Memoirs of Café Riche
(Part 1)

By T. I. Farag, Ahmed Toughan and Essam Farag

From Naguib Mahfouz to Khairy Shalabi

On December 11, 2003, the American University in Cairo (AUC), celebrated the 92nd birthday of the 1988 Nobel Prize literature laureate, Naguib Mahfouz. The AUC has been designating an award for the best Arab novelist annually since 1996. The award is named after the great Mahfouz and held on his birthday. The winners are given a golden medal with a carved portrait of Naguib Mahfouz and their winning novel is offered free translation to English in the university's press. Previous winners came from Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine and included the novelists Yousef Adris, Latifa Al-Zayyat, Huda Barakat and Ahlam Mistiganimy. This year, the prolific Egyptian novelist and editor-in-chief of The Poetry Magazine, Khairy Shalabi, 66, was awarded the prize for his book, Wikalit Attiya (Attiya's Caravanserai). The Ambassadors Research Foundation was interested in organizing a celebratory party to our friend and gifted novelist, Khairy Shalaby, on the occasion of him receiving this award as well as a presidential award for his novel, Saharij Al-Lo'lo' (Coffers of Pearls).

While we were discussing together where to hold such a celebratory party, we received an invitation for lunch at el-Gezira Club from the international poet Ms. Hala Elbanna and her father. We enjoyed the presence of our old friends Prof. Mokhtar Gomaa, former dean of Al-Azhar Medical College, and Prof. Abdelmoneim Abdelaal, the distinguished dermatologist. Prof. Gomaa convinced us that the most suitable location for such a gathering would be in Café Riche, which was born nearly a century ago in downtown Cairo in Talaat Harb Street (previously Soliman Pasha Street). He mentioned that "it would be nice for the novelist Khairy Shalabi to sit in the same chair as that of Naguib Mahfouz, eat the same food, drink the same type of coffee (mix of Brazilian and Yemeni coffee), and be served by the same Nubian waiter Mr. Filfil who joined Café Riche in 1943." It is well known that the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz used to hold his weekly salon at a series of cafes, the best known of which is Café Riche since the 1960s. Khairy Shalabi enjoyed sitting in the area decorated with the gallery of photos of 40 Egyptian celebrities that left their fingerprints in every corner of this historic place, with the photo of Naguib Mahfouz in the center of all of them.

Why Café Riche?

Interestingly, no street in Cairo is devoid of a cafe. Some cafes have even distinguished themselves as informal literary and artistic salons such as Café Riche and Al-Fishawi in Al-Hussein. Indeed, many young writers owe their fame to this or that cafe salon. The history of Café Riche is in some ways a history of contemporary Cairo.

The place was very well-known in Egypt and abroad, such as in Germany where a tourist guidebook about Egypt named the place as one of the top-10 places to visit in the country alongside the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Cairo Museum, Khan Al-Khalili and Luxor. However, this was the case until the venue recently closed in 1990 over a legal dispute over ownership rights, and subsequently hit by the 1992 earthquake. The owner embarked on a 6-year period of refurbishments under the work of Eng. Mustafa Abdel Kader, who interestingly worked with the international Egyptologist Zahi Hawass on the restoration projects of the Giza Sphinx, till the re-birth of the venue as the new Riche Café and Restaurant.

Analyzing the evolution of Café Riche, not only in the change in the street's name or to its change to a Westernized cafe restaurant, can be divided into three phases: its opening in the early 1900s to the 1960s; the 1960s to closure; and then the re-opening as a cafe restaurant in the 21st century.

Café Riche in Mahfouz's Literature

Naguib Mahfouz who was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing when he was seventeen. He has been influenced by many Western writers, including Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and, above all, Proust. He has more than thirty novels to his credit.

Naguib Mahfouz's inventory alone some dozen qahawy (traditional tea/coffee drinking venue): Qushtumur (the meeting place of the teenage Mahfouz's football fan friends while he lived in Abbassiya - later naming a novel after it in 1989), Orabi (the "grown-up" qahwa of the same period), and Ahmed Abdallah (located underground in Khan Al-Khalili in neighborhood of Al-Hussein which he mentioned in his Trilogy). Yet it is with Al-Fishawi Cafe that Mahfouz is most frequently associated. At the heart of Al-Hussein, where he spent his first nine years. 

In the 1940s, he moved to Western style cafes looking for a gathering place to establish a literary gathering with different people of varying generations. Then someone said to him that there was a cafe on Soliman Pasha Street where the youth of the generation of the 1960s regularly gathered. The venue was located in the downtown area near the Cairo Museum and several tourist hotels. When he moved with his friends, including Tawfik El-Hakim to Café Riche in 1964, becoming his weekly (on Friday mornings) casual gathering place for several years where discussions, conversations and debates took place continuously. He would listen to the stories of others rather than share his own. The owner said about him, "He [Mahfouz] would always sit there in the corner of the Café, and slowly tens of people would gather around him. If you read his stories you would find several of his characters based on people who frequented the cafe." Café Riche introduced Mahfouz to the new literary generation, people he would not have otherwise known. 

