Clouds in This Coffee Shop

Cairo intellectuals are fighting to save one of the city's cultural icons - Cafe Riche.

When Mustafa Abd al-Kader protested in a recent article in an Egyptian newspaper that "novice engineers should not be given the authority to destroy cultural heritage," he knew what he was talking about. A renowned architect, Abd al-Kader is the director of the Conservation and Restoration Department of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, responsible, among other projects, for the restoration of the Sphinx.

However Abd al-Kader's lament was not about the fate of a pyramid or a tomb. The cultural heritage he was referring to was, of all things, a coffee house. Not just any coffee house, but a cultural icon that has been part of the Cairo scene since 1908 - the Cafe Riche. The "novice architects" belong to the Cairo district administration. And someone wants to make a profit on this piece of pricey real estate.

A walk down most of Cairo's streets affords two perspectives: You look up through a forest of giant billboards advertising lawyers, doctors, agencies of every ilk and other ads for glimpses of beautