On May 2 2015 a Cairo legend has died Owner of Cafe Riche
ON JANUARY 25th 2011, a day that would enter Egypt’s very long annals, the streets of downtown Cairo were filled with ragged groups of protesters hiding from swirls of tear gas. Truncheons bounced off limbs and bullets zipped into puddles like lumps of sugar into coffee cups. This was the start of the 18-day protest that felled Hosni Mubarak, the country’s strongman.
Closed for yearly renovations
Watching from the sidelines were guests at Café Riche. Waiters in blue robes with gold trim delivered steaming pots of Turkish coffee and plates of grilled aubergine to wide-eyed smokers staring out of a window neatly inscribed, “Founded 1908”. For more than a century Café Riche has been a sanctuary for observers of Egyptian public life. Two blocks from Tahrir Square, the ground zero of the revolution, it sits among stately buildings from Cairo’s belle époque, conceived by European architects as a “Paris on the Nile”.
Magdy Abdel Malak at the door of Cafe Riche
Towering columns and idle balconies fill the district around Talaat Harb Street, as do newspaper offices, publishing firms and law chambers, all full of thirsty talkers. The café’s interior by contrast is intimate. In a city made of stone, from pyramids to flyovers, it prefers wood for its panelling and partitions, a darkly stained bar, a scratched trolley, a desk piled high with books.
Black-and-white pictures in wooden frames commemorate a past that has often revolved around the café’s guests. On December 15th 1919 a medical student, Iryan Yusuf Iryan, seated himself near the door and awaited the prime minister, a regular. When he arrived, so Iryan recalled later, “I exited the café and threw the first bomb at the car.”
The prime minister survived, yet Egypt slid into a nationalist revolt against de facto British rule. Battles raged outside the café’s doors and revolutionaries sought refuge among coffee-quaffing bohemians. The Riche’s basement became their lair. It had several little-known exits that connected to tunnels, built a century earlier when the surrounding land housed a palace, some said to lead all the way to Tahrir Square.
Today one can still descend to the vaulted cellar and inspect two wooden panels—one holding glasses behind a well-stocked bar—that may be unlocked with a small key and pivoted from floor to ceiling to permit a discreet exit. Police raids on the Riche have always been remarkably unsuccessful, though frequent in the 1920s. The revolutionaries operated a printing press on the premises, spewing out pamphlets that excoriated British occupiers and their puppets. The press is still there.
In 1922, after nationalist protests paralysed the country, Egypt was granted independence. King Farouk lead the country during the second world war, though Brits still lurked in the background. Many Egyptians regarded the king as corrupt and ineffectual. They derided his ample girth and well-known collection of pornography. He yearned for popular approval, even announcing that he met his second wife, a commoner, at Café Riche.
The hapless king might also have met the man there who would eventually depose him. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted his coup over cardamom-scented coffee at the Riche. He struck in 1952, proclaiming national liberation and severing the strings of Western puppet-masters. He was assisted by a group called the “Free Officers” who for a while were helped by the CIA, which had first supported but then soured on the king, codenaming the plot to ditch him “Project FF [Fat Fucker]”.
Intellectuals, spies and politicians mingled at the Riche. Plans were hatched, alliances forged, screeds written. “We continued to discuss in the café what we started in the newspapers,” says Kamel Zuheiry, a columnist and 1960s regular. The one constant during decades of caffeinated talk was the question of how far Egypt would embrace Western norms. The regulars divided into turban-wearers (traditionalists) and fez-wearers (modernisers), even if few of them actually wore headgear.
The Riche attracted mostly the latter. Yet it was only one of several cafés in downtown Cairo, all bubbling with political fervour. Each was at times its own pseudo-political party (official ones were outlawed from 1953-76). Views on politics and the law were frequently ascertained with reference to where one took the black brew. The Riche was home to moderate leftists, just shy of Marxism and militancy. Revolution was never far away. One contemporary, Ibrahim Aslan, recalled tiresome pamphleteering. “Each person took a sheet of paper and folded it over a piece of carbon paper and copied out the written statement and made two copies and then tore the sheets in half and put them on the stack on the table. Others…in the back of the café were forced to sit cross-legged and copy things using their knees as tables.” (Thank goodness for laser printers and Twitter, as one observer said this year.)