One of Mahfouz's best known political novels about President Nasser's political era, Al-Karnak was written in 1974. It grew out of what he heard in Café Riche about arrests by the secret police of some political activists. This book was later produced as a movie starring Egyptian actors So'ad Hosny, Nour El-Sherif, Mohamed Sobhy, and Kamal El-Shinawy taking the role of Salah Nasr, the former head of the Egyptian Intelligence Service (El-Mokhabaraat). Mahfouz mentions Café Riche on several occasions in his Cairo Trilogy - Bayn al Qasrayn, Qasr al Shawq, Sukkariya (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street) book.

Mahfouz remembers always many venues that witnessed the discussions and debates interspersed with jokes and anecdotes. "They were a strange bunch. The fights that ensued among them were very frequent and it really made you wonder. They belonged to the same generation, they were mostly close friends, they had similar mindsets. Yet a fight would break out for no reason at all. The next day, very simply, they'd make up. It was never really as drastic as it appeared. The owner of the cafe used to put the blame on me, as the elder member of the group. Though I was not really involved in any of this and felt I did not want to be, that I was being implicated for no reason at all," says Mahfouz about his salon gatherings in Cafe Riche. 

In his lucid travel memoir, Arabia Through the Looking Glass, published in 1979, Jonathan (Raban) Raymond describes Café Riche as most people will now remember it: "I found the Café Riche... a deep, friendly grotto with smoky walls and shadowy tables. Its punkah fans had been broken long ago. Their blades were puckered and warty with beads of condensation, and they hung over one's head like huge limp starfish. It was a good, private place to talk and drink. I liked its aniseedy smell and its air, even at noon, of living by its own clock, which was always set somewhere in the argumentative small hours. It was, admittedly, haunted by security men, but they tended to stick to the terrace outside, where they sat on rush chairs, making a great show of being engrossed in the small print of Al-Ahram."

The Café Riche Literary Gathering

The influence of Café Riche on many intellectuals over a century cannot be ignored. Its effect on Naguib Mahfouz is quite clear, however this is not only unique to him. His presence in Café Riche attracted many intellectuals and artists of the 1960s including Youssef Adris, Gamal El-Ghitany, Amal Donkol, Youssef Al-Koaaed, Naguib Soroor, and Ahmed Abdelmoety Higazi. This cafe has almost become like a university where thousands have 'graduated' from it - resulting in what we can define as the "Café Riche Factor".

Youssef Rakha wrote in an article published in Al-Ahram Weekly (1999), "Images of the Idle City", mentioned "evidently the concept of the 'literary gathering' is still essential to Mahfouz's understand of an active cultural life, and he looks back nostalgically to the many levels that witnessed his level-headed debates." It was also at Riche that the literary magazine Gallerie 1968 was conceived as was The New Culture, started by the surrealist painter and poet Ramses Younan.

More recently, Lana Younis obtained her MA from the University of Pennsylvania and is now pursing her PhD studies by comparing American poet William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician and gynecologist who became the symbol of new American culture, with a number of Arab poets whom she has called the "Café Riche Group". Below are a few lines from her translation of Naguib Surour's poem from Protocols of Wise Men of Riche:

Read nothing be a lumberjack...
And carry a ton of books...
Place it beside a beer bottle...
or above a chair...

Drink and await the knights...
who will come one after the other...
each carrying a ton of books!

Shalabi's Trilogy

In this series, we are going to present the world of a cultural cafe through the analysis of the journeys of both Noble Prize Laureate Naguib Mahfouz and the gifted novelist Khairy Shalabi, who also has a famous trilogy: Awilna Walad; Thanina Al-Shayib; Thaluthna Al-Komi ('First the Jack; Then the King; Thirdly the Seven of Diamonds'). Shalabi considers Yehia Haqqi his literary father, Youssef Idris his older brother and Abdel-Rahman El-Sharqawi, Saad Mekkawi, Naguib Mahfouz, and Ihsan Abdel-Quddous his relatives. We shall also present the evolution of Egypt, Om el-Donya (Mother of the World) during the last one hundred years.

In the next issue - Memoirs of Café Riche (Part II)

Further Readings:

Prof. Talaat I. Farag, MD,FRCP,FACP,FACMG is a community geneticist and syndromologist. He is the founder of The Ambassadors Research Foundation in 1998. Email: drfarag@ambassadors.net

Ahmed Toughan is an international political cartoonist and is one of the founders of Al-Gomhurria Daily Newspaper in 1952. Email: toughan1@hotmail.com

Essam Farag, BA(Dalhousie), MA(Guelph) is a historian and political scientist. He is the Publication Editor of The Ambassadors Magazine. Email: efarag@ambassadors.net