Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
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Images of the idle city

By Youssef Rakha

Cafés are surrogate homes; they are substitute business practices: so pervasive is their presence in Egyptian city life that one can hardly imagine Cairo without them. Besides providing people like contractors, peddlers and agents with a sound office alternative, they serve a function at once recreational and cultural. "In another part of the world, perhaps, an up-and-coming young lawyer like Hussein Osman might while away free time at the gym, or downing beers at the corner pub. But this is Egypt, so Osman pursues another form of recreation: sitting at his neighborhood coffee shop and puffing meditatively on a water pipe," writes John Lancashire in the Washington Post. Yet writers, artists, public figures, politicals, even stars have been known to spend significant portions of their lives in public venues where people smoke shisha and have drinks while arguing, exchanging information and engaging competitively in their favourite games --qafia, for example, is a humourous duel of funny insults --as well as buying and selling. Due to the notion that writers-intellectuals should undertake some degree of political-historical commitment (Sartre's engagement), and the fact that in the second half of the century many intellectuals were activists and café-goers, the image of the café is often identical with that of the literary-political forum.

Western-style bars and café-restaurants which began to spread at the turn of the century led to the colloquial Arabic distinction between the qahwa (a traditional tea- and coffee-drinking venue) and casino-cafeteria-bar, the latter three words clearly adopted from Europe. The qahawi remained primarily shisha-smoking haunts offering no food and catering to an exclusively male clientele. Unlike the cafés, they offered their frequenters the chance to play cards, backgammon, dominos or chess, and plenty of opportunities for conversation. Until it was made illegal, the shisha served in qahawi sometimes contained hashish --the national stimulant par excellence. Except for the notable exception of Al-Horriya, drinkers had to go elsewhere for alcohol. And to this day (despite such anachronisms as the appearance of shisha in fast-food restaurants and five-star hotels, the presence of food-stands in dilapidated old bars and loud televisions in many a qahwa), the atmosphere of all-male all-night gatherings --non-alcoholic, meditative, communal --is sharply distinct from the variously Western-oriented atmosphere of cafés and bars.

"THE JOB, THE CAFE AND THE ALLEYWAY": Since the late 19th century, this three-fold daily pattern has dominated most people's lives. The alleyway was where the home was, the café the place where the male breadwinner spent most evenings. It is no coincidence that Naguib Mahfouz, the most indigenously Cairene of authors, should identify the wazifa (a job in a civil institution or a bureaucracy), the qahwa and the hara (alleyway) as his three main sources. The itinerary is mental and emotional as well as spatial, and on the incorporeal map of 1920s-'40s Egyptian life, the café represents the liveliest destination. A gathering place for friends and acquaintances, it was often a performance space and public domain --for speeches, lectures, poetry readings. Nubar, for one, featured singing performances by Abduh El-Hamouli, while Matatia, in Ataba, witnessed the heated debates of the religious-political reformers Gamaleddin El-Afghani and Mohamed Abduh --as well as those of the literary duo Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad and Ibrahim Abdel-Qadir El-Mazni, sometimes in the presence of the statesman Saad Zaghlul. The grand national library, Dar Al-Kutub, then located near the end of Mohamed Ali Street (famous for its dancers, musicians and singers) seems to have been the locus of a whole cluster of qahawi. Qahwat Al-Kutubkhana, named after the library, catered for readers and librarians. It was one of poet Hafiz Ibrahim's favourite venues. Within walking distance of the tranquil atmosphere in which people read and wrote, nonetheless, there was a café owned by a cock-fighting aficionado, where cock-fights were regularly and boisterously held. Further down the street, Al-Tigara housed the musicians of Hasaballah bands, who parked their heavy brass instruments at its doorstep while lounging inside.

