The legacy of Cairo's famous Cafe Riche is on the line

Osman El Sharnoubi , Friday 15 May 2015

The death of the manager of Cafe Riche leaves the fate of the hundred-year-old landmark in the balance

The interior of Cafe Riche (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

It is one of Cairo’s most famous coffee shops, perhaps the most notorious. Cafe Riche has been profusely mentioned in newspapers in the past week, after manager and co-owner Magdy Abdel-Malak passed away on 2 May.

The cafe has since been closed, leaving its regulars in fear that their custom of having a cup of tea or coffee or a cold beer in its warm wooden interiors, adorned with framed photos of some of Egypt’s iconic celebrities, may end.

Abdel-Malak’s passing has left the cafe/restaurant’s fate in doubt, as Magdy’s brother and only living sibling, resides outside of Egypt, and Riche’s prime spot on one of downtown Cairo’s main boulevards makes it a strong candidate for procurement by investors.

Ironically, the place’s notoriety isn’t matched by its popularity. Riche doesn’t offer a warm welcome to just anyone. It is mainly its regulars, who chiefly belong to Egypt’s cultural and intellectual circles, who are offered greetings and possibly even a seat at the shop’s rarely occupied inner area, and with no conditions. Others are often told to either order a main course, or leave.

But the cafe’s allure cannot be denied, derived from its fabled reputation as an enduring landmark of downtown for over an entire century, and a witness to the country’s many political upheavals, accommodating the intellectual activity that accompanied all of Egypt’s recent historical transformations.

Cafe Riche was established sometime between 1908 and 1914 by a French national and then passed down a string of foreigners until it was purchased by Magdy's father Abdel-Malak Mikhail Salib in 1962.

Cairo lore has it that Egyptian leader and former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser met with other members of the Free Officers movement at the cafe before overthrowing King Farouk I.

Testament to its reputation as an intellectual hub, Riche’s regulars included famed Egyptian poets and writers like Salah Jaheen, Amal Donkul and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who held regular cultural gatherings there.

In its early days, Riche hosted a small outdoor theatre where legendary singer Om Kalthoum sang and where Egypt’s era-defining folk singer Sayed Darwish is also said to have performed.

Award-winning Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, whose latest novel 'Cairo is Here' chronicles the transformations of several Cairo districts including downtown since the 1970s, went as far as to describe Riche as the place where Egypt’s modern literary trends are set. He thinks it played this role soon after its establishment.

“From the beginning of the 20th century, Riche hosted a garden where artists put on shows,” Abdel-Meguid told Ahram Online. “It became a meeting point for intellectuals.”

“The cafe was also a rallying point for Egypt’s revolutionaries and political activists,” he said.

Many spoke of a certain printing machine Abdel-Malak had preserved in Riche’s concealed basement, which they claimed had printed political pamphlets as early as Egypt’s 1919 revolution.

Anyone who has spent time at Riche speaks of a political spirit that permeated the space inside its antiquated wood and glass facade.

Journalist Mona Anis’ first time to go to Riche was in the late 1960s, and she remembers the occasional political vitality with clarity.

Anis recounts prominent intellectual Ibrahim Mansour’s arrest at Riche after an impassioned speech condemning Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in the 1970s, as well as literary critic Safinaz Kazem’s furious tirade against the arrest of her husband and poet Ahmed Fouad Negm.

Anis believes the place’s occasional closures -- every now and then for no clearly announced reason on the part of the Abdel-Malak family -- were due to trouble with authorities over such activity.

“By the 1980s, Riche had overstayed its welcome,” she said, referring to one of the longest periods the cafe was shut down.

While Anis doesn’t believe that Magdy Abdel-Malak was particularly welcoming of the political temperament of Riche’s clients, she nevertheless credits him with perpetuating it.

Magdy was constantly seen propped up at his desk at the helm of the cafe, keeping a watchful eye on its operation.

“Magdy should take credit for keeping Riche faithful to its past,” Anis told Ahram Online, saying that Riche’s character had remained unscathed, unlike its surroundings, since he took over the cafe’s management and reopened it in the 1990s.

“In its early days Riche wasn’t very different than many Western-style cafes/bars downtown, but now it’s unique,” Anis stated.

This legacy has Riches habitués worried about its future after Magdy’s death.

While the legal status of Riche is not clear as it is subject to an old rental law and is not owned by the Abdel-Malak family, some speculate Magdy’s rent moves to the next heir, his brother who lives in the United States.

Abdel-Meguid is afraid that the café’s fate being in the hands of the next heir is no guarantee to its safeguarding.

“It depends on what he [the brother] wants to do with it,” he said. “We really don’t know what will happen.”

Anis on the other hand has kept speculation at bay.

“I have prepared myself,” she said. “It’s ‘goodbye Riche’ for me.”


A woman passes by Cafe Riche after it closed its doors in May 2015 (Photo: Mai Shaheen)


Ahmed Taha El-Nakr, a retired journalist who has frequented Riche since the 1970s, is more hopeful.

El-Nakr has become part of an initiative conceived at Magdy’s funeral to ensure Riche’s preservation.

“It’s still in a very early phase, but the idea is to set up a company with the aim of buying Riche and preserving it,” he said.

El-Nakr is however keener to reach out to Egyptian officials he believes have the means to prevent the fall of the cafe in the wrong hands.

“Egypt’s constitution provides the basis to confiscate property for the public benefit, and Riche can be considered part of Egypt’s national heritage,” El-Nakr said.

“The civilised world buys history instead of selling it,” he argued. “Riche is an archive of a century-worth of history and part of Egypt’s national memory. It must be saved.”

As the building was handed down to Magdy after his father passed away according to an antiquated Egyptian rental law, it is anyone's guess whether the property's rental will be bestowed to Magdy's last living brother, and if so whether he'll relinquish it to the owners - Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment.

The company, whose staff weren't available for comment, had purchased the building as part of a project it is carrying out to buy many old buildings in downtown Cairo -- also known as the 'Ismaili' Cairo in reference to the Egyptian Khedive who built it in the 19th century -- to preserve their heritage in efforts to "revitalize" the capital's debilitated center.

Al-Ismaelia's CEO Karim Shafei has however told Mantiqti magazine that, despite Riche’s still unclear legal status, Al-Ismaelia is determined to preserve the cafe's old style and perpetuate its tradition of being the meeting point of writers and intellectuals.

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