Cairo loses the culture of its cafes

Cairo loses the culture of its cafes
3 min read
15 June, 2015
Culture: The coffee houses of the Egyptian capital are no longer spaces to while away the hours. Drink your drink quickly and then get out, writes Abd al-Salam al-Shibli
The customer-cafe relationship is now strictly commercial [Getty]

You cannot smoke in the Cafe Riche, however a fug of cigarette fumes fill the air along with the frowning face of the waiter.

You soon realise that not anyone can walk into this cafe, and entry is based on a person's external appearance and impression one makes on the cafe manager that depends on the manager's mood and the customer's luck.

Many Egyptian cafes have shot to fame due to intellectuals walking in, searching for some kind of serenity away from the tight rooms and gloomy houses.

Many famous authors have written their works on cafe chairs; Naguib Mahfouz's The Harafish, Amal Donqol's poems, Osama Anwar Okasha's screenplays and many others.

Egyptian intellectuals and literary figures played a large role in making many downtown Cairo cafes famous, making them a destination for tourists and Arab intellectuals who visit the city.

However, with time, these cafes were no longer a destination for a new generation of egyptian intellectuals, and the cafe owners lived off the glory of a bygone era.

They would rummage through their archives in search of pictures of dead literary figures who had frequented their establishments, and would hang those pictures on the wall as a kind of advertisement. Besides those pictures however, there are no other signs of culture.

In recent weeks, there has been much talk about Cafe Riche, after its owner died, which started a discussion about the relationship between intellectuals and cafes and the changing nature of cafes with time.

These cafes now lack the essential human dynamics that had existed between the cafe owners or managers and the intellectual, who comes in carrying a heavy creative load, which requires a certain environment to be released.

Nowadays, an intellectual would be surprised to find that his imagined cultural environment has become nothing more than a cold cup of coffee offered in haste, as if the waiter is telling him to leave.

Groppi, Riche, el-Fishawi, and Gharioun were all part of Egypt's secret cultural and political movement at some point in time, however now they are nothing but ghosts of their past selves.

They have turned into purely economic projects that despise culture and intellectuals, yet still attract tourist and Arab intellectuals based on their past history.

We cannot in any way describe any cafe in Cairo today as being cultural, whether it was old or new. The economic, political and cultural crises have turned cafes into mere money making businesses.

The different characters of cafes have also faded, as the relationship between the customer and the place is strictly economic.

The cultural cafes in which intellectuals of limited income would find some refuge, have started charging tourist prices. Drink your coffee quickly and keep an eye on the clock on the wall, as the table you are sitting on should either keep the orders coming or should be empty.

This is an edited translation of the original Arabic.