Cairo is a city with a rich café tradition, and those in search of a spot to gather have no shortage of options.
The culture of the modern western-styled café started in Cairo’s central Azbakeya neighbourhood. Photographs from the period show that these cafés typically had a similar facade characterised by a wooden screen that separated the inner space where the drinks were prepared and the outdoor space where the clients sit and smoke their shishas or play backgammon.
Two books offer some more information on the history of these sites: Maqahy Al-Qahira (”The Cafés of Cairo”) by Abdel-Moneim Shemeis and the other Maqahy Al-Safwa Wal-Harafish (“The Cafés of the Select”) by Eid Abdel-Halim. According to these two works, Cairo’s cafés had specialties often sorted according to the profession of their customers. For instance, the craftsmen's cafés were spread around the Citadel area, the musicians' cafés were on Muhammad Ali Street, while the intellectuals’ cafés were in Al-Azhar district, with Al-Fishawi Café being one of the few still-existing examples.
Before the age of cinemas and radios, traditional Middle Eastern cafés offered a form of light entertainment.
At such venues it was not uncommon to find khayal el-zyl (shadow puppets), ghawazi (street dancers) and hakawaty (story-tellers) recountingal-Sirra al-Hilaliya (Folk Epic of Helalya), Zahir Baybars (Epic of Folk Hero Zaher Baybars) and Antara ibn Shaddad (Folk Arab Legend) on al-Rabbaba, (A folk musical instrument that usually accompanies story tellers to provide a musical background to their tales).
Below, Ahram Online takes a look at some snapshots showing the history of Cairo’s cafés.
Azbakeya open café
Azbakeya Park was home to Santi cafe, reputed for being one of the places where Om Kalthoum once sang in the early years of her career.
Santi in Azbakeya Park
Attaba Square, right behind the Khedivial/Royal Opera, had its own flavour of cafés, among them the legendary Mattatia café, named after the Greek owner of the nineteenth-century building in which it was located, sadly no longer standing.
Mattatia café was originally known as the Post Café. It was frequented by historical figures such as Gamal El-Din El-Afghani, Abdallah El-Nadim, Muhammad Abdu, Yacoub Sanu, Saad Pasha Zaghloul, Abbas El-Aqqad, and Naguib Mahfouz, among others.
Next to Mattatia was another famous venue, El-Mukhtalata café. It was named after the Mixed Courts building that was extant in the square until the 1930s.
Attaba El-Mukhtalata Trinunal Mixte
Traditional Arabian café
Traditional Arabian café
Tahrir used to be home to two gathering places that are still remembered by older Cairenes — Astra café, in the iconic Bahary Building which has overlooked Tahrir Square since the thirties, and the Issaiwitch Cafe, named after it's owner, probably an eastern European citizen, who operated a famous ful outlet in the round building at the corner of Tahrir Square and Talaat Harb Street.
The only remaining traditional café on Tahrir Square is that opposite the Egyptian Museum. Tahrir Cafe, founded in 1933 by the Mahrous family, oddly enough is not known to be a gathering place for intellectuals nor for the tour guides and archeologists of the museum.
Instead, in the last decade, the youth and artists have started to gather in the set of cafés that mushroomed in the neighbourhood behind El-Nasseya Madrassa, a former prince’s palace.
A taste of the music of the era: By Naima El-Masrya
Photos courtesy Ola R. Seif
Music courtesy of Essmat El-Nemr