nothing be a lumberjack… And carry a ton of books… Place it beside a
beer bottle… Or above a chair… Drink & await the knights… Who will
come one after the other… Each carrying a ton of books!”
Naguib Surour’s words hit the spot. Today, books, and
bottles of beer represent the spirit of a small coffee shop, near Talaat al-Harb
square, for which these verses have been written.
The name of the
place is Café Riche, and today, as in the past, it is considered the lair
where intellectuals like having their talks… and their beers. The big
entrance room is of a typical oriental style. No air conditioning, but fancy
fans. No songs, but the music of people’s voices. No noise
from rolling dice on the tawlah board, but the din of teapots.
In recent years
many buildings, cafes and villas in Cairo have given way to fast food
outlets and commercial malls, but Café Riche has survived by retaining its
original style, appearance and menu. The restored décor harkens back to the
height of its glory early in the century.
Café Riche was
established at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was only in
1915, with his third owner, the Greek Mikhail Nicola Politis, that the place
became famous as a restaurant that offered musical entertainment. The
culturally active Greek businessman opened there a garden, where cheap beers
and food were offered in a very informal ambient. Soon after popular
musicians, writers and singers begun to chose its quite atmosphere for their
meetings and performances.
The history of Café
Riche is also the history of Egypt. In 1923 Umm Kalthoum had her first
public performance here, and later on the singer Abdul-Latif Effendi
Banna was one of the attractions as well. From 1940, it also became the
haunt of such Egyptian literary greats as, Yusuf Idris, Tawfiq Al-Hakim
and the leftist colloquial Egyptian poet Ahmad Fouad Negm.
In the Cafe, Taha
Hussein launched the literary magazine Al-Katib Al-Misri and Naguib Mahfouz
held his Friday literary gathering at one of the café’s table. In memory
of the days, when such intellectuals brought fame to the Café Rice to the
place, a long line of pictures hangs from the wall of the restaurant.
In December 1919
an employee at the Egyptian parliament sat at a table at Café Riche,
drinking tea and carefully hiding two grenades at his side. One of his
colleagues, sat across the street, on the marble bench of Soliman’s statue
in Taalat al Harb Square. The man sitting next to the statue stood suddenly,
signalling that a motorcade with Prime Minister Yusuf Pasha was passing by.
Then, the two grenades were lobbed in its path. According to historian
Abdel-Rahman Al-Rafe’I, leaders of the 1919 revolution met at Café Riche
and planned their moves.
It is also said
that Gamal Abdul-Nasser hatched some of the 1952 plot overthrow King Farouk
in the Café Riche. After that, members of a revolutionary movement held
their meetings there. In a hidden room, downstairs, a printing machine was
found when the place was remodelled some years ago. Some believe that it
might have been used to print leftist fliers against the government.
closing its doors for more then 10 years for renovation works,
Café Riche’s new customers go there to enjoy the same familiar
atmosphere. Among them there are Saad Zaghloul, a journalist for al-Ahram,
and noted activist, Champellion Herve Champellion, a writer and
photographer, and great grand son of the French archaeologist Champellion.
Naguib Surour and his son Alaa who once held a seminar every Thursday at the
Café Riche, are among many others who regularly visit it.
In a recent
interview Mr. Zaghloul commented “During the Nasser period, in particular,
the café became a place where the intellectuals of Cairo used to meet, to
shape an discuss the future of the country. Café Riche, as many other
public coffee shops, was “the medium” that intellectuals used to spread
out their revolutionary opinions.” The very informal atmosphere was indeed
playing an important role to make their meetings successful.
However, one year
after Café Riche has been re-opened, regular customers are not coming in
large numbers. Ahmad Hassan, a poet and translator, says “Intellectuals in
Egypt have lost their old identity. The society has changed. Today, we meet
in small groups that don’t want to be identified or, even worse,
classified into a certain category. For this reason, those who are not
nostalgic have already moved to other cafes”.
Riche is not the cheap restaurant that it used to be and the atmosphere
became very formal after the new Egyptian owner, Mr. Mikhail, decided to sit
constantly next to the entrance and make a selection of the customers”,
Ahmad points out. Most of the times, the only customers sitting at its
tables are tourists, probably driven there by the recommendations of Lonely
Planet Tourist Guide.
“Who will come
one after the other…” Today, the answer seems to be only a few nostalgic
intellectuals that will be soon replaced by more wealthy foreign tourists.
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Pieranderi is a travel-added Italian journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. After pursuing a career in translation and linguistics - she speaks fluent Arabic, English and Spanish - Elisa decided to challenge herself and develop her writing skills with a Masters in “Journalism and Mass Communication” at the American University in Cairo.
At the moment Elisa is freelancing for a few local newspapers by writing stories on art, history and travel in the Middle East. Elisa has recently published for the monthly magazine Egypt and Middle East Life and the weekly newspapers Middle East Times and Cairo Times.
Please visit her personal web page a leave your comments: http//digilander.iol.it/middleastoday/index.htm .
(More about the writer.)
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