Book review: Café Riche, a history of modern Cairo – Reviews – Books
Yaeish El Mosaqaf Ala Maqha Riche (Intellectual Lives at Café Riche) was a song written by Ahmed Fouad Negm and sung by El-Sheikh Imam in the 1970s. Both were considered political dissidents and their songs and poetry were banned for decades.
The song resurfaced during the 2011 revolution, and everyone who took to the streets during the glorious 18 days that toppled the Mubarak regime learned various revolutionary songs, including Maqha Riche. Almost everyone learned that there was a Café Riche somewhere in downtown Cairo and that its clientele was made up of 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 on modern Cairo. She discusses the history of the city, its architectural style, its construction, its development and the main promoters, architects and inhabitants. It starts with Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of the modern Egyptian royal family, and goes through Ismael Pasha 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 of who to examine first, the material or the author. Sakr is an Emarati writer who fits in as much with Egypt as with her homeland. She loves Egypt and is strongly present through her work in Egyptian cultural circles. She embarked on the project in 2013 and it saw the light of day in its final form in 2021. After nearly a decade of dedicated and passionate work, her determination was rewarded when she won the Sheikh Zayed Prize from literature in 2022. She has produced an encyclopedic book that will certainly be referred to when discussing the social history of Egypt.
Sakr writes an introduction explaining his philosophy in writing about Café Riche and the importance of remaining neutral when telling the different stories of his customers. She tells the same story from different angles and narrators, discarding some of them in order to achieve the truest version of the story, while keeping the not-so-accurate stories to convey a passion that can be easily felt.
In his introduction, the author explains that the café functions as a place of leisure on the one hand and a place where cultural and political changes have taken place. According to her description, the stories she discovered sound like tales from One Thousand and One Nights. Each story opens doors to more stories and details that were previously hidden. Maisoon unveils the Labyrinth of Egypt’s intertwined political, societal and artistic modern history by telling the story of one of Cairo’s landmarks. After reading this book, the reader will not be able to imagine the chronicle of Cairo without the Café Riche and the informal history that took place there.
The author expands the scope of the book to include the history of the city, the wide squares and their original names, who built it and how it gradually became an elegant city during the time of Khedive Ismail. She also talks about the different cafes and their types – whether modern or traditional – the mosque and main churches, main streets and roads, when they were built and their naming process. For example, today’s Tahrir Square was originally called Ismailiyah Square in honor of Khedive Ismail.
She included many more details that most of the townspeople might not be aware of. They read about events and watch scenes from black and white movies and fail to realize that those events and scenes took place in the streets they walk and in the buildings they pass through daily.
There are many interesting details about spy rings, political assassination attempts and the Groppi restaurant where Ezra Weitzman, the former president of Israel, ate breakfast while fighting for British forces during the war. World War II – and according to personal sources, he revisited the place. and had lunch there during one of his official visits to Egypt.
The only story that most Egyptians believe concerns the Abu El Ella Bridge that connects Zamalek and downtown Cairo. The urban myth was that the bridge – built entirely of 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 sailboats that traveled the Nile . The story goes that he committed suicide by jumping into the Nile because of his failure. The author researched this story and found 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 the famous Grand Café Riche in Paris – which is still in operation today. The author reviewed the various owners of Riche and the restoration that took place after the famous 1992 earthquake in Egypt. During this renovation and restoration, a secret room was discovered with an old printer. Looking at the machine, it is believed that the publications of the 1919 revolution were printed on it.
The author revealed that iconic singer Um Kulthum performed at Café Riche in the 1920s, when artistic performances were common at the time. Naguib Mahfouz, the only Egyptian writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, had his weekly meeting with his friends and counterparts in Riche in the 1960s. Foreign correspondents used the cafe as a center for their operations during the First and Second World War II as well as during the 2011 revolution. Writers, journalists and poets frequented the café for their meetings and recreation, and some of them used it as a mailing address.
Sakr writes the history of Cairo through the eyes of a place and uses geography to complement 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.