Unlike many of its competitors the Riche served alcohol, and still does today. It was, after all, founded by a German (or possibly Austrian), who sold it to a Frenchman, who was later succeeded by a string of Greeks, including the one-time cook at the British consulate. For many years he battled local police chiefs over permits to stage open-air concerts on adjacent land. The chiefs feared that lavish shows might compromise the security (or perhaps morality) of junior officers at nearby quarters. But the permission was won, and the café attracted a glittering array of musicians over the years. Umm Kalthoum, the grand diva of Egypt, gave one of her first performances in Cairo in 1923 on a foot-high stage at the Riche.
After Nasser took over, the café became the favourite haunt of artists and writers. The mood was creative. Waiters assumed the names of ancient poets. “It made us feel we were moving in a cultural milieu,” said Ahmed Abdul, a novelist. Taha Hussein, the “dean of Arabic literature”, started the journal Al-Katib Al-Misri from the café. Abla al-Roweny, a literary editor, became one of the earliest female regulars. To her the café was “one of the nicest places for lovers’ encounters”, although “unrelenting stares” made it a difficult place to walk into.
Though initially hailed as a popular revolt, the Nasserite coup turned out to be little more than a military power grab. Popular opinion counted for little. Behind the rhetoric of national liberation lurked an increasingly nasty police state. The military hunted its enemies where it could find them. Youssef Abu Rayya, a regular at the Riche, captured the feel of the era in a book entitled “The Coffeehouse Closes Its Doors”. It describes a police state that controls the streets yet fails to penetrate places like the Riche, “where one finds redemption, ideas, human comfort, intellectual succour, awareness”.
Others felt even the Riche was no longer safe. Ahmed Shawki, a journalist and long-time patron of the café, described a rising chill in the 1960s. “We were whispering,” he said. “Political issues were not welcome. Some of the journalists were reported to the police and removed.”
Yet the Riche was still a fount of inspiration. Scribblers like Shawki came to meet older, established writers. “We used to see these people there and we were with them—these big shots. We just listened to them.” One of them was Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel laureate and the grand old man of Egyptian letters. He would turn up every day at 6pm and order two cups of Turkish coffee and drink half of each; nobody could fathom why. On Fridays he held a literary salon. “The Riche became our weekly gathering place for several years—discussions, conversations, whatnot,” he said.
In protest against the regime—its corruption and “two-facedness”—Mahfouz refused to publish his books in Egypt. But he did not stop writing. He based an entire novel, “Karnak Café”, on the Riche and its guests and the stories they told him. (For a while thereafter the café carried a sign saying “Karnak” above its door.) The book describes student activists who are arrested by security men, raped and tortured in prison and then forced to become informers—manipulated, violated and robbed of their dreams. “During my evenings at Riche coffeehouse,” said Mahfouz, who died in 2006, “I used to listen to many things which people repressed. Had I not written them, they would have been lost. So I wrote.”
Shut out of the public arena, some of the regulars ended up writing exclusively about each other. “The whole world is Café Riche,” announced Naguib Surur, a poet, in 1977, “where everyone drowns their shame in the voids of their glass tumblers.” He drafted what he called the “Protocols of the Wise Men of Riche”, a poem satirising his companions.
• We said it all—in vino veritas
• But people
• Had other concerns:
• Their daily bread
• A kilo of meat.
The tone at the Riche changed during the 1970s. After Anwar Sadat, another military man, took over from Nasser, artists and intellectuals felt more isolated than ever. Ahmad Fouad Negm, a well-known poet and lyricist, derided the regulars as “preening and pompous, glib and loquacious, never going to demos and never mixing with crowds”.
• Long live the intellectual at the Riche Café
• Hurray hurray hurray
• Stuck up and sleazy
• A bag full of words
• With a few empty ones and a few terms
• He fabricates quick solutions to distant problems.
Under Nasser and Sadat, intellectual life at the Riche withered. Under Mr Mubarak, who took over after Sadat’s assassination by Islamic extremists in 1981, it died. Yasser Arafat still dropped in when he visited a Palestinian radio station next door. The walls were decorated with oblique cartoons showing the political elite wincing, blushing, sneering, seething. But regulars no longer charted the course of history or forged a national identity between puffs on imported cigarettes. Tables had had ears for too long, with loudmouths locked up under emergency laws.
The Riche also faced dastardly new competitors, from sports bars and foreign chains to low-rent hookah joints and latterly the internet. An earthquake in 1992 led to its closure for several years, prolonged by a dispute with officials who tried to evict the café on behalf of crony developers. The city all around the Riche was changing from belle époque to brutalist. Cement was poured for new malls and mosques. Neon lights and neo-pharaonic ironwork festooned the cityscape. Talaat Harb Street became crowded with vendors and parked cars.
