bigger then the police will come, and then the army…" she says, trailing off. A couple of months ago, police shot Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a protestor marking the fourth anniversary of the January 2011 revolution, several times in the head and chest just outside the cafe we're in. The ammunition used was "light" birdshot, but she died all the same.
Cairo's recent history surfaces in this way. It's distant, and suddenly it's right in front of you and very real. The young Egyptians I spend time with blag their way through armed checkpoints and trade anecdotes about the latest explosion in the way that I might discuss a particularly gruelling night bus journey. But I start to see glimpses, too, of the tiredness that must come from living in such turbulent times.
Several of KIK’s members got swept up in the revolution. Asem was in the thick of things in Tahrir Square, and Zuli managed to get himself beaten up by police. But as the country moved painstakingly towards democracy and, following the 2013 military coup, away from it again, the momentum of those early weeks seemed to bleed away, and they all more or less lost interest.
"I went down on the 28th of January," Ismail told me. "The stuff that came later on, I felt like it was all bullshit. I didn't know what was going on, and I wasn't convinced that anybody knew what was going on. There was so much propaganda. There's so much involvement from the political side, and trying to persuade people to think in a specific way. It was too obvious. At some point it was like, 'We're not that stupid', you know?"
Of course, it's easier to take this detached view from a position of relative financial and social security; those at the sharper end of Egyptian society might feel differently. But the VENT organisers, whose families come from across the political spectrum, haven't been immune to the unrest. Asem's father has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. With his Egyptian assets frozen and the threat of prison hanging over him, he now lives in exile in Switzerland.
Ink has been spilled in the Western press about the flourishing of Egyptian music after the revolution, but none of the locals I speak to give much weight to the claim. Zuli says that it might even have got worse. "There might be more independent artists after the revolution. But are they doing anything particularly original or are they just singing slogans about the revolution? I think it's important to answer that."
In fact, being an aspiring artist in Egypt is only getting harder. The recently introduced Law 84 states that Egyptians receiving funds from non-governmental organisations for the purpose of "destabilising national security" could be imprisoned for life. This gives the government a sinister power over human rights organisations that might object to their authoritarian methods, but it also affects cultural funds, most of which, Bosaina explains, fall under the NGO license. KIK have used such funds to tour in the past, but these options are fast disappearing. Sidy was recently shortlisted for a grant, but the organisation closed down rather than risk falling foul of the new law.
International travel, an essential part of promoting Cairo's scene, is also becoming more complex. It has been difficult for Egyptians to travel abroad since 9/11, but the situation has worsened in recent years. Bosaina is lucky, as her higher profile meant she could obtain a one-year culture visa for the Schengen Area. The others tell tales of visa woe, from Zuli missing Quit Together's SXSW show in 2013 to Asem having to cancel his appearance at a London VENT night just a few weeks after my visit.
"The UK is worried about him immigrating there," Bosaina later explains of Asem's situation. "It's hard to prove finances as an artist, even with a registered business and all the appropriate documentation he provided. As for moving permanently, anywhere, that's almost impossible. We're struggling with the culture and tourist visas as is." None of my hosts hold back with their gripes about the Cairo scene, and it dawns on me that this is the backdrop to such complaints. Though most of them are wealthy enough to move overseas and have lived abroad before, there's an invisible barrier that prevents them from doing so in the long term. There are places in the world where artistic ambitions like theirs can be more easily realised. VENT is an attempt, or the start of an attempt, to make Cairo such a place.
Tonight is Thursday night, which means VENT's club blowout—the climax of its weekly programme. The DJ setup has been relocated from a low stage in the centre of the room to a floor-height table off to one side. A couple of additional Funktion-One stacks have been brought in, and the staff steel themselves for a late night. VENT inherited a 9 AM license from Arabesque, which I'm told is one of their greatest assets, as it means revellers always end up there once the rest of Cairo shuts down.
I've been warned there's a student DJ competition happening across town tonight. Cairo's small scene, bound by social obligation more than musical taste, won't make it to VENT until it finishes, sometime after 3 AM. So I'm not overly worried when I turn up at midnight to a near-empty club. Asem and Amr, AKA 1127, are taking it in turns to fill the graveyard slot, the latter’s groggy house selections proving a particular treat. There are perhaps 20 or 30 people in the building, some of them clearly up for a dance. One woman in heels repeatedly approaches the booth. The DJs rebut her requests with infinite politeness.
Things don't pick up. 2 AM passes, and 3 AM. Asem and Amr ramp up the intensity, perhaps in the hopes of engaging the scant crowd, but they end up alienating them a little. A homesick East Londoner, clocking another foreigner, approaches me. He used to frequent fabric every Friday, he tells me, and this? He looks ruefully around the empty club. At some point Bosaina leaves, resigned to defeat. Even the usually buoyant Asem is turning glum. One of VENT's partners sits at the bar, looking deeply unimpressed. When Mr. Saturday Night's Justin Carter takes to the decks and expertly resets the mood, there's a slight air of futility to it all.
Finally, at about 3.30—as everybody had said, but nobody seemed any longer to believe—people start trickling in. In 15 minutes the room is pleasantly busy, and it keeps filling. Carter's house selections get brighter and bouncier, and the already-loosened crowd show their appreciation. Nobody seems particularly interested in who's DJing—I'd guess that most of them didn't come specifically for Carter—but their openness to the music and readiness to enjoy themselves are all that's required.
When I find Asem to say goodbye he's looking relaxed again, and perhaps even triumphant. "Sometimes it gets so depressing that I wish I was in a city other than Cairo," he says. "But then it wouldn't mean the same thing if it was in Berlin or London, you know what I mean?"