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The Cairo shop bringing back Egypt's 'golden era' of style

Bahira Bahir is attracting young and old who yearn to return to the 'golden age' of the 50s and 60s
Bahira Bahir co-founder Eman El-Sayed looks at a display of vintage ware in the shop in Cairo (Courtesy of Bahira Bahir)
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Cairo

Eman El-Sayed, the co-founder of Bahira Bahir vintage shop, is sitting behind an antique desk in the store dressed in a 1950s-style, red floor-length gown, responding with a smile to a customer's queries.

Classic jazz music wafts through the shop, with the crackling audio of an old-style record player adding to the retro ambience of the surroundings. Racks of home accessories and decor pieces, including wall clocks, landline phones, fine china and radio sets, conjure a bygone age.

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A classic rotary dial telephone on display in Bahira Bahir (Courtesy of Bahira Bahir)

Located in Cairo's upmarket Zamalek neighbourhood, the small, yet cosy, glass-fronted boutique, with chintzy items in the windows, is a place where visitors can, as it were, travel back in time.

Everything about Bahira Bahir harkens back to what the owners describe as the golden era of sophistication of the 1950s and 60s, when the Egyptian arts and media scene was thriving.

"The era of the 1950s and 60s have always been a source of inspiration to me. I love every detail about it, such as [the] clothes, the way people spoke, as well as the art and culture,"  says El-Sayed, 29. "I heard about that era mostly in the stories of my grandparents and saw it in old films."

She and her husband were highly influenced by the spirit and the furniture style of Egyptian films like Sayyidat al-Qasr (The Lady of the Palace) and international ones such as Gone with the Wind, she says.

The choice of upmarket Zamalek as the location for Bahira Bahir was no coincidence.

"Of course it was not a random choice. Zamalek is the home of art galleries, fancy restaurants, historical villas and hotels, the embassies of several countries around the world, the Cairo Opera House and many other special venues," El-Sayed explains.

Bahira Bahir aims to attract the same middle-class and tourist clientele as these upmarket venues.

Past and present

El-Sayed's obsession with all things vintage got serious two years ago after her husband, Ahmed, who was then her fiancé, tracked down a present to impress.

"Ahmed is a huge fan of jazz music. I have always told him I don't like jazz, but he believed otherwise," she recalls, laughing.

"He knew I was fond of antiques and the golden period of the 1950s and 60s, and he gave me a Crosley Cruiser record player for my birthday, which was a lovely surprise, even though it took us time to find discs to play on it," says El-Sayed.

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Eman El-Sayed, co-founder of Bahira Bahir, pictured in front of a vintage poster in the garden (Courtesy of Bahira Bahir)

"Eventually, I discovered that I actually loved jazz music in many forms, like oriental jazz composed by the celebrated Lebanese composer and singer Ziad Rahbani," says El-Sayed.

But the Oscar-winning film La La Land was what really inspired El-Sayed, with its storyline eerily mirroring her and her husband's own romance: “In the film, the heroine did not like jazz music until the hero convinced her to listen to it. This is almost the same as what happened when Ahmed got me the music player."

It wasn't long after that the couple decided to have their house furnished based on the old style of the 1950s and 60s.

"It was a tough job. We visited lots of furniture stores and antiques shops, but we couldn't find what we had in mind, mainly what we saw in old films and our grandparents' homes," El-Sayed recalls.

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The storefront of Bahira Bahir in upmarket Zamalek (Courtesy of Bahira Bahir)

"So we decided to find carpenters who could carry out the designs, such as those of the living room, the dining room and the bedroom. But it was a hard task to locate specialised ones.

"It took us almost a year, and we sought the help of our friends abroad, who brought us home accessories and decor pieces, until we managed to have a place of our own like what we imagined," she adds.

Mania turns into project

It wasn't long before the couple thought about turning their love of old things into a project. And so Bahira Bahir was born, at first as a Facebook page for selling classic decor items and home accessories, then as a vintage shop almost a year later.

The store, which opened in early 2019, markets and sells its products on the Bahira Bahir Facebook page as well as importing items, mostly from Turkey and China.

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A poster for Samir We Shahir We Bahir, the 2010 film that inspired the shop's name (Twitter)

The store's name will be known to fans of Egyptian cinema, as it originates in a character played by actress Rahma Hassan in a 2010 hit comedy.