Take a look inside any café and you can tell what a whole group of people spent its spare time doing. In the 1930s, Sheikh Hassan El-Alati compiled a book of jokes and qafia transcriptions entitled Madhakkhana (literally, laughing house), based on what he had heard in a café in Sayeda Zeinab, where in order to be admitted as a member one had to prove one's worth in the qafia matches. There were cafés for bakers, for deaf people, for criminals. Qahwat Al-Fann (the Art Café), opposite the Rihani Theatre on Emadeddin Street, was home to numerous failed actors, directors and singers. In each other's company, there was some consolation. And the tendency of café life to reflect the social and cultural conditions of particular groups of café-goers continued during the second half of the century. In the late 1960s-'70s, Zahrat Al-Bustan, the small qahwa whose force field has sprawled increasingly over the years, occupying a large part of what was once Café Riche's garden, came to be the leftists' "second line of defence". In other words, when "1960s generation" politicals could not meet in Riche for fear of secret agents, they went to Al-Bustan instead. On a lighter note, Al-Bustan constituted Riche's strategic depth: when people craved gossip or backgammon, they spent a few hours there before resuming their dead-serious debates.

Mahfouz's inventory alone includes some dozen qahawi: Qushtumur (the meeting place of the teenage Mahfouz's football fan friends while he lived in Abbasiya --he later named a novel after it); Orabi (the "grown-up" qahwa of the same period), Ahmed Abdallah (located underground in Khan Al-Khalili in the neighbourhood of Al-Hussein; Mahfouz witnessed the building of this qahwa as a child and subsequently liked it so much he mentioned it by name in his Trilogy). Yet it is with Al-Fishawi that Mahfouz is most frequently associated. At the heart of Al-Hussein, where the octogenarian spent his first nine years, it is one of the oldest qahawi in Cairo and retains --if only in post-modern, tourist-oriented form --many of the qahwa's original traits. Opposite its elegant facade, a line of small wooden benches mimics the old seating arrangement (separate seating was not used in qahawi until the emergence of bars and cafés), while the corridor inside is divided into similarly arranged compartments. In the 1940s, however, intellectuals like Mahfouz --perhaps simply eager for change --moved increasingly to Western-style cafés, which had been sporadically present for centuries but were seldom frequented by middle-class Egyptians.

ALL THE WORLD... Above: Café Riche. From top : Al-Fishawi; watching the World Cup at a street café; downtown, the domino effect

Dar El-Kotoub
Haj Lipton café

"It's really very simple. When we finally decided to move from the Opera Casino, our usual gathering place, we started looking for a place to meet. Someone said there was this café --I didn't know its name then --on Soliman Pasha Street, so we went and took our seats. It turns out that this is the place where the youth of the generation of the 1960s regularly gathered. And when they saw us there, they introduced themselves, made our acquaintance and joined us. From then on those of them who were interested would sit with us. And in this way Riche became our weekly gathering place for several years --discussions, conversations, whatnot --until the day of our meeting became the café's day off, and we moved to Ali Baba. That's true, yes, Ali Baba didn't have enough space for all of us and we moved to Qasr Al-Nil. Of course the café where we gathered for the longest period of time [from 1946], the one we got used to, was Opera. But Riche introduced me to the new literary generation, people I wouldn't otherwise have known.

"They were a strange bunch. The fights that ensued among them were very frequent and it really made you wonder. They belonged to the same generation, they were mostly close friends, they had similar mindsets. Yet a fight would break out for no reason at all. And the next day, very simply, they'd make up. It was never really as drastic as it appeared. The owner of the café used to put the blame on me, as the elder member of the group, though I wasn't really involved in any of this and felt I didn't want to be, that I was being implicated for no reason at all. He would come up to me and say, 'Your people were misbehaving the other day, it's unacceptable. They've done such and such a thing and you should talk to them.' And I would retort, 'What people? No people of mine, for heaven's sake. Why do you insist on counting me among them?'"

