Throughout Egypt’s history, there has always been a very special relationship linking Egyptians and cafés.
Cafés have long been considered a main source of news, stories, songs and folkloric music or mawwal. In Cairo, Alexandria and other parts of Egypt, there are huge numbers of cafés, and their presence is an ancient phenomenon.
In Description de l’Egypte, the book written by French authors in the wake of the French Campaign in Egypt at the end of the 18th century, it is calculated that in Cairo there were some 1,200 cafés, with Old Cairo alone having 50 and Boulaq 105. In 1880, just two years before the British occupation of Egypt, Ali Pasha Mubarak, the then minister of public works and education, said there were 1,067 cafés in the Islamic city, with a further 252 in Ezbekiya.
Egyptians, known for their sense of innovation and creativity, have also been able to classify cafés. There have been cafés for effendis or fez-wearers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for Al-Azhar ulema, or religious scholars, for artists and for craftsmen. Cultural cafés have had to suit the tastes and ways of thinking of intellectuals, writers and poets, their main clientele. For such people, a café has long been a place to relax and to exchange thoughts.
According to historian Sameh Al-Zahhar, a specialist in Egypt’s Islamic and Coptic monuments, the traditional café is an inseparable part of Egypt’s heritage. They can act as museums, almost summing up life in Cairo.
The word café itself is the French word for coffee, known in Egypt since the 16th century when it faced boycott campaigns from men of religion who sometimes prohibited drinking it and claimed it was harmful for health. It was only in the 10th century after the Hegra, the flight of the Prophet Mohamed to Medina, that selling coffee was publicly allowed.
The British historian Edward Lane, who lived in Cairo in the early 19th century, described the city’s cafés in his famous book the “Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians”. A café was a small room with a wooden façade, Lane said, and in front there was an outdoor stone bench covered with a mat. He estimated its height at about two or three feet, like its width. A cup of coffee cost around five piastres, and shisha or hookah pipes were also available.
At certain cafés, hashish was sold, Lane said, and cafés were the perfect places to celebrate religious occasions. Musicians also used to go to cafés, where they sang and recited the folk epics of Antarah Ibn Shaddad, Abu Zeid Al-Hilali and other famous popular figures.
There were also historical cafés, like the Nubar Pasha café, named after the 19th-century Egyptian prime minister of Armenian origins. At the Nubar café, the prominent singer Abdu Al-Hamuli used to sing nearly on a daily basis. The Nubar café has now been replaced by the finance café next to the Ministry of Finance in Lazughli Square. The building of the ministry was once the residence of Ismail Pasha Al-Mofatesh, rumoured to be a stepbrother of the khedive Ismail.
In the Opera Square, there was once the central café, a kind of cultural salon. Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz held his cultural meetings there every Friday, but now the café has been turned into a residential building overlooking the Ibrahim Pasha statue in the square.
During the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, cafés were often similar to cultural salons. Signboards at the entrance displayed names related to the 1952 Revolution, and there were stands for magazines and newspapers. A radio set broadcast news and songs. This did not last for long, however. Today’s cafés have TV screens replacing the traditional radios.
Several famous cafés have also disappeared. One was the Matatya café behind the old Opera House that was burned in January 1952. Islamic and liberal reformers like sheikh Gamaleddin Al-Afghani and sheikh Mohamed Abdu, revolutionary leader Saad Zaghlul, prominent writer Abbas Al-Akkad and poet Ibrahim Al-Mazni were once clients of the Matatya café. Fortunately, there are still some historical cafés in Cairo, including Fishawi in Islamic Cairo and Riche in the Downtown area.
The question now is what will the modern cafés in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital look like? How will they be furnished? Will they have newspapers and magazines? Will they all have Internet access?
Will they be classified according to the categories of their customers, as was the case in the past? I think it will be difficult to do so. The issue is spontaneous and is related to the laws of supply and demand.
Perhaps before inaugurating the New Capital and selecting a name for it, the government could designate a group of artists to design an aesthetic look for it. These artists should be talented, of course, and before anything else they should be true lovers of Egypt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.