It was the late 1930s and another European war was threatening to spill over into North Africa. But few of the conversations at the tables of the Parisiana would have been concerned with the events unfolding elsewhere. The fashionable downtown Cairo restaurant was where the chic and aspirational came to see and be seen, to gossip and to seal deals over drinks and an internationally-flavoured menu, featuring, among other things, Swedish meatballs and Turkish doner kebob.
Located on what was then called Alfi Bey Street, below the legendary (and still standing) Windsor Hotel, and just a stone’s throw from the famous (but no more) Cinema St. James, Parisiana was a social feature of British-occupied Egypt. It was where stylish Cairenes clad in the latest European fashions, pre-revolution-era ‘bright young things’, bons vivants, local businessmen, expatriates, and British officers mingled.
In her 2007 bestselling memoir The man in the White Sharkskin Suit, American author Lucette Lagnado describes it as a place where different languages were “spoken at different tables, sometimes in the same conversation and even in the same sentence”. It was where her Jewish-Egyptian parents met and fell in love.
A couple of years ago, I learned by chance that my maternal great-grandfather, Kapriel Ayrandjian, had been the restaurant’s owner; a character somewhat akin to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in the film Casablanca. Parisiana may not have hosted Nazis and Slavic resistance leaders (although, who can say for sure?), but it certainly had its share of shady patrons.
Kapriel was probably a native of Egypt, but as an Ottoman Armenian, he was considered foreign. Ottoman Armenians hailed from towns that are today part of modern-day Turkey. In the 19th century, when Egypt was still an Ottoman province, it wasn’t uncommon for their subjects to migrate to the big cities of Cairo, Alexandria or the bustling Port Said.
My mother, who immigrated to Canada from Egypt in the early 1960s, rarely spoke of her family’s history. She was, unlike most Armenian emigrés, a woman who lived in the present; refusing to indulge in too much nostalgia about the past and happily embracing her new Canadian identity. After all, she had opted to leave post-revolution Egypt and its hardships, so why look back?
When she died in 2007, I knew practically nothing about her family.
But years later, when my father mentioned in passing the family connection to Parisiana, I contacted my mother’s first cousin, Armen Varteressian. He turned out to be an epic raconteur of stories about colourful ancestors who led interesting lives during troubled times. He emailed me this photograph of Kapriel, his wife Serpouhie and their children (among them my grandmother) and shared several family stories I’d never previously heard. But it was the one about how Kapriel narrowly avoided prison that most gripped my imagination. It is a tale of war-time intrigue, misplaced confidence in a British soldier and a clairvoyant wife.
Here’s how my cousin Armen told it:
“A British soldier who was a frequent customer at Parisiana approached grandpa and asked him if he could store some items in the basement of the café. He had collected some memorabilia during his tour, he explained, and would be grateful if grandpa could store them in his basement until the end of the war. Grandpa, a kind and cooperative sort, agreed. He never said a word to anyone else about it.
Some weeks later, grandma awoke in the middle of the night and shook grandpa awake.
‘What is it, woman? Why are you waking me up at 2am?’
‘You have something in the basement of your café that does not belong there. You need to get it out immediately,’ grandma replied.
‘What are you talking about?’ asked grandpa.
‘Someone gave you something to keep in your basement, and you need to get rid of it now,’ said grandma.
‘Okay, okay,I’ll get to it in the morning.’
‘No. You must go there right this instant and get those things out of your basement, whatever they are.’
Arguing with grandma was futile, so grandpa called his brother, who brought his truck to Parisiana at three in the morning. He and grandpa loaded the truck with the British soldier’s items, and grandpa’s brother drove away. Grandpa locked up the café and went back home. That morning, as he was having his coffee, there was a knock at the door, and he opened it to find a couple of British military police.
‘We’re sorry to bother you, sir, but we need to search your café. There has been a report of stolen artefacts, and we have reason to believe they are being stored in your establishment.’
Grandpa of course said ‘no problem, you are welcome to search my café’, and accompanied the soldiers to Parisiana, where their search, obviously, revealed no stolen items. They apologised and went on their way.
Who knows what would have happened to grandpa had he been found guilty of harbouring stolen items, although it certainly would not have been good.
That episode added mightily to grandma’s reputation – both as a crackpot and a psychic.”
Kapriel eventually lost the restaurant – it was most likely confiscated in the nationalist frenzy of the 1952 revolution. A few years ago, William Doss, the businessman who bought the Windsor Hotel in 1962, told Andrew Humphreys, author of the book Grand Hotels of Egypt, that he thought Parisiana had been closed down after the revolution because it was “foreign-owned”.
“The premises became a showroom for a government cooperative of furniture makers and then later were taken over by the ministry of communications,” Humphreys told me.
Kapriel died in Cairo shortly after, and most of his family left Egypt for the US and Canada.
Reflecting on the story, I marvelled over how these long-dead ancestors – about whom I had known nothing until my second cousin started to share their stories with me – continue to live on in strange and unexpected ways. What would they think if they knew that my brother now runs a popular bistro-cum-bar in Montreal (where he, too, is often seen as ‘foreign’) and that I routinely look for hidden meanings and messages of impending doom in my dreams?
At a time when the entire Middle East appears to be falling apart, perhaps there is some value in looking back. The cosmopolitan Cairo of yesteryear that lives on in the collective memory of Egyptian emigrés was far from perfect, but their stories can sometimes show us that while many things may have changed, others remain the same. So in a sense, we’ll always have Parisiana.
Everybody comes to Parisiana appeared in the latest issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine, What this picture means to me. For more compelling human stories, download it here for iPads and iPhones and here for Android devices