Naguib Mahfouz on his 1960s-1970s stint in Café Riche, beginning in 1963. Evidently, the concept of the "literary gathering" is still essential to Mahfouz's understanding of an active cultural life, and he looks back nostalgically to the many venues that witnessed his level-headed debates, interspersed with jokes and anecdotes as they invariably were. (Interview with writer during a literary gathering at Shepheard's Hotel, November 1999)

"THE WHOLE WORLD IS CAFE RICHE": Naguib Surour's bitterly sarcastic 1978 line of poetry rings true at various levels. In the late 1960s-'70s, Café Riche was the meeting place of artists and intellectuals belonging to the "generation of the 1960s": "Ye knights of yesterday/ Yesterday passed with the nights/ Behind the clouds of despair/ Proceed to Café Riche/ Where everyone drowns his odium/ In the depth of the tumbler", spat the playwright, actor and poet whose salutary madness earned him an unequalled place in Egyptian cultural life. In his lucid travel memoir, Arabia Through the Looking Glass, published in 1979, Jonathan Raymond describes Café Riche as most people will now remember it: "I found the Café Riche... a deep, friendly grotto with smoky walls and shadowy tables. Its punkah fans had been broken long ago. Their blades were puckered and warty with beads of condensation, and they hung over one's head like huge limp starfish. It was a good, private place to talk and drink. I liked its aniseedy smell and its air, even at noon, of living by its own clock, which was always set somewhere in the argumentative small hours. It was, admittedly, haunted by security men, but they tended to stick to the terrace outside, where they sat on rush chairs, making a great show of being engrossed in the small print of Al-Ahram." In the 1960s and 1970s, it reflected the politically charged atmosphere of cultural and literary life, setting the scene for figures like the late poet Amal Dunqul, publications like the alternative literary magazine Gallery 68 and events like the famously unsuccessful informal demonstration said to have been organised by writer Ibrahim Mansour following Sadat's visit to Israel in 1977. Journalist Salah Issa speaks of "the migratory tide" that drove intellectuals increasingly out of the country after Sadat came to power in 1970: the image is of the café gradually emptying. Since the mid-1950s Riche had been blessed with "those traits that encourage productive dialogue: it was free from distractions like the radio, cards or backgammon; it was quiet and subdued; the management understood the fact that it was an asset to have all those intellectuals there, so it made life easier for them, letting them postpone payment till they had the money, and appreciating all the literary and cultural activity that was going on." By the time one sees the café filling again, "the whole concept of a cultural gathering has given way to frivolity and dissipation". Particularly after peace with Israel (1977, 1979), "Riche was suddenly plagued by the three greatest drawbacks of cultural café life in this country: gossip; pessimism, the dark, dark depression of the intellectual; and activities aimed at pursuing personal interests rather than a collective meaningful cause." But when it was shut down following a legal dispute over ownership rights in 1990, and subsequently hit by the1992 earthquake, the owner embarked on a six-year series of refurbishments, in the course of which he discovered its pre-1960s history. Significantly, the current owner's father, who presided over Riche's recent heyday, bought the café from Mikhail Nicola Politis's Greek successors in 1960, at the height of the Arab nationalist struggle. This was the period directly after the intellectual move from qahawi to café-restaurants. Prior to it, the café had belonged to European businessmen and catered for a more exclusive, less narrowly intellectual clientele. Yet both the political and the literary aspects of café life were equally vital, just as they were in the qahawi of the 1920s-'40s. The renovations uncovered a secret basement where a press --thought to have been used to print anti-imperialist pamphlets --was found. Erian Saad's failed attempt on the life of Prime Minister Youssef Wahba Pasha in December1919 started inside the café; so did the literary magazine Al-Katib Al-Misri, founded and edited by Taha Hussein. Since then, the whole world really has been Café Riche. From the upstart Umm Kulthoum singing in the garden (1923) to Saddam Hussein, a university student, having lunch --there is an infinite range of insights to be drawn from it. But insofar as it typifies café life, there is only so much Riche can do: it is a drop in an ocean of idleness, to use a favourite Egyptian metaphor. The current owner is confident that, on reopening, Café Riche will return to its former glory. The truth is that it is past its recent and not-so-recent heyday, and that its original frequenters are either dead, too old to go out or reluctant to give up their subsequently-acquired habitual venues. Whether Riche will live up to the next century's challenge, and whether Egyptian idleness will remain as productive, however, only the future can tell. That future, mind you, is almost present.

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