The eye of the café

Aziza Sami , Tuesday 2 Nov 2021

Maisoon Sakr, Café Riche: An Eye on Egypt, Nahdet Masr, 2021, pp653

Caf  Riche
Caf Riche

In a 653-page book replete with photographs, bibliographical references and historical documents, the Cairo based-Emirati poet Maisoon Sakr follows the evolution of Cairo as a city ever since, starting in 1863, Khedive Ismail undertook its expansion and mordernisation through a series of modern constructions. The architectural renaissance that ensued and the efficacy with which the city was administered at the turn of the 20th century garnered worldwide recognition; Cairo was seen as one of the most illustrious capitals in the Mediterranean region. The construction boom initiated by the Khedive Ismail became a backdrop for the social, political and cultural transformations that characterized Egypt at the end of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th.

Though essentially a biography of Café Riche, Sakr conceived her book with all this in mind. Before she begins to tell the story of European-style coffee shop, indeed, she tells the story of Khedive Ismail and how he created modern Cairo in almost encyclopaedic detail. The young prince, the grandson of Egypt’s Viceroy Muhammad Ali, came to power in 1863. Smitten with Europe and its progress, he initiated an ambitious project for the city’s renovation which began with transforming the swamplands, marshes and burial grounds in the area that is now downtown Cairo into wide avenues, parks and open spaces. The apogee was attained when the modern city emerged, continuously occupying the area from Muhammad Ali’s citadel in the east to the Ezbakiya gardens in the west.

The western part of the city was modelled on Paris, and a veritable army of European architects was recruited to bring it into being. In 1925 Cairo won an award for being “the most beautiful and cleanest of cities in the Mediterranean basin”. It received accolades for the elegance of its design, the cleanliness of its streets which were daily washed with soap, and the regular flow of its traffic. Ismail had transported Cairo from a medieval city reflecting Fatimid, Ottoman and Mameluke architectural styles into an urban centre showcasing the zenith of 19th-century European architecture. He did so, Sakr is at pains to point out, while giving specific injunctions for the preservation and conservation of the edifices and monuments of previous eras. The list of illustrious architects who contributed to building modern Cairo includes names such as Antonio Lasciac, Pietro Avoscani , Mario Rossi and Gaston Rossi.

Some 240 pages into the book the story of Riche begins: the date of its construction, its ownership and rental deeds and, even, its tax records are all reviewed in minute detail. A list of its consecutive owners (who technically speaking leased the coffee shop from the owner of the building housing it) is also provided, beginning with the Hungarian Bernard Steinberg, and ending with the Egyptian Abdel Malaak family, its current owners. In 1908 the apartment building that currently houses Café Riche was constructed. This was part of a renovation project that saw the clearing of villas and palaces that once occupied what is now Talaat Harb Square. In their stead a series of European-style apartment buildings were constructed, one of which was the-six storey edifice housing a famous coffee shop. The original deeds of the building cite that it included one such, with a garden, along with four shops.

The name Café Riche was given to the venue in 1914 by its then-owner Henri Ressigné, evoking Paris’s Grand Café Riche. Khedival Cairo now extended from Kasr El Nil Bridge to Ataba, this was its very heart, and it became the city’s pulsating centre of artistic, political, economic and social expression. The nearby Hotel Savoy was a foreigner’s hub with a small Egyptian presence gradually spreading through the residential areas of downtown Cairo. As a result of this, popular European-style cafes and traditional coffee shops began to proliferate. It was Egyptians who first patronised Café Riche, according to Sakr. As was the case with other downtown coffee shops such as Al-Borsa, Matatia, and Al-Liwa, Café Riche witnessed historic events related to the 1919 revolution and nationalist protests against the British occupation.

Thriving, historically significant establishments, the coffee shops were venues for intellectual interventions and discourses by literary figures of the stature of Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz. Their illustrious history notwithstanding, most were eventually closed for one reason or another. Sakr cites the instance of the Anglo bar and café which once stood on Sherif Street – it was named named after an older venue – being torn down to make way for a financial firm. Sakr cites these changes as testimony to economic and social transformations induced by President Sadat’s open-door policy implemented in the mid-1970’s. An even more recent closure was that of Al-Borsa café, which had been an important venue for protestors during the revolution of January 25, 2011 and was shut, ostensibly, for security concerns. In this context, of all Cairo’s coffee shops, Riche is unique in that it has been more or less continuously open  (barring relatively short periods of closure).

In 1919 Café Riche was the launch pad for a famed assassination attempt on the then Prime Minister Yusuf Wahba by Erian Yusuf Saad, who waited in the garden for the prime minister’s automobile to pass before throwing two bombs at it. Decades later the café owner Magdy Abdel Malaak arranged a reconciliatory meeting between the descendants of both Yusuf Wahba and Erian Yusuf. Café Riche was a rallying point during Student Movement protests in the 1970s, and a thriving meeting place for a whole generation of writers, authors and political activists. Throughout this time – notwithstanding municipal restrictions that reduced the café’s grounds and a current ambitious project to renovate Khedival Cairo that leaves its destiny in a precarious position, from the point of view of its owners at least – Café Riche continued to draw in a dedicated clientele.

For Sakr, its continued existence at 17 Talaat Harb Street is in itself a paradox. “Its very presence,” she writes, “remains a reminder of the discontinuity between past and present” that has continued to afflict contemporary Cairo over the years. The ever-changing scene in which buildings and venues remain under threat of removal or metamorphosis, undermining the presence or memory of the people and events they evoke, creates, for Sakr, “a present that is born without a history and without memories”.

Her book is a painstaking antidote to just that.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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