The pictures said it all: elderly women attending a private birthday party at Cairo’s exclusive Geriza Sporting Club devouring cakes shaped like female and male genitalia and relishing every moment.
Someone decided to shoot pictures of the giddy group and share them, which inevitably led to viral distribution this week, outrage and bemusement on social media, and heavy-handed repercussions.
Lebanon’s Al Modon news site pulled no punches headlining an article “#TheScandalousCake…Egypt’s Biggest Problem?”
It published tweets visibly featuring women holding, eating or reacting to the salacious baked goods, but cagey Egyptian media blurred the photos.
In one picture, a woman in a fur coat with a mask dropping off her nose waves at an open box with two cakes shaped like women’s buttocks and breasts in flimsy underwear.
Another shot shows a woman grinning widely about to sink her teeth into a penis and balls cupcake while a third picture is of a fashionably dressed lady laughing while holding a similar male genitals creation.
Mostafa Zinaldin lamented in a tweet with a tearful emoji: “Did you hear about the Gezira Club scandal? Some shrews celebrated the birthday of one of them with cakes and cupcakes shaped like genitalia. The country is collapsing on all fronts.”
Tweep Amr Fahmy was equally horrified: “What happened at the Gezira Club is a scandal that should be investigated. People say freedom…With all due respect your freedom is conditioned on not harming others. Sadly, our society is in a major moral catastrophe.”
Other comments referred to the party participants as prostitutes infected with sexual suppression while others defended the women, saying they were entitled to their privacy.
In traditionally conservative Egypt — a lot happens behind closed doors — the party ruffled more than a few feathers, with critics noting that senior citizens like the women in question should be setting a good example of respect and maturity.
But Rasha Abdulla, a media professor at the American University in Cairo, tweeted her disdain for the detractors and their double standards.
“What’s strange is that Egyptian family values that are shaken by a cake and some cupcakes aren’t moved at all or bothered by unfairness, subjugation, corruption, sexual harassment and rape. Only cake bothers them,” she said with a #GeziraClub hashtag.
Religious authorities were particularly flabbergasted.
They noted that the publication of naked pictures and depiction of genitals were anathema, illegal, an attack on moral values and a crude insult to society and all its components.
The woman who baked the cakes was hauled in by the public prosecutor’s office and later released on bail, members of parliament called for a serious investigation into the matter, and the Gezira Club reportedly suspended, then expelled, the cake party members.
So why all the fuss about a few older women with naughty notions?
At one time the club was the absolute “in” place for Cairenes. It opened in 1882 as a playground for the British who had an impressive presence in Egypt.
In the old days, a prospective member had to be sponsored by at least two members “in good standing,” be invited to tea or lunch at the main dining room with its souffragis (waiters) in starched uniforms, parquet floor, elegant oak staircase, and be “checked out” for table manners and composure.
Then the candidate would wait for months on end before the club committee approved or rejected the application.
During the monarchy of King Farouk and British colonial rule, patrons could order pink gins, play cricket, and hobnob with the rich and famous.
When the 1952 Revolution brought in Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers cronies, membership loosened.
By then the cricket pitch and distinguished British members were gone but the club still turned out international champions in a number of sports.
The draw, other than social prominence, was, and remains to a great extent, the plentiful sports on offer, including golf, tennis, squash, swimming, riding, martial arts, football (soccer), bowling, croquet, basketball, bridge lounges, a ciné club, aerobics, modern jazz, and, a separate children’s playground.
But the former championship 18-hole golf course was cut to nine during Abdel Nasser’s time to make room for a youth organization club. Part of the confiscated grounds were returned and leased back to the Gezira Club years later.
Abdel Nasser also forced open the membership gates to many of his officer friends who were not “club-minded” and wanted it to be more Egyptian, according to veterans at the time.
Egyptians were excluded when the facility first opened on the island of Zamalek as the Khedival Sporting Club, in reference to the country’s ruler.
Egypt’s pashas (landed gentry who later gained entry) all had stables and ran horses at the club’s racecourse.
The ladies were very elegant and always showed up in the latest European fashions for dinner dances.
Fast forward to the late 20th Century and older patrons would complain about the use of drugs by younger members, a lack of decorum, and too many signs of conspicuous consumption like fancy cars and designer sportswear.
Coupled with that was the increased presence of veiled women and a ban on alcohol apparently triggered by an incident involving a younger member threatening an older regular who took it badly and died of a heart attack.
The alcohol ban — also a bow to rising fundamentalism in the country — was in sharp contrast to the happy-go-lucky days when the majority of British members used the club’s social and sporting facilities to the fullest.
In a faded water-stained navy blue suggestions book, several entries called for a wider choice of whiskies at the bar.
“The cocktails should be more concentrated and the olives more edible,” said one member about a century ago.
Another member, a certain D. Knight, suggested in 1931 that waiters be instructed to serve “Schwepps” tonic water with gin, rather than the locally bottled variety.
In 1932, four members wanted effective steps be taken “to prevent the barman for the general lounge from giving short measures of whisky.”
A certain R. Martyn requested a plate of sliced lemons be placed daily near a water fountain in the men’s dressing room.
Several Royal Air Force officers also asked that a portion of the polo grounds be set aside and allotted pro rata to RAF, army and Gezira ruggers during the season for rugby matches.
Members and administrators may have moved with the times, athletes may be donning colorful T-shirts with catchy slogans, and wearing expensive sneakers instead of more subdued traditional regulation tennis attire, but Egypt’s conservatives still expect a modicum of dignity at the Gezira Club.