A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 15, 2015

Good News and Bad News on the Cairo Bar Scene: El-Horriya Still Going Strong, but Cafe Riche is Closed for Now, Perhaps for Good

This blog has occasionally commented on the bar scene in Cairo, especially the baladi or local hangouts as opposed to those in five-star hotels. I bear both good news and bad news: El-Horriya is  apparently going strong after 70 years, but the Cafe Riche, which goes back a century, is closed and unlikely to reopen.

I imagine most people who know downtown Cairo will be familiar with both. CairoScene has a piece, "El-Horreya Cafe: 70 Years Strong," dealing with the enduring coffeehouse/bar off Midan Falaky in the Bab al-Luq neighborhood. Always a sort of cross between a classic qahwa with men playing chess or backgammoin over tea or coffee, and a bar inside,Though the story throws in words like "infamous" and "notorious," those aren't really deserved unless you're a temperance campaigner. Centrally located not far from Tahrir Square and the old downtown campus of AUC, it has long been a place that cut across divides of class. They interview a barman who has worked there since the 1960s.

According to a 2010 story in Egypt Independent, the bar closed for several months that year for renovation, including a new paint job, but it doesn't sound like it spoiled the place.

But the news is not so good about an even older and more famous venue. After the death of its owner, the Cafe Riche has closed, and may never reopen.

The legendary cafe and bar, which in recent years has been selling its legend, is a few doors south of Midan Tal‘at Harb on the street of the same name, deep in the beating heart of downtown Cairo.

In 2011 I posted about the Riche: "Cairo's Cafe Riche: a Classic or Living Off its Reputation?" 

When I first lived in Egypt under Sadat in the 1970s, it was more or less a daily hangout. On multiple visits in the 1980s, I stopped by whenever possible. It suffered serious damage in the devastating 1992 Cairo earthquake and was, I believe, closed for much of the 1990s.

The Riche I knew was an egalitarian, welcoming place. Literary types and intellectuals rubbed elbows with students and workers, as well as backpacking tourists. I haven't seen the reopened post-earthquake version, which reviews say capitalizes on its historical reputation (the Free Officers, .Naguib Mahfouz, etc.) and was selective in its clientele.  My 2011 post linked above, a great piece in The Economist the same year (unsigned but probably by Max Rodenbeck) and the Ahram Online piece linked above all allude to the changes that have occurred. My Riche from the 70s and 80s had put on airs.

The Ahram article holds out some hope that developers will acquire and reopen the Riche, but in the wake of its owner's death and uncertainty about its ownership, it's closed for now. Even if it is resurrected, it will probably resemble the post-earthquake version rather than the glory days.

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