A sign on the door of a small villa in a quiet neighbourhood of Cairo carrying the words Dans le Noir leads customers to a totally different and mind-changing experience.
This is the name of an extraordinary restaurant where you dine in the dark, eating without being able to see as a blind guide assists you to sit down, serves you dinner and describes the surroundings. Abdel-Baset Azab, 60, a TV presenter, head of the Arab Centre for Media for the Handicapped, an NGO, and owner of the Dans le Noir restaurant in Giza, entered into partnership with an international brand to introduce the franchise for this restaurant chain in Egypt and provide food for customers in complete darkness.
“While visiting different countries to make my TV programme, ‘Blind around the World’, I got to know the Dans le Noir restaurant in London. I admired the idea and wanted to introduce it to Egypt,” Azab said. “The restaurant has more objectives than commercial ones. It emphasises the blessing of sight, enhances the individual’s physical senses, and helps to reduce the unemployment of blind people in Egypt.”
The Giza branch of Dans le Noir is the 11th of eight countries including France, England, Spain, Russia, New Zealand, Australia, Morocco and finally Egypt. “The first thing I thought about was the place where I would open the restaurant. I did not find any better place than the Pyramids Gardens neighbourhood in Giza, since it is close to the ancient civilisation of Egypt. I thought it was certain that being near such historical places would attract tourists to the restaurant to experience food in the dark,” Azab added.
“Instead of an ordinary lunch, why not add a human, sensory and cultural experience to a trip so that tourists can immerse themselves in surprising dishes prepared for the court of the Pharaohs in ancient Egypt?” A French restaurant sent a special crew to help with training the staff. By opening day on 28 November last year, there were nearly 20 young blind or visually impaired men and women able to start the new experience.
Today, visitors can eat without being able to see while enjoying Pharaonic cuisine at Dans le Noir. This is also a pedagogical experience that allows them to reclaim their taste by focusing their attention and awakening the senses put to sleep by the predominance of sight. Although it has a fixed menu, Dans le Noir offers a unique experience in the cuisine of ancient Egypt. It has adapted recipes from then for our time, while keeping the authenticity of the ingredients and methods of preparation.
Co-founders of Dans le Noir Edouard de Broglie and Haya Al-Badawi, a graduate in archaeology from Cairo University, conducted investigations with specialists at the Egyptian Museum to find out everything they could about food in ancient Egypt. “Everything was sifted: utensils, techniques, recipes, ingredients and origins. Therefore, the meals at the restaurant are also a fun, friendly and educational experience that will complete a special night,” Azab said.
After clients have had their meal in the dark, the team presents photographs so that guests can discover the dishes they were served. This is a memorable moment in which some people are taken by surprise.
“Society often distrusts new ideas, and it took a long time to get this idea off the ground. We need to change the culture concerning the blind and change the blind’s feelings towards themselves, as their self-confidence is enhanced through being able to work, such as at this restaurant,” Azab said.
“I knew about the vacancy through our community on WhatsApp,” said Khaled Mahmoud, 32, one of the guides. “I met Mr Azab, who selected the team according to linguistic and other criteria. Our role is to take the lead right from the entrance of the restaurant.”
“I introduce myself, ask the guests to put their coats, bags, and anything that might produce even a tiny amount of light into a locker. Even a watch has to go. We then give some instructions, such as they shouldn’t try to walk alone and they must put their hands on each other’s shoulders,” Mahmoud said.
“Then I take the group down into the blackened dining room. If they want anything, even a bathroom break, they have to call my name. When the meal finishes, they are led upstairs and warned that it will take a little time to readjust their eyes to the light,” he added. The experience is not limited to food, since after dinner a group can enjoy activities like music and various games.
“Working in the project has made me more responsible and used to working in a team,” said Neama Mohamed, 25, one of the guides. “I would like to see this idea help to change society’s stereotypes about blind people and what they are capable of doing. We need to raise awareness towards our needs and our role in the community,” she added.
“I feel some tension at the beginning, and I begin to eliminate it immediately. I can imagine it’s not easy to get used to the darkness when you can see, but people enjoy themselves after breaking the ice. Some guests even sing because nobody can see who they are,” she said.
Wafaa Selim, 60, had dinner at Dans le Noir. “It gave me great psychological comfort, as I felt in the middle of the darkness that I was closer to God. I could see with my heart, and I discovered that the blind were stronger than the sighted,” she said.
Hamdi Badawi, 55, another customer, was afraid before the start of the experience, but when he was in his seat in the restaurant this was replaced with great satisfaction. “I felt comfortable dealing with someone when we couldn’t see each other, and I liked the idea that nobody was looking at me while I’m having my meal,” he said.
Iman Khairallah, 26, definitely recommends going to Dans le Noir. “It was an incredible and unique experience,” she said. “It was not about the food; it was about the experience, what it feels like in the dark, and how differently food tastes. It was a bit confusing at first, being led through complete darkness by strangers, but our guides Abdel-Tawab and Hazem were excellent and put us at ease very quickly.”
“They’re amazing people and very professional when it comes to spreading positive vibes. It was fun eating, talking and even drawing in the dark.”
Azab shared his plans for the future by explaining that later there will also be a Cinema in the Dark. “It’s not a dream, as currently there are sound-only movies being produced. These will be played for one day a week in a special hall. The project will be the first of its kind in the whole world, and not only in Egypt,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly