Book Review: Café Riche, a history of modern Cairo

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Wednesday 22 Jun 2022

Maqha Riche: Ain Ala Misr (Cafe Riche: An Eye on Egypt), by Maisoon Sakr, (Cairo: Nahdet Misr Publishing), 2021

Cafe Riche: an Eye on Egypt

Yaeish El Mosaqaf Ala Maqha Riche (The Intellectual Lives in Café Riche) was a song written by Ahmed Fouad Negm and sung by El-Sheikh Imam in the 1970s. Both of them were considered political dissidents and their songs and poetry were banned for decades.

The song resurfaced during the 2011 revolution, and all those who took to the streets during the 18 glorious days that toppled the Mubarak regime learned various revolutionary songs, Maqha Riche being among them. Almost everyone learned that there was a Café Riche somewhere downtown Cairo and its clientele were intellectuals. 

Maisoon Sakr wrote Maqha Rich: Ein ala Masr (Café Riche: An Eye on Egypt), which is not just a book, but a historical and literary reference about modern Cairo. She discusses the city’s history, architectural style, how it was built, developed, and who were the main developers, architects, and inhabitants. It starts with Mohamed Ali Pacha, the founder of the Egyptian modern royal family, and passes by Ismael Pacha and his idea to build a European capital for Egypt. At the heart of the book is the societal, cultural, and political landmark Café Riche.

When tackling such a book, the question arises as which to examine first, the material or the writer. Sakr is an Emarati writer who fits in Egypt as much as she belongs to her fatherland. She loves Egypt and is present strongly through her work in Egyptian cultural circles. She embarked on the project in 2013 and it saw the light in its final form in 2021. After nearly a decade of dedicated, passionate work, her determination was rewarded when she won the Sheikh Zayed award in literature in 2022. She produced an encyclopedic book that will certainly be referred to when talking about the social history of Egypt. 

Sakr writes an introduction explaining her philosophy in writing about Café Riche and the importance of remaining neutral in telling the various stories of its clients. She recalls the same story from various perspectives and narrators, dismissing some of them in order to reach the truest version of the story, yet keeping the not-so-accurate stories to convey a passion that can be easily felt. 

In her introduction, the author explains that the cafe functions as a place for leisure on one hand and a place where cultural and political changes have taken place. According to her description, the stories she discovered seem like tales from Arabian Nights. Each story opens doors to more stories and details that were previously hidden. Maisoon unravels the Labyrinth of the intertwined political, societal and artistic modern history of Egypt by telling the story of one of Cairo’s landmarks. After reading this book, the reader will not be able to imagine Cairo’s chronicle without Café Riche and the informal history that took place there.  

The writer widens the scope of the book to include the city’s history, the wide squares and their original names, who built it and how it gradually became an elegant town during Khedive Ismail’s time. She also talks about the various cafes and their types – whether modern or traditional – the main mosque and churches, the main streets and roads and when they were built and their naming process. For example, today’s Tahrir Square was originally named Ismailiyah Square after Khedive Ismail.

She included many more details that most of the city’s inhabitants may not be aware of. They read about events and watch scenes in black and white movies and do not realise that these events and scenes took place on streets that they walk along and in the buildings they pass by on a daily basis. 

There are many interesting details regarding espionage networks, political assassination attempts, and the restaurant Groppi where Ezra Weitzman, the former president of Israel, would have breakfast when he fought for the British forces during WWII – and according to personal sources, he revisited the place and had breakfast there during one of his official visits to Egypt.

The one story that most Egyptians believe concerns Abu El Ella Bridge that connects Zamalek and downtown Cairo. The urban myth was that the bridge – built fully in iron – was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the French architect who built the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and that it would not open for the long sail boats that travelled the Nile. The story goes that he committed suicide by throwing himself in the Nile due to his failure. The author researched this story and discovered that the bridge was built by a French company named Fives – Eiffel had nothing to do with the design or construction of the bridge.

Café Riche was established in 1908 and was named after Paris’ famous Grand Café Riche – which is still operating today. The author went through the different owners of Riche and the restoration that took place after Egypt’s famous earthquake of 1992. During that renovation and restoration, a secret room was discovered with an old printer in it. From examining the machine, it is believed that the publications of the 1919 revolution were printed there. 

The author revealed that iconic singer Um Kulthum performed in Café Riche in the 1920s when artistic shows were common at the time. Naguib Mahfouz, the only Egyptian writer to win a Nobel Prize in literature, had his weekly meeting with his friends and counterparts in Riche in the 1960s. Foreign correspondents used the cafe as centre for their operations during WWI and WWII as well as during the 2011 revolution. Writers, journalists, and poets frequented the cafe for their meetings and leisure, and some of them used it as their mailing address.

Sakr writes Cairo’s history through the eyes of one place and uses geography to complete the panoramic view of the city, its cultural circle and the informal history of events, whether social or political. An ambitious attempt in which she actually succeeded.

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