The Saturday Salon: April 1st edition
Amidst the dilapidated and misshapen buildings in downtown Cairo lies a cafe that survived war and revolution.
Once a space for intellectuals, artists, and activists, the cafe has become a staple for out-of-place tourists looking to experience Egypt beyond the Pyramids of Giza. It’s wooden exterior harkens back to a time before concrete and bricks became Cairo’s preferred foundation. Despite its unique appearance, it gives off an air of simplicity, as though beckoning all who walked past to come inside for a home-cooked meal.
I stepped through the cafe doors. Twenty tables occupied the space, each topped with a red cloth emblazoned with the words ‘Bierre Stella’ in the centre. Each table fit four wooden chairs, all of which were engraved with the name of the restaurant: Cafe Riche.
As a handsome young waiter dressed in traditional garments from Upper Egypt ushered me towards a table near the back of the restaurant, I felt as though I had stepped into a bygone age. I took my seat and surveyed the scene before me. Some of the tables were lined with worn down books, long since abandoned by their owners. Old newspaper clippings were scattered across the bar, giving the simple decor a touch of sophistication. Photographs lined the walls, each preserving Egypt’s stories in black and white, and capturing the elegance and grace that had long since faded into history.
I ordered a beer and a plate of chicken liver with Egyptian bread on the side. The waiter scribbled down my order on an old notepad and disappeared through a room behind the bar. As he turned the corner, I noticed that the doorway led into a second room of similar size to the main cafe area. When the waiter returned with my beer, I asked about the room and whether people were allowed to sit there. He paused for a moment and stared at me through splendid hazel eyes, considering what to say next.
“Not in many years, sir.”
Another pause. The waiter emptied the beer into a tall glass. He was slow and methodical — enough time to choose his words with caution, “Politics, sir. The government put an end to that.”
I surveyed the scene before me. The cream-coloured walls were lined with black and white photographs depicting famous actors, writers, and other celebrities from Egypt’s Golden Age. Each photograph preserved the memory of Cafe Riche’s most celebrated guests. Yet among the dozens of distinguished faces enriching the scene, one in particular presided over the rest with its stature.
It was a picture of one of the most recognizable faces in Egypt — one known for its thick, dark-rimmed glasses and characteristic attire made up of a turtle neck and blue blazer. It was the face of Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s most celebrated author. Beneath his portrait was a plaque written in Arabic calligraphy that read: The Riche Salon for Intellectuals.
The table and the surrounding seats looked as though they had not been touched in decades except for the occasional dusting. I walked along the length of the table, passing portraits of poets, authors, actors, and politicians alike. Some laughed, some scowled, but none seemed out of place. It was as though I had interrupted a lively conversation.
This was once Egypt’s most iconic salon—an establishment that gathered the leading cultural figures, scholars and artists for lively discussions and debates. This was where several revolutionaries from the 1919 uprising met in secret to organize their activities and print their flyers; where Mahfouz conjured up ideas for novels that later became his Nobel Prize winning oeuvre; where Naguib Sorour (1932-1978) recited his scandalous (and now banned) “Koss Ummiyyat” poem.
Sadly, Cafe Riche is no longer a sanctuary for intellectuals. Few places are in Egypt.
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No cultural salon is complete without a brief interlude for Umm Kulthum—the legendary Egyptian singer and songwriter who rejected gender norms and embodied Egypt’s post-monarchy golden era. Umm Kulthum is widely considered to be one of the finest—if not the finest—performers in modern Arab and North African history, having also influenced the likes of Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, and Beyonce.
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See you at the salon on April 15.