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Le Cafe Riche

“Read 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!”

By
Elisa Pierandrei
Elisa Pierandrei - Click to Enlarge

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. 

Today, after 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”.

“Moreover, Café 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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About Elisa Pierandrei
Elisa Pierandrei - Click to Enlarge

Elisa 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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