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January 2012 - Cafe Riche

Famous Cafes - The Cafe Riche, Cairo
J. Martinez & Company - Coffee Merchants
January 5, 2012

Company Newsletter
Cafe Riche, Cairo

The Café Riche, Cairo

The first in an occasional series on famous Cafés.

Cafe Riche, Cairo - Exterior ViewThe first café we feature is the Café Riche in Cairo, which has had a central role in two revolutions, (though neither led to much freedom). It currently is playing a role in a third, the “Arab Spring” in Egypt.

Café Riche has been serving coffee since 1904. Started by a German, it was briefly owned by a Frenchman (who gave the café its name) and then a string of Greeks, and in Greek hands it remains today. Unlike many cafes in Cairo it has a full bar. And also unlike many cafes in the world, it has an old printing press in a secret wine cellar, a remnant of its revolutionary past.

Café Riche has been the haunt of Egyptian intellectuals for most of its life, though the past few years it has seemed more a museum for tourists than a vibrant center politics or literature. This past year has seen a renaissance of its original liveliness, as protesters have found food and shelter here during the uprising in nearby Tahrir Square. Some of the regular Egyptian patrons have even treated both the wounded and the hungry, as well as providing moral support and advice for the protests.

Café Riche's political history includes being the center of the 1919 revolution against the British. The printing press dates from this era, as well as secret escape tunnels that foiled police raids. Later Nasser plotted the 1952 overthrow of King Farouk from a table in the Café Riche. The café was central to the intellectuals and cultural elite in forging a new national identity for Egypt. From the 50’s to through the 70’s, as political speech was suppressed, the café hosted much of the leading literary figures in Egypt, including Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Mr. Mahfouz was a regular, arriving punctually at 6:00pm to take two Turkish coffees, drinking only half of each.

Cafe Riche, Cairo - Interior View In the early 90’s the café was damaged by an earthquake and the building owners tried to evict the current Café owners. Fortunately the café owners prevailed and a renovated café opened at the end of the decade. Once re-opened the café was less a cultural hangout than a cultural icon, and its patrons tended to be foreign tourists more than local intellectuals. But with the removal of Mubarak and new freedoms, café culture has revived. The Café Riche has returned to its position as a forum of political culture. More, and younger, Egyptians are finding it a culturally and politically stimulating haunt, again.

For a couple of interesting articles on the café can be found in the Los Angeles Times, and more recently, in the Economist.