Cafe Riche: An Ode to a Bygone Cairo

A WITNESS TO HIS- TORY: Café Riche in Cairo’s Downtown district is just a stone’s throw from Tahrir Square and has been a witness to its history for over a century.

By Salma Islam
Photos by Hany Maher

The wooden door opens and a smart looking gentleman in a grey suit and a black briefcase in tow walks in, greets the staff, and makes a beeline for an empty table near the back of the long, narrow restaurant.

He doesn’t wait long. He is soon joined by a friend and the two quickly immerse themselves into conversation.

It’s early evening in Downtown Cairo. Cairenes are leaving work for the day and the streets outside Cafe Riche are bustling. Every once in a while, a passer-by is caught staring through the window into the warm, yellow glow of the restaurant.

Inside the restaurant, the dapper pair order a traditional Turkish coffee and a glass of white wine. Both academics are Cafe Riche’s regulars, who have been gracing this Cairo establishment for decades.

Nabil Abdel Fatah, now 63 and a senior advisor at one of Egypt’s oldest think tanks, dates back his first visits to the 1970s when he was still a law student at Cairo University.

“The generation of the ’70s and ’60s came here to exchange ideas, political positions and interpretations of the problems facing Egypt as a society and as a state,” explains Abdel Fatah.
His friend Tewfick Aclimandos, 57, who is an academic at Cairo University’s political science department, first started frequenting the place in the ’90s. Aclimandos says it remains an important hub for the intelligentsia.

“As it’s very well known, almost all Arab intellectuals when they come to Cairo pay a visit here still. So my way of learning quickly about Arab politics is navigating my way to here to meet with Arab intellectuals,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.

For over 100 years now, since it first opened its doors way back in 1908, the restaurant became the meeting hub for novelists, journalists, artists, activists, politicians, lawyers, academics and others who have sought refuge to discuss, dispute and critique Egypt’s public life over coffee and alcohol.

Bearing Witness to History
No one can quite confirm the identity of the first owner. However, at one point it was taken over by a Frenchman, followed by a string of Greeks in 1916. Then in 1962 began the era of Egyptian ownership with Abdel Malek Mikhail Salib, whose sons Magdy and Michel took over after his demise in 1984. After Michel’s death in 2012 and Magdy’s last year, Michel’s two sons and wife now run Cafe Riche.

Snuggled in the midst of shops selling cheap designer rip-offs, fast-food restaurants, travels agencies and banks, its distinctive timeless look with its wooden panel frames, soft lighting and waiters dressed in blue robes with gold trimming harks back to a bygone golden era.

Certainly, Cafe Riche, with its location just a stone’s throw away from the famous Tahrir Square, better known internationally in recent years as the epicenter for the popular protests which brought down the autocratic rule of then president Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, has borne witness to Egypt’s political upheavals and history of the past century.

When the demonstrations of the revolutionary years of 2011-2013 became violent, its owner Magdy would often bring the shutters down to protect guests.

Regular Abdel Fatah explains that this was necessary during those years with the rise of Islamist groups “because the majority of customers were secular intellectuals and citizens and they (the Islamist groups) had a very aggressive attitude towards our moderate style of life.”

“I used to hear people dismiss me and others by saying ‘He goes to Cafe Riche,'” Aclimandos tells Newsweek Middle East. “That meant he’s a disgrace, he drinks alcohol,” he continues, before Abdel Fatah adds, “all the sins,” and the pair laugh.

Aclimandos recalls one moment during those years when Tahrir Square was particularly tense and Riche was suddenly surrounded by what appeared to be Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

“I think it was a Friday and the day was nervous, to put it mildly. And we were drinking inside and suddenly there were people glaring at you through the window. They brought ladders too,” for a better view, he says. “I was very much afraid. I was thinking they were preparing an attack.”

However, it was only when they pulled out their phones and started taking photos of a guest on the next table, did they notice a famous actress. Aclimandos admits he couldn’t remember who she was though. “I don’t know. It was such a relief that I forgot.”

But Riche’s ties to key moments in Egyptian history date back much further than 2011.

It was reportedly where Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers Army plotted to overthrow King Farouk in 1952, who was derided by Egyptians for being corrupt and out of touch.

Riche’s basement–a vaulted cellar now closed to the public except for occasional private functions–has a particularly special place in Egyptian folklore. During the nationalist revolt of 1919-1922 against de facto British rule, it was apparently used for secret political meetings and its secret trap door behind the bar (which still turns) according to lore, had many exits, one of which may have led all the way to Tahrir Square.

A printing press, which is said to have poured out anti-imperialist pamphlets, is still preserved there.

A Who’s-Who of Cairo
The walls of Cairo’s side-room, no longer in use to the public, boasts photos of some of Egypt’s greatest icons who have walked through Riche’s doors over the decades, including the likes of internationally renowned late Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, poet Fouad Haddad and actor Ismail Yassine.

There is also a photo of Egypt’s darling songstress Um Kulthoom.

Still a relative unknown then, Um Kulthoom gave one of her first performances at Riche in 1923, before hitting superstardom and becoming one of the most influential and celebrated Arab singers of all time.

A photograph of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz hanging at the restaurant’s ‘Cultural Salon’ where the Egyptian author used to sit to discuss cultural, political and social updates and events with his peers.

A photograph of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz hanging at the restaurant’s ‘Cultural Salon’ where the Egyptian author used to sit to discuss cultural, political and social updates and events with his peers.

The largest photo of all, which is the pride of the room, is rather aptly saved for arguably Riche’s most beloved regular, writer and Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who died in 2006.

“Naguib Mahfouz used to come walking everyday, he didn’t have a car,” recalls waiter Felfel.
“He used to get the newspaper and take two coffees. He was a very good person. He used to stand up and talk to all people, old and young.”

Certainly Felfel would know. Now 86 years old, Felfel first started working at Riche in 1943 when he was only 13 years of age, and has become somewhat of an icon himself, synonymous with Riche. For this reason there’s a picture of him hanging at the front of the restaurant, next to those of the restaurant’s two previous owners.

Not that the self-effacing waiter wants to talk about himself though.
“Naguib used to hold [cultural] salons here,” Felfel says of his favorite guest. “Abdel Malek (the first Egyptian owner) was scared this was a Marxist gathering and it could get the cafe shut down. So he closed the place on Friday to prevent these gatherings.”

The side-room of Riche was also where the last owners Magdy and Michel held a weekly Friday breakfast. Only a select few of Cairo’s creme de la creme were invited, including academic Abdel Fatah, who holds fond memories of these gatherings.

Keeping the Legacy Alive
However, not all of Cairo’s older intellectual and artistic community still frequent Riche. Many have passed away and others have become too old to visit regularly.

“I stopped going to Cafe Riche about 10 years ago,” says author Mekkawi Said, who has written about Cafe Riche in his book The Downtown Collection.

He objects to what he calls “face control”–the vetting of customers–which he said started in the ’80s.
“Face control is a bad thing, because maybe a good writer is poor or looks poor,” says the author sitting in a local street cafe behind Riche, over a Turkish coffee and cigarette.

Aclimandos agrees that customers are indeed vetted.

“They pay close attention to who is here, and sometimes they make mistakes. You have one of the top Egyptian intellectuals who is not able to come here because of this,” says Aclimandos, who refuses to give out the intellectual’s name.

Certainly, the younger generation of secularists are more likely to be found in one of Cairo’s many street cafes or local bars elsewhere in the downtown, rather than in Cafe Riche. It is probably more popular with tourists now, following recommendations by travel guides.

Abdel Fatah sees Cafe Riche under pressure by “the Americanization of coffee” preferred by the middle and upper middle classes, as opposed to the traditional Turkish coffee and simple Nescafe that Riche serve.

With popular chains serving lattes and cappuccinos, and offering internet access, Riche’s turf is threatened and is perhaps a cause of worry for some.

But Aclimandos disagrees, and insists that “Cafe Riche should not be threatened by any other cafe.” Even Said acknowledges its enduring draw for writers, still, because at the end of the day “it’s a nostalgic place.”

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