CAIRO — There is something tempting, even captivating, about the opportunity to temporarily experience being someone different, someone perhaps more interesting. Though this might be intimidating ordinarily, there is no need to worry in this instance, as it’s only for a couple of hours, and your friends can be with you. You won’t encounter any physical violence and no one will mention your mother.

All the torture devices you see are purely for decoration, so are the blood stains on the walls. You can take as many pictures as you like to celebrate a friend’s birthday and publicly exhibit this surreal experience. Oh, and you won’t go hungry; on the contrary, this is the main activity during your two-hour inmate impersonation. You’ll have incomparably better food and still get to call it “jail food” as you play prisoner.

Though well intentioned (at least so they say), the restaurant "Garemt Akl" (eating crime), is a naïve attempt to tap into a trending curiosity about incarceration among the Egyptian public, like when Mohamed Diab’s 2016 film Clash offered to virtually place audiences in the back of a police van. The restaurant promises a full fledged prison food experience, through which co-owner Mohamed Hammad promises "to keep impressing guests … in good spirit and humor."

The idea and the experience have apparently "taken Cairo by storm," according to one news report. But why is it so popular? Do its customers contemplate what is beyond this superficial experience in Nasr City?

What this restaurant, and the trend in general, lacks is the essence of the experience it promises: it is prison food without the prison. Not only is this absurd, it is incredibly insensitive — analogous to the festive embrace of advocated violence in the The Hunger Games trilogy. Like citizens of the Capitol, guests can feast as they overlook the very distant, surreal, arena of violence. Better yet, they can dine inside the empty arena, and pretend to be tributes. Problematic? Sure. Insensitive? Definitely. All in the name of good spirit, appetite and fun.

Hammad considers the design of the physical space a work of art. Due to difficulty sourcing handcuffs, ankle chains and hanging ropes in Cairo, he and his team had these items custom made for their bloody masterpiece. Speaking of blood, it is splattered all over the walls of the restaurant, almost like a visual appetizer. The only thing missing, although I’m sure it could be custom ordered is Rue’s body.

The sight of fake blood doesn't appear to put people off. Some customer reviews, like the one here, describe the décor as "a beautiful, cool, new idea that whets appetites."

As for the general atmosphere, another customer describes it as "simple and soothing."

Some of the meal names are outrageous: "Precedent" is so small that it costs LE9 (50 cents), while a "life sentence" costs five times as much. If you order an "execution," it will set you back LE90 ($5). "You’re lucky if you get an execution — your stomach must have prayed for you," another customer writes.

Just in case you’re wondering, death row inmates in Egypt do not have last meal requests, let alone last meals. The amount of food their families are allowed to bring them actually decreases until, in the words of one family member of a death row detainee, they are not even allowed to put food on plastic or foam plates — the only food family members are allowed to bring as they visit is a spoonful of rice in a plastic bag.

The whole experience is captured in the restaurant’s built-in photo booth, which, according to Hammad, is “the bit that many of our visitors enjoy the most.” Apparently the best thing about these mug shots is the props — handcuffs and sentences.

Where are the critics of such ill-conceived initiatives? Most reviews on the Garemt Akl Facebook page complain about the quality of the food or service. In contrast, 192 three to five-star reviews praise the whole experience.

The trend in macabre reality-as-entertainment restaurants did not start with Garemt Akl. Prison-themed restaurants existed in 19th century France, where waiters dressed as convicts walked with ankle chains in Café du Bagne, and cells and dungeons were features of Chateau d’If’. Later examples include The Jail Cafe in Los Angeles, where customers had to crouch to walk down a long corridor to reach their cell-tables, escorted by black waiters dressed as convicts. When two bandits walked in and ordered everyone to put their hands up in 1926, the customers thought it was part of the experience, before realizing they were actually being robbed. This incident, however, did not prevent the restaurant from earning its place among the “Seven Wonders of Hollywood” three years later.

None of these experiences go beyond the superficiality of blood-stained walls and drama, and merely serve to reinforce the divide between the restaurant goers and actual inmates. It is an experience predicated on festivity, liminality and distancing, where the closest one gets to the real thing is by scratching the surface of the surreal.

It is also a troubling reinforcement of the injustices of the prison system. In the Egyptian context, where there is absolutely no public access to official information regarding incarceration (or pretty much anything), prisons occupy abstract, distant and mysterious parts of the public imagination. Films and television are generally the only way to visualize the inside of a jail cell, making the opportunity to experience anything dubbed "prison" tempting for some.

Customers can try meals named "life sentence" or "execution" — Photo: Garemt Akl Facebook Page

Perhaps prison-themed restaurants are so popular because they serve to actually reinforce existing societal separations by way of distancing. It makes sense for people to desire this kind of exoticized experience as spectators or Capitol-customers, as a form of entertainment or voyeurism, if the entire experience is reduced to a matter of alter-reality. In other words, if there is absolutely no personal connection to the prison setting, the restaurant experience provides enough distance for the consumer, to the extent that reality itself becomes suspended. The experience becomes a virtual game, a performance that is anything but real.

I imagine the news of Garemt Akl’s existence reaching prisoners, or their families, and this makes me shudder. While the restaurant is an unapologetically capitalistic venture, it cannot be dismissed as mere ‘harmless entertainment.’ It distorts the conception of prisons and inmates even further in the imaginations of some, at a time when Egypt’s prisons are full of political dissidents and 19 new prisons are being built to hold them.

Watching tributes fight as you dine in front of the TV screen is not comparable to actually being in the arena: hot, threatened, hungry, scared, humiliated and alone, with spectators rejoicing in your suffering and the inevitable proximity of your death. Nor is receiving an "execution" in a themed restaurant in any way comparable to experiencing the horrors of prison in Egypt.


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