A front-row seat on the making of history
When the Riche reopened, it morphed from a handmaiden of modernity into a refuge from it. The old clientele had died or gone abroad. Tourists in search of an older, more picturesque Cairo filled the tables. A growing number of black-and-white mementos on the walls drew them in.
The owners struggled with what they regarded as their mission handed down by history—to protect the haunt of Mahfouz and the other greats. They were Egyptians. The last foreign owners had sold out in 1962, a decade after Nasser’s nationalisation drive that made Europeans feel increasingly unwelcome. With the Suez Canal returned to Egyptian hands, so did Café Riche. Abdel Malak, a frequent customer, bought the lease. His sons Magdi and Michel own it today.
To raise the tone of the place, or the revenues, depending on whom you ask, they introduced a new menu. Next to coffees and spirits it now featured entrecôte and cannelloni (for fez-wearers) and kebab and stuffed vine leaves (for turban-wearers). The owners were keen to keep out the riffraff. Magdi, as the white-haired patrician owner is universally known, started sitting by the front door to vet who comes in.
“It would not be right to give a table to just anyone who wants to have a cup of coffee,” says Filfil, the longest-serving waiter. A dark-skinned Nubian, born in a village in Upper Egypt, he came to Cairo during the second world war and has worked at the café since 1943. “Magdi has a philosophy,” he says. “When a man enters with a woman to drink coffee, he evaluates them. He says I don’t want money, I want good people. I can’t have people come here who do improper things like hold each other.”
Many of the younger guests chafed at the stuffiness of the place. They found the elders small-minded and conservative, keen on gossip rather than reform. The café was failing its revolutionary past, they felt. It had become elitist and irrelevant. Hoda Baraka, a 28-year-old environmental activist, says, “The first time I went to the Riche as a student it felt like a museum. The owners were trying to show off with all the pictures of famous people. They were living in a bubble, in the past.”
Still, younger Egyptians continued to come, especially students from the nearby American University, some of whom ended up writing a book about the café that is soon to be published by the university press. The sale of alcohol attracted them, as did the café’s illustrious history. And they appreciated Magdi’s ability to shoo away secret policemen. Discussing politics was still easier here than elsewhere. Mohamed Menza, a 32-year-old political organiser, says, “I started going to the Riche as a student in 1998. There were glimpses of a revolutionary past that gave us hope that things could change one day. We looked at the pictures on the walls and thought: why not today?”
When spring came
On January 25th, the first day of the protests, Mr Menza arrived in the square expecting to see 200 people and instead found more than 20,000. He went back daily. “We talked openly with strangers in the square, organising ourselves. That was the beauty of it. There was little plan or leadership.” He helped to bring medical supplies and rescued people caught between the lines, regardless of the risks. “Attacks from security thugs were severe,” he says. “I saw someone with a rifle shooting directly at protesters.” In the middle of all this Mr Menza was reminded of his conversations with Magdi. “He often talked about the revolutions of the past and the café’s role in them. In Tahrir Square we felt a resonance with 1919 and 1952.” After the revolution Mr Menza co-founded a national political party.
Mrs Baraka also ended up in the square and back at the Riche. “The café once again became an extension of politics during the revolution,” she says. “It felt like a replica of Tahrir Square. You saw the people from the square at the table next to you a few hours later. They had a meal and continued their discussions. There were gunshots all around us and a lot of people were killed. We were very lucky.”
Filfil, who has worked in the café since 1943
Three bullet holes stare back from the café’s shutters. On one of the most violent days, February 2nd, security goons and protesters clashed right outside the Riche, knives littering the street. The injured were bandaged at the café and then transferred to an impromptu clinic nearby.
The police erected road blocks at both ends of Talaat Harb Street. At times they fired when they saw guests coming out of the café. They even tried to break in, unsuccessfully. The door was locked. “Inside we were first terrified, then jubilant,” says Hassan Ibrahim, a 51-year-old film-maker who first came to the café when he was three, started and ended his first love affair there and still comes every day that he is in Cairo. In 1977 he was arrested during food riots right outside the café and incarcerated for five days. “They beat us and hosed us down. This was in January and a bit nippy. Little has changed in the intervening 34 years, except this time we won.”
Some older guests at the café joined the youths in the square. After his regular coffee, Ashraf Bayoumi, a political writer, declared, “I am heading towards Tahrir Square now because the revolution is not finished yet.” Magdi’s 17-year-old nephew Andrew, the likely next owner of the café, also joined in. “I went outside with a camera to document what was happening and the police started chasing me.”
