It’s 11:30 pm on Thursday in downtown Cairo. About 200 people are at the opening of the new performance space, bar and café, Vent.
Vent has taken over Arabesque, a shishi downtown restaurant off Talaat Harb Square. The space — which hasn’t changed much since Arabesque times, aside from becoming smaller and grungier — is filling up with an eclectic mix of young downtown hipsters and older institutional representatives alongside journalists and artists, who have all found themselves on — or managed to get themselves on — the much-hyped guest list.
Local DJ Ahmed Samy is closing his opening set — a minimal, ethereal selection ranging from Detroit techno to acid house played, unusually, on vinyl. The crowd sips LE25 Stellas and LE85 cocktails while mingling, swaying back and forth in drink-lubricated conversations, and dancing. A boy who looks like a girl and a girl who looks like a boy lean against the whitewashed walls smoking, seeming bored. A young woman climbs a ladder to spray paint the “house rules” on a column.
Ashtrays are a thing, use them
Get in a fight and you’re banned for life
No ID, No liquor
We have no tolerance for harassment
The DJ is not a jukebox. We don’t take requests
Electro-clash kings and queen Wetrobots <3 Bosaina are introduced on stage. Wetrobots are mostly hidden from the audience as the white boxy stage only has room for one — while lead singer Bosaina, wild as ever in a typically theatrical and minimal costume, seems to curtail her energetic gestures to avoid hitting the construction. (The stage was better suited to artists Islama Shabana and Dada’s audio-visual display of 3D mapping projections.)
The trio open with a new track, “Queen of the Guillotine,” emblematic of a new, edgier move away from their bumpier electro-pop beginnings. This is difficult to hear, however: Because of major issues with the sound system, the music almost entirely overrides Bosaina’s vocals. The trio bravely continue, though having lost a fair few audience members disappointed with the distorted sound.
The evening continues with British DJ Rags, and then Ahmed Samy again for the late night shift on the turntables.
I leave at about 2 am, and it feels like it will be another several hours before the place powers down before opening the next evening, leaving me to wonder about Vent’s identity — will it be just another party place, or a much-needed socially open performance space?
Through a venue serving alcohol and food, the young men behind Vent hope to create a hub for culture and artistic expression in the downtown culture scene. They say they want to provide emerging artists with a chance to display work without compromise, in a space that allows for social interaction.
According to the co-founders, 29-year-old Ahmed al-Ghazoly (Zuli), 27-year-old Asem Tag, and 23-year-old Seif Abdel Salaam, the idea for Vent emerged out of complaints about the lack of commercial music spaces in Egypt set up with a social mindset.
“We were in a downtown music space and we kept going on about how much better the event would be if it served beer,” explains Tag. “A little later, Seif was also airing some grievances about the lack of performances spaces, particularly for theater — we’re all friends, so we’re always venting about these things together.”
Months later Tag was meeting his accountant to do tax reviews for the lifestyle magazine he and Zuli own, Awesome Mag (currently on hiatus but soon to go digital).
“I told him we were interested in opening a commercial space with cultural activities and a liquor license,” says Tag.
“As it turned out, my accountant ended up putting us in touch with Nabil Shaker, who owns Arabesque and Deals in Zamalek. He was looking to revitalize the space, so we met, submitted him a proposal, and here we are now.”
The trio has dabbled in performing arts over the years. Abdel Salaam has worked with theater through D-CAF and Falaki Theater. Zuli and Tag are musicians, and through Awesome Mag have put on various music events with musicians like Earl Oye from Norwegian band Kings of Convenience and locals like Aly Goede and Minus T.
They say that Vent will primarily operate as a music venue with live shows on Tuesdays and Fridays and a DJ night on Thursday, but also function as a theater and multimedia art gallery on Wednesdays and Saturdays. On Mondays, they plan to screen local and foreign films.
Zuli hopes the space will grow organically. He has lined up diverse musicians to perform in upcoming months, including local indie-rockers PanSTARRS and the Invisible Hands, rappers BAMBAM and Dawsha, emerging producers like Cellardoor, and more established musicians like Mahmoud Refat.
Abdel Salaam will be overseeing the theater programming, with which he hopes to present unconventional and interactive performances. He wants to bring in new audiences by creating a comfortable environment with food and drink.
“I’ve always wanted a space with proper performances that isn’t free,” he says. “Culture shouldn’t always be free, otherwise how are practitioners supposed to sustain their work?”
They say that musicians and theater practitioners get a flat fee plus a percentage of the door. DJs are only paid a flat fee, as the space is trying to encourage a market in originally created music rather than music just being spun. Visual artists will get a flat fee, but amounts haven’t been decided yet.
Theater will include “Theater Uncut” (short plays from various countries in response to current political situations), works by Egyptian feminist troupe Bussy Project, and an interactive play adaptation of Khaled al-Khamissi’s novel, “Taxi.”
For visual art, Vent has teamed up with Alexandrian artist Yazaan El-Zo’bi, who will curate two to four shows every month. Apart from Shabana and Dada with their opening night projection, there is little lined up so far.
“We’re currently running an open call for visual artists,” says El-Zo’bi. “Basically, I’m trying to have works that are easy to display and remove, so there will be some transience to the works. We are looking mostly for interactive pieces, installations, video-work and projected images. We are also hoping to get a small fund to help provide artists with resources to create their proposed works.”
For the film screenings, too, the program hasn’t been worked out yet, and it remains unclear how Vent plan to acquire films or the rights to screen them in public.
Like most new things in Egypt, Vent was met with mixed reviews. Topping the list of complaints was the nearly inexcusable opening-night sound issues, which should be the biggest priority for a music venue.
Zuli says the sound malfunctions were instantly noted and rectified.
“Being that we are musicians ourselves, we know how important proper sound quality is, which is why we have invested in purchasing Funktion-One speakers and doing acoustic treatments to the room,” he says.
“The sound issue was mostly a result of the technician on duty who was different than the guy who came to sound check the previous night — it seems he didn’t know how to properly manage the volume levels, which is why there was so much distortion and an almost inaudible microphone. But the issue has been solved now, which you could hear from PanSTARRs performance Tuesday.”
Many also felt that the space’s identity is unclear or contradictory. Is it a club? The space feels tattered and rough around the edges, so why were there bouncers? Many hoped Vent’s opening would feel more inclusive, because other clubs in Cairo, such as Cairo Jazz Club, have strict door policies — for example, not letting in men without women. Downtown music space 100Copies, meanwhile, is very inclusive but does not serve drinks and is strictly for music. Though there are no venues in between those two models, it seems that Vent hasn’t quite decided yet what it wants to be.
In response to murmurings that it was marketed as inclusive but has already decided to have a restrictive door policy, Zuli says it will only have a door policy and bouncers on the Thursday evening DJ/party night: no large all-male groups. This is presumably to keep the party, which should be when the money is made, under control.
It strikes me that in order for the culture scene to grow more, it has to become a community. To do so, there need to be multifaceted spaces that provide a feeling of both pleasure and inclusiveness. Over time, Vent’s spatial practices and rituals will define its identity. Its young co-founders have a unique opportunity to build a sustainable, social focus for a scene that desperately needs an inclusive sense of community, a bar and a rite of passage.