Flowering of the orchard
Enjy El-Naggar asks if Zahret Al-Bustan, the traditional coffee house once known as "the strategic depth" of Café Riche, is re-emerging into prominence
The coffee house is the traditional gathering place of Egyptian intellectuals. Most famously Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz -- but equally poets like Naguib Sorour and Salah Jahine, novelists like Youssef Edris and Fathi Ghanem, and critics like Farouk Abdel-Qader -- gathered at venues like Café Riche or Al-Fishawi, in Al-Hussein, to debate culture and politics, frequently drawing everyday coffee house-goers into their fold. Established more than 60 years ago in place of an ice-making shop and located at the end of Riche's open-air "terrace" - a corridor leading from the thoroughfare into the backstreets - Zahret Al-Bustan (lit. Flower of the Orchard) is now drawing in more intellectuals than ever. Reopened in the late 1990s after a period of inactivity, Riche was no longer the welcoming haven it had been for many. According to Wagih George and Mekkawi Said, writers and artists opted for Bustan after a clash with the sons of the late owners. But there were more practical reasons. "I began to frequent Bustan," George, a Swiss-based filmmaker, explained, "because it was much cheaper than Riche..." One of the oldest Bustan devotees, George has been going for 28 years, and spending time at the café continues to be among his first priorities during visits to Egypt. More recently, he feels, culture has not been the only focus...
One of Bustan's advantages over Riche is that, as a traditional coffee house, it has always provided shisha and backgammon -- something engineer Nagie El-Shenawi, son of the famous lyricist Maamon El-Shenawi and loyal Bustan goer, deeply appreciates. El-Shenawi explains that Western- style cafés provided no such pleasures, and this contributed to the popularity of Bustan as an alternative. (Unlike the vast majority of traditional coffee houses, Bustan is an alternative by virtue of accommodating women along with men and having a universally convenient location). The latest development -- very widely publicised in the media -- was a 22-participant backgammon tournament organised by coffee- house devotees, mostly intellectuals and journalists: the brainchild of Pierre Sioufi, artist, actor and downtown aficionado. "I found the idea of gathering all my friends, and some others, to play our favourite game. Backgammon is the one game that brings people together at the end of a day." Sioufi took the time to reminisce about the café, describing his memories as the driving force behind the tournament: "I decided to be the sponsor of this tournament because I didn't find anyone who would sponsor my memories and happy times." The tournament is about fun, he insists, not propaganda; which is why he was reluctant to talk about what he described as "really a very simple thing". In fact the media hype that has attended the event was positively surprising. "It's a bit mad, don't you think? I mean it's not such a big event, so why should there be so much hype? Is it really worth it all?" Mohamed Mohie, a 40-year-old engineer, agrees: "a lot of Egyptian and Arab channels covered the tournament, which is really weird because we didn't expect this huge media interest in it at all."
For his part Abdu Bermawi, another customer, speaks of Bustan's peculiar allure: "Bustan brought people together from all over the world, lots of tourists come from the airport directly to the café to play backgammon. It attracts not only cultured minds but the stars of their fields." The attitude of Sioufi's friend Juie de Samare, a French girl who participated in the tournament, is typical: "I simply love backgammon and every time I come to Egypt, I spend all my time at Bustan." All agreed Bustan is one of the very few coffee houses that maintain a sense of uniqueness against the odds -- no mean feat, with thousands of cafés sprawling all over the city. But older men of letters feel differently about the matter. Novelist Mahmoud El-Wardani, for one, feels that it has lost its identity since he used to spend time there: "When the 1960s generation oppositional activists could not meet in Riche for fear of secret informers, they went to Bustan instead." El-Wardani explained that the harafish (lit. riffraff), as companions of Mahfouz were known, preferred Bustan for its prices and; later, when the 1960s generation began to oppose President Anwar El-Sadat in earnest, they avoided Riche for fear of the secret police. The coffee house was so unimposing it was barely noticeable. And after Riche was closed down in the 1970s, El-Wardani remembers, Bustan was the closest option available to writers and artists: "Although it was a very simple café it attracted people from different places, including the countryside, allowing them to mingle, share ideas and learn. It became a place for novelists and writers and a meeting point for the staunch opponents of Sadat's regime; it also witnessed the arrest of most of them." To this day El-Wardani believes Bustan was the voice of those who were independent of the regime. "All that is gone now," he said sorrowfully. "No longer is it a place for men of letters and intellectuals."
About the backgammon tournament, he was surprised, "because we have more important issues in our life we should be thinking about". Yet the café still has a special place in his heart, having once been a home of some sort to him, where he and his friends read their work to each other. "Our revolutionary ideas were born there," he says, "and I think my awareness of identity was affected by it. That can never be taken away from me."