A Cairo social landmark where time has stopped

Cafe Riche has resisted change and modernisation for decades but the theatre is no longer operational.
Sunday 13/01/2019
A witness to history. A view of the entrance to Cafe Riche in Cairo. 			             (Twitter)
A witness to history. A view of the entrance to Cafe Riche in Cairo. (Twitter)

CAIRO - From resistance to the British occupation at the turn of the 20th century through the revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Cafe Riche in Cairo has played and continues to play a central role in Egypt’s political and cultural life.

Located on Talaat Harb Square and near Tahrir Square, Cafe Riche has survived more than a century of twists and turns in Egypt’s political, economic and literary history.

Founded in 1908, Cafe Riche was given its current name in 1914 by its French owner Henry Recine. He sold it a short time later to Greek businessman and art lover Michael Nicoapolits who added a theatre that featured prominent artists including legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.

Today, Cafe Riche is run by the family of its first Egyptian owner Abdel Malak Mikhail Salib, who has owned it since 1962.

Things have changed around Cafe Riche but inside the clock seems to have stopped. Everything is the same: the paint and photos on the walls, the tables and chairs and the layout of the furniture.

“We are doing great efforts to keep everything inside Cafe Riche as is, and we are proud to have managed to preserve it,” said Samia Michelle, Salib’s sister-in-law.

Cafe Riche is more than just a cafe in the heart of Cairo. It has been the meeting place of Egyptian intelligentsia and revolutionaries, bearing witness of many significant events that marked Egypt’s modern history.

It was the favoured meeting point for Egypt’s literary celebrities, such as Youssef Idriss, Naguib Mahfouz and Yusuf Sibai, and modern history makers, including Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mohamed Naguib.

Leaders of the 1919 revolution against the British occupation had secret meetings in the cafe’s basement and used the cafe’s printing machine, which is still in place, to print political pamphlets.

“Sadat was a regular visitor of Cafe Riche as a junior army officer. He would often drop by and order his favourite pasta-and-chicken dish,” Michelle said.

Ironically, Sadat ordered the closure of the cafe a short time after he became president in 1971. He could not tolerate criticism of his policies by the cafe’s regulars.

Photos of the cafe’s most prominent visitors lining the walls include Umm Kulthum, Mahfouz and Egyptian actor Rushdy Abaza, among others.

“Mahfouz had a weekly literary forum in one of the rooms. He and other literary figures would spend hours talking about literary trends, politics and the economy,” Michelle said.

Egyptian novelist Yousef al-Qaeed said he never felt far from home at Cafe Riche. He has been going there for years to remember “the good old days.”

“I come here and look at the photos on the walls and remember all my friends. They look at me and I feel as if they still talk to me,” Qaeed said.

He recalled the first time Lebanese born Egyptian journalist Rose al-Yusuf met her soon-to-be husband, novelist Ihsan Abdel Quddous, who was the editor of Egypt’s largest dailies al-Akhbar and al-Ahram. “They fell in love with each other at the cafe and also got married there,” Qaeed said.

Cafe Riche was at the heart of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s regime. “The young people who staged the uprising would come to the cafe every morning, get their free morning coffee and sandwiches and then head to Tahrir Square to join tens of thousands of other anti-Mubarak revolutionaries,” Michelle said.

“The revolutionaries also had secret meetings in the basement of the cafe fearing Mubarak’s policemen,” she added.

A few years ago, Cafe Riche would have ceased to exist, when a businessman paid millions of Egyptian pounds to buy the building where it is located. Salib staged a fearless legal battle against the demolition of the building and won it.

Literary critic Amany Fouad appealed to authorities to have Cafe Riche included in the official list of antiquities. “This is a place where every part, every brick and every corner bespeak history,” Fouad said. “It must be preserved for future generations before it is lost forever.”

In the 1990s, a court case by the Egyptian government against the cafe about a public passage it occupied caused a temporary closure. Cafe Riche has resisted change and modernisation for decades but the theatre is no longer operational.

“Things are changing and Cairo does not buzz with art and artists as it used to in the past,” Michelle said.