The Café Sphinx in Cairo has been replaced by a shoe shop. The Café Al-Houriya was built in 1936 on the ruins of the house where leader of the 1882 Revolution Ahmed Orabi used to live in the previous century. The Indian Cultural Centre in Cairo of today was once the Indian Tea House.
This concise history of these and other cafes and tea rooms in Downtown Cairo is contained in the second part of late Egyptian novelist Mekkawi Said’s delightful book Moktaniat Wast Al-Balad (Downtown Acquisitions) that came out in 2010 from the publishers Al-Shorouk.
This close to 500-page book also contains a condensed resumé of apparently every single venue that the heart of the city had hosted over the course of the last century. The Cairo cinemas, bars, and nightclubs are all there, and so are the people that lay behind them.
The Café Souk Al-Hamidiya was the gathering place for anti-Nasser intellectuals who wished to revive the legacy of the Wafd Party during the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, for example. The Groppi’s tea rooms revolutionised the ice-cream industry in Egypt.
The first part of Moktaniat Wast Al-Balad is more about the people of Downtown Cairo than the places. Through a series of over 40 profiles of men and women he has known or simply frequented during his walks around the streets of the city or met in its cafes and restaurants, Said introduces his readers to some of the women and men who shared so much with the history of the city, including its joys, hopes, and disappointments.
There is Narges, for example, a Cairo University student in the 1980s, who would not allow the rising tide of conservatism in Egypt at the time to intimidate her. She did not allow the tragic loss of her fiancé to defy her for long. Eventually, however, she chose a fresh start and a more hopeful path in North America.
There is also Cezania, an eccentric but attractive woman who unfortunately does not take much note of the people she rubs shoulders with. She is killed at the hands of a fiancé who could not accept her untypical behaviour. After being acquitted of the charge of murder, the fiancé goes back to the same café to meet people who also knew Cezania.
Cafés are a permanent feature of many, if not most, of Said’s profiles in the first part of the book, entitled “The Book of the People” to differentiate it from the second, entitled “The Book of the Place”.
His 2018 publication, Al-Qahera wi Ma Fiha (“Cairo and What is in It”), published by the Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House, adds more texture to the 2010 account of a city in which Said lived out his life.
It is again the Downtown zone — “the honorary capital of Cairo” — that is the stage for Said’s 50 accounts recalling various times and stories. However, Said also at times ventures into the older quarters of the city that were also once part of the Downtown area.
The accounts in this book are mostly of prominent figures whose fortunes were made by virtue of having been in Cairo at certain points in time. Politicians, musicians, film stars, and journalists from the first two quarters of the 20th century are brought to life by a colourful narration that makes this volume almost like a photograph album.
In his introduction, Said laments the loss of a wealth of photographs of the city and its people by mostly foreign photographers who passed through the city or by Egyptian-Armenians whose families eventually left.
Al-Qahera wi Ma Fiha and Moktaniat Wast Al-Balad, according to Said, are his attempts to record the memories of the city before they are lost. “Our memories and our stories are the unwritten history of the city, and we should share them and publish them as much as we can,” he wrote in these volumes.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly