A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, August 5, 2011

Cairo's Cafe Riche: a Classic or Living Off its Reputation?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far,far away, when Anwar Sadat was President of Egypt and Husni Mubarak was only Vice PresidentCairo's Cafe Riche was my "local," whether in need of a coffeehouse or a bar. But the Riche was founded in 1908, so its history was already old when I was there. I probably was there most days other than Fridays and during Ramadan, when it was closed.

My Riche was, by all accounts, rather different from its present incarnation. Then it was open to all comers, and everyone from Egyptian intellectuals to everyday Egyptians to backpacking Westerners to travelers from the region reading Algerian or Saudi newspapers could be found there. I continued to visit regularly throughout the 80s, when I would find myself in Cairo. But then came the 1992 Cairo earthquake, which damaged the Riche and put it out of business for the bulk of the 1990s. I have not been there since its reopening a few years ago, but its current proprietor seems to be trying to profit from its reputation, perhaps a bit inflated, to lure tourists rather than locals. Some of the online reviews by tourists who read about it in Fodor's or Lonely Planet are full of disappointment; complaints of disappointing service and food (well, the food was never its strong point), even of the owner letting only tourists in and charging accordingly. You wouldn't guess that, admittedly, from this evocation of the Riche by Hassan Ibrahim:

I actually have one of those old fashioned, red-and-white Stella Beer tablecloths on the table in my downstairs party room, but don't tell anyone because it was acquired through bribery (though not at the Riche).

Now, the Riche has genuinely always been a hangout for the intelligentsia. I don't doubt that Naguib Mahfouz went there (though I never saw him there and he was one of Egypt's most famous faces); until the Sphinx Bar/Cafe farther up Talaat Harb Street (which everyone then called Suleiman Pasha Street) closed somewhere in the mid-70s, I understand he preferred that. Was the 1919 Revolution plotted at the Riche? Damned if I know. But I've read most of the memoirs written by the 1952 Free Officers, and if any of them mention plotting at the Riche, I never saw it. I'm sure Nasser had at least had coffee there (who hasn't?), but I'm also sure King Farouq's spooks were eavesdropping on conversations there just as Sadat's certainly were in the 70s. You don't plot a coup in a coffeehouse. Well, not a successful one anyway. (I do remember loud discussions at the Riche when Sadat announced he was going to Jerusalem in 1977.)

None of this is meant to denigrate the Riche. I haven't visited its present, post-earthquake incarnation. It's mentioned in Wikipedia and you can find its usual sort of travel-literature reviews here and here, but I gather from the comments to those and other reviews that what was once simply a hangout is now trying to be some cross between the Cafe les deux magots and Elaine's in the 70s.

I'll remember my Riche. I knew the waiters by name.


aron said...

"You don't plot a coup in a coffeehouse."

As a matter of fact, the Military Committee which took power on behalf of the Baath in Syria in 1963 is said to have formed just around the corner from Riche, at Groppi's. Hafez el-Assad, Salah Jadid and other Syrian officers used to hang out there during their transfer to Egypt during the United Arab Republic era. (But I guess they must have tried Riche too...)

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Groppi of course deserves a major post of its own, and I'll reserve comment till I have time for that. It may have a far better claim (though less frequently asserted) to fame than Riche.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Oh, and while I'm sure there were Egyptian mukhabarat hanging out in Groppi's, there probably weren't Syrian. Revised version: You don't plot an EGYPTIAN coup in an EGYPTIAN cofeehouse.

aron said...

Well, on the one hand, even though they were Syrians, they were ruled by Egypt through the UAR, the only Mukhabarat were UAR Mukhabarat, and Abdel-Nasser had ordered their party dissolved. On the other hand, they weren't really plotting against him at that stage, more just plotting generally.

Coming to think of it, Café Havanna in Damascus deserves special mention. It used to be THE place to conspire against the government, back in the days when Syria was still more of a banana republic than a police state.

Anonymous said...

I went to Cafe Riche a couple of times last summer, and my experience is similar to what you describe. Maybe my expectations were high from reading about Cafe Riche's history, but I did get the feeling that it couldn't have been the same Riche of years past.