"We were unable to decide on a name for the project ... until the title Bahira Bahir came up during a usual conversation as a joke at first. It is the name of a character of a classy lady in a famous Egyptian comedy entitled Samir, Shahir and Bahir," explains El-Sayed.

The film revolves around three half-brothers with different mothers, all born on the same day.

They all join the faculty of engineering to compete against each other, but accidentally use their professor's invention, a time machine, to suddenly find themselves in the 1970s. A series of comic situations unfold as they get to meet their father as well as their mothers as young people.

A slice of nostalgia

Not only does Bahira Bahir offer products from the 1950s and 60s, it also provides visitors with a space to relive the past.

"We try as much as we can to depict the past through every detail in the place, like the way we dress up and speak to people, addressing them in old terms like [the Turkish] hanim and bik [lady and gentleman], how products are displayed on shelves and the way we wrap them for customers," says El-Sayed.

Surprisingly, many of Bahira Bahir's customers and fans are in their 20s and 30s, who yearn for an era before many of their parents were even born.

"I have always loved the mood of the past that I see in old movies and pictures, of which Bahira Bahir reminds me," says customer Sammar Essam, 23.

Another visitor, Ahmed Hassan, 32, finds the place so evocative and nostalgic that he wishes he could "live in that era".

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The Crosley Cruiser record player nestled among other vintage items in the store (Courtesy of Bahira Bahir)

Bahira Bahir attracts many visitors curious about the store, as well as those wanting to buy vintage items.

"Lots of our customers are foreigners who value such products," says El-Sayed. "But in a nutshell, many of them find it easier to order the products online rather than visit the shop, unless they wish to check out a really valuable item themselves before buying it."

The Bahira Bahir Facebook page has attracted about 27,000 likes and 28,000 followers so far.

Everything about Bahira Bahir creates nostalgia in my mind

- Noha Morad, 70

"I heard about the boutique from a satellite television show and thought of visiting the place and taking pictures to post them on Instagram. It is really a unique place," a young Egyptian woman said.

But the shop also sparks feelings of nostalgia for those old enough to remember the era it harks back to.

"I remember the old days when I would drop by a boutique to check out the new arrivals. Everything about Bahira Bahir creates nostalgia in my mind," Noha Morad, 70, says. 

"At the time I was Eman's age, and my parents would drink coffee and tea in fine china, not in those tasteless mugs of today," she adds.

'Peak era'

During the era of the 1950s and 60s people dressed up and spoke differently too, she recalls.

"You would find a woman in an elegant dress and a man in a full suit even in summer. Casual wear was not common like it is nowadays. People had better manners, too. They didn't swear or use bad language. Slang was not part of the Egyptian culture, either," Morad recalls.

A scan of the shop's wares indicates a strong affinity with Western styles and culture from the mid-20th century. The era was highly influenced by British colonisation as well as the immigration of Westerners to the country, retired journalist Ahmed Saad, 78, explains. 

"You could see that in all aspects of life such as clothes, furniture and architecture styles and the way people talked. 

"Egypt was like a melting pot absorbing different cultures. At some level, middle, upper-middle and higher classes sort of lacked authenticity as they mimicked the West."

But for Saad, the shop also recalls a peak era of Egyptian cinema, literature and music.

"We had real singers and musicians like Umm Kulthum, Mohmed Abdel-Wahab and Abdel-Halim Hafez who inspired us, unlike most of today's so-called singers and musicians who lack talent," Saad reflects.

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A brightly coloured vintage style radio (Courtesy of Bahira Bahir)

"Actors such as Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama were role models of elegance and sophistication as well," he adds.

"There were novelists like Nobel-laureate Naguib Mahfouz influencing the literary scene in Egypt. This is what my generation mostly misses now."

El-Sayed and her partners "hope there could be a Bahira Bahir store in every province in Egypt," yet being amateur start-up entrepreneurs, they still don't have a clear vision about how they can make that dream come true.

"We just hope that in the near future we can expand and have a wider place that has an extra space in the form of a cafe where visitors can drink coffee and tea in sophisticated fine china while socialising and listening to old music," says El-Sayed.