What lessons can the Eastern Mediterranean’s once-cosmopolitan cities teach us about our strife-torn present?
With the death earlier this month of Cafe Riche’s proprietor, Magdy Abdel-Malak, downtown Cairo’s most famous intellectual salon has shut its doors once again – this time, possibly permanently.
By so doing, it has gone from a place where significant chapters of Egypt’s modern political, intellectual, cultural and social history were written to become an iconic footnote in the country’s tumultuous modern history.
Though its dated glass-and-wood exterior is unremarkable to the 21st-century passer-by in the city of a thousand minarets and a cafe on every corner, Riche was at the throbbing heart of Egypt’s intellectual and political life for the greater part of the 20th century.
Riche dates back to what many Egyptians regard as Cairo’s belle epoque. Built in 1908 on the grounds of a former royal palace, it started life as a modest coffee shop for the inner city’s wealthy and well-heeled European and elite Egyptian residents.
Cairo’s belle epoque
It gained its name when a Frenchman briefly took over the cafe’s proprietorship. Just as Khedive Ismail had intended his new European-style capital to be a “Paris on the Nile” – almost bankrupting Egypt in the process – Cafe Riche was modelled on its Parisian namesake.
Open from 1785 to 1915, the French Cafe Riche was frequented by some of Paris’ literary and intellectual giants, including legendary writers Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, of “J’accuse” fame.
Cairo’s Cafe Riche became a similar cultural and intellectual magnet when it was taken over by Greek-Egyptian Michelle Nicola Bolitez, who was a lover and patron of the arts. He set up a theatre there that soon become one of the most well-known performance spaces in town.
The Cairo in which Riche established its glory was a dizzying city of bewildering contrasts and contradictions. It was a grand European metropolis just down the river from the ancient native city.
At once an inclusive multicultural melting pot, it largely excluded the local population who were forced to live by a separate set of laws.
An elitist playground for pashas and the nobility, its streets teemed with high-born and minority socialist and nationalist revolutionaries, including a number who barely spoke Arabic.
The city was also a space where the shoots of liberal democracy were kept from blossoming by the combined might of the palace and the British.
Cafe Riche was, in many ways, a microcosm of these different realities.
While well-to-do customers enjoyed the singing skills of the likes of then pro-royalist new talent Umm Kalthoum – who later became the legendary “Star of the Orient” – anti-British agitators printed pamphlets for the 1919 revolution in the cafe’s basement.
While well-to-do customers enjoyed the singing skills of the likes of then pro-royalist new talent Umm Kalthoum – who later became the legendary ‘Star of the Orient’ – anti-British agitators printed pamphlets for the 1919 revolution in the cafe’s basement.
And its involvement in political intrigues did not end there. In 1919, a young medical student sat patiently in wait of Prime Minister Youssef Wahba, who was a Riche regular, and as his car approached the young radical attempted but failed to assassinate him.
Back then, revolutionaries clashing with the British sometimes sought shelter inside Riche, which became a regular target of police raids. Nearly a century later, a different generation of revolutionaries, this time revolting against a native tyrant, also found refuge from the teargas-infused utopia of Tahrir Square.
It is reputed that Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his fellow Free Officers partly planned the 1952 revolution in Riche – though other downtown political cafes also claim that honour.
At first, the army’s coup gave a shot in the arm to Egypt’s native leftist and liberal intellectuals, revolutionaries and writers, including Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who held his literary court there for many years.
But these artists and intellectuals soon discovered that Egypt’s management had changed but its tolerance of free thought and dissent had not. Though remembered for his persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser was no more tolerant of secularists who disagreed with him, and his political prisons overflowed with communists, non-Nasserist leftists and old-school Wafdist liberals.
Riche, like downtown Cairo, entered a period of long decline. Anwar al-Sadat, in his bid to neutralise Nasserist influence, cracked down hard on leftists and embraced the Islamists (a decision which was to cost him and Egypt dearly).
Period of decline
This deprived the cafe of a significant portion of its clientele and those that remained drew in on themselves, disillusioned that their high hopes for Egypt had fallen so low, as the state turned on them and a growing current in society turned away from them. With nowhere left to gather, secular youth either went underground or fell into the cynical arms of apathy, while others rushed into the comforting embrace of Islamist certitude.
This led to a period of intellectual and political navel-gazing in which Riche became the “whole world”, in the words of poet Naguib Sorour, for the dwindling ranks of its oft-hard-drinking punters, for whom Sorour drafted a tongue-in-cheek “Protocols of the Wise Men of Riche”.
Naguib Mahfouz’s introspective 1983 novel “The Day the Leader was Killed” is partly set in Cafe Riche – which is described as a “refuge from the pain of loneliness” – and explores, through the allegory of numerous narratives, the theme of where Egypt’s post-independence experiment went wrong.
Hosni Mubarak’s tenure drove the last nail into the esteemed establishment’s coffin. In 1990, Cafe Riche closed under mysterious circumstances and was seriously damaged by the 1992 earthquake.
At the birth of the new millennium, I attended its reopening a decade later, during an art festival designed to revive downtown’s downtrodden cultural scene. Colloquial poet of the working class Ahmed Fouad Negm, who seriously lost his way in his final years, was, as his name suggests, the star of the evening. The man who once expressed unbridled contempt for what he viewed as Riche’s fat-cat intellectuals was its guest of honour.
As if to show he still possessed his famed irreverence, he read from his poem “Long live the people of my country” in which he ridiculed what he perceived as the empty rhetoric and detachment from reality of the Richesque, their impotence, and the ease and smugness with which they formulated glib solutions to the country’s woes.
Like Negm himself, the nouveau Riche was a poor imitation, even a parody of its former self. With its framed portraits of the lates and greats who frequented the establishment, it was like walking into a museum or a hall of fame and no longer a buzzing intellectual factory of the future.
At the time, I wondered in an article whether Riche would be able to resurrect its spirit and not just its ghost. Though it still managed to pull in some of the biggest names in Egypt’s intellectual scene, many found it had lost its touch and was far too elitist for Egypt’s more egalitarian young radicals.
Despite its rich history, or because of it, Riche managed to pull in far more tourists than members of the young and re-energised intelligentsia, apart from briefly during the revolution.
Unfortunate as it is in terms of Egypt’s cultural heritage, Riche’s closure will have only a marginal impact on downtown’s cultural scene. The young and creative have returned in droves in recent years, intent on reviving and reinventing Cairo’s heart. They have carved out their own alternative spaces, including art houses, street art and even old-style tea houses and shisha joints which attract not just radical young men but rebellious young women.
Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, writer and blogger. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He blogs at www.chronikler.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.