Sheikh Ali

Round about 1900, give or take a year, yet another establishment was set up in the city center. When foreigners, or Cairenes who are not familiar with Alexandria, are told “Let’s go to the Sheikh Ali,” they inevitably ask, “Is this a mosque?” They are astounded when the answer comes, “No, it is not a mosque. It is a bar.” Those are the oddities of Alexandria. The bar was originally owned by two Greeks and a French man, and was called Cap d’Or. It was established around 1900 in a narrow alleyway off Manshieh Square. There were then a lot of bars in Ramleh Station, owned mostly by Greeks and Armenians. When the foreign owners of the Cap d’Or decided to sell it to leave the country in the wake of the nationalizations of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist regime, Ali bought the bar for 500 pounds. It was then bigger and was divided into a grocery and a bar. Ali bought the bar only, and kept it as it was, but he added the food. It remained known to many foreigners as the Grocer’s Bar.

The foreign owners of the Cap d’Or closed it only on certain feast days. When Ali bought it, he took Friday off. So when people came by on Fridays and found it closed, they thought he’d gone to the Friday prayers, and so they called him El Sheikh Ali.

In the past the clientele was varied. Bankers, businessmen, tradesmen and speculators from the cotton and stock exchange nearby used to come often. Pashas and beys, such as Mazloum Pasha, Farghali Pasha and Bassili Pasha were regulars. Until the 1970s the gentlemen wore suits, ties and tarboushes. There were also jockeys and racing fans, as Ali himself liked horse racing and used to gamble at Sporting Club, and his son now owns three horses called Old Parr, Dewar’s and Black Label. The clients know one another and form a sort of private club. Not anybody could go in, and a sort of filtering of customers does occasionally occur. The popularity of the place is such that some of its lovers have made online groups about it, due, Ali’s son thinks, to its site: “The Cap d’Or is the Cap d’Or,” he says. Its popularity has encouraged others to give the same name to their bars in Cairo and Port Said, but they have not met with the same success as the Alexandrian original, for they miss the certain je ne sais quoi associated with the city and its foremost bar.

The décor remains the same and nothing about the place has changed. This is its charm and magic. The bar tender claims that “everything may have changed, but the place remained the same.” The uniquely art nouveau style is breathtakingly striking, and the bar itself with its marble top counter is of rare authenticity, even if the original handle for draft beer has been replaced by a copper tap, and there is no draft served any longer.

El Sheikh Ali doesn’t really have rivals. The Spitfire mainly attracts foreigners, but El Sheikh Ali has its own regulars. Nagat el Saghira, Henry Kissinger and Adel Imam have all patronized El Sheikh Ali.

There is a particular joie de vivre about the place, which is an upbeat, lively intellectual hub with an odd name: Bar El Sheikh Ali. The waiter doesn’t mind if you don’t order alcohol. After all, it is the bar of a sheikh!