Hussein Gohar, a café regular and well-to-do gynaecologist with a house on the Nile, treated protesters for nothing, shuttling back and forth to the square. He also gave health advice on Twitter, telling pregnant women that tear gas would not harm their babies and that they could still demonstrate. “Sometimes there were fights right outside the café and we would watch. The door would fly open and someone would come running in, either injured or fleeing the authorities. The Riche was a shelter. When it got especially hot, the shutters would come rattling down and we’d be locked in.”
The Riche is more vibrant than it has been at any time in the past three decades
During the worst days the café was officially closed but nonetheless full of people. Magdi often served coffee until two or three in the morning, cups piled on top of placards. Older intellectuals gave younger people advice on how to avoid violence. A judge sympathetic to the protesters kept a table. There were chattering groups of writers, diplomats and professors. Shortly before the regime was toppled, several leaders of the military police came to the Riche in civilian clothes to talk to protesters, to apologise for the use of excessive force, trying to negotiate. In vain. On February 11th Mr Mubarak fell. For once the café was quiet.
Everyone had stormed down to the square to celebrate.
Almost a year later the Riche is more vibrant than it has been at any time in the past three decades. The revolution brought in new blood. A parliamentary candidate from the Adl (Justice) Party held an election rally at the café in October. Young guests are coming in greater numbers. Ahmed al-Sukari, an engineer who handled logistics for the protesters in the square from the café, is now a regular.
Cairo’s ailing café culture is making a comeback. Secret policemen are gone and political debates once again catch fire from table to table. Forgotten tribes reassemble, claiming they never really went away. The city still has more cafés than mosques. Napoleon in his day counted 1,350 in what was known as the City of a Thousand Minarets. Now there are tens of thousands of cafés, keeping pace with the rising number of Cairenes.
Yet the Riche’s future is by no means assured. Since the revolution, developers have bought 40 buildings in the area, including the Riche’s. They say they have no plans to knock it down and replace it with a high-rise, but Magdi is worried. New rulers all too often crave new monuments.
The Riche is also facing new competitors. Many young revolutionaries prefer the carnival atmosphere of the Boursa Café, a nearby jumble of hundreds of plastic chairs that has sprung up in a maze of streets around the stock exchange. Waiters dart in and out of narrow doors, serving various proprietors. Graffiti says “People demand the removal of the regime”, next to pictures of young martyrs. Rap music wafts over the tables. Graphic novels are passed around. Barbs and laughs are exchanged by text message. A female activist is wearing an earring with the word “no” written in Kufic script that might not be welcome at the Riche.
A cultural revolution is accompanying the political one. Young Egyptians are trying to remake not only government but also literature, music, philosophy, even comedy. Some think of it as counter-jihad, a struggle to reclaim culture from holy warriors as well as from stuffy officials. And like the greats, Mahfouz et al, they need coffee to banish lethargy and incite rage. The choice of locales available to them is growing rapidly. New cafés pop up on street corners. With the government in disarray, planning permissions are easy to come by, or even more easily ignored.
Politics as well as commerce is causing worries at the Riche. The patrons at Magdi’s table—he holds court with a plastic fly-swatter for a sceptre—are concerned about the prospects for free speech. One regular, the television journalist Yosri Fouda, was bullied off the air for a while in October. Bloggers are still jailed. The main topic of conversation is the possibility of a counter-revolution. The revolutions of 1919 and 1952 both exchanged one despot for another. Will 2011 be the same?
It is far too early to tell, for the revolution of 2011 is still happening. Islamists, Copts and students of every political colour rally in Tahrir Square on many weekends. Policemen demonstrate in front of the interior ministry, demanding the removal of old regime figures. Lawyers from the Bar Association strike, demanding the purging of the judiciary. It has been like this all year. In April a military officer who had turned against the high command was killed just around the corner from the Riche. Large demonstrations thronged Talaat Harb Street in July and October. Just before the first tranche of protracted elections took place in November, the square was barricaded by tens of thousands of protesters and gun-toting police. After them, the Islamists’ success in the poll loomed large.
The revolutionary spirit is alive, says one regular staring at darkly stained newspapers. “But where will it lead?”
Umm Kalthoum watches over the patrons
“Rule by Islamists.”
“Bring back the generals.”
“Make them face elections.”
Almost everything has changed in the past year in Cairo, except that Magdi still convenes a large table of friends every Friday, lubricating conversation with Spanish omelettes, flatbread, falafel and his best roast-bean brew.
Patrons At The Funeral of Magdi Abdel malak