The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Café Riche

I was at the Middle East Studies Association conference in DC last weekend (a huge 3-day event with hundreds of academics presenting papers on hundreds of topics). I didn't attend that thoroughly--it was mostly a chance to see old friends in DC. One of the panels I did go to was on Café Riche. Half a dozen students at AUC's Economic and Business History Research Center are working on a book on the famous Downtown Cairo landmark (its working title is "Café Riche: A Hundred Years of History," and it will be published by AUC Press.)

The papers focused on the cafés social and intellectual history, with heavy emphasis on its importance to 1960s writers; they used oral histories and documents obtained from the owner. Unfortunately none of the papers really delves into the economics of Riche--the details of how it operates, and of the background and motivations of its grumpy current owner, Mr. Magdy. This is basically because the young researchers depended on Mr. Magdy for access. 

The talk that followed the papers (with Roger Owen and Fawwaz Trabulsi intervening) was particularly interesting. The conclusion seemed to be that Café Riche has turned into an artificial museum of itself, a tourist attraction using its history as its capital (and a kind of obnoxiously elite social space at that--with an expensive menu designed to keep the "riff-raff" out and, apparently, an overtly anti-muhagaba policy. Yet clearly this landmark exerts a strong nostalgic pull, since even though everyone agrees it's almost irrelevant to the capital's current cultural life, it nonetheless ends up the center of a panel and a book. One of the remarks that I enjoyed was when one of the young presenters said that Café Riche has always been an imagined space, that the 1960s writers who made it famous were themselves weaving a myth of romantic freedom into the place--that it has in some sense never really "been" but has always been made up. 

Meanwhile, what I'd like to know is: is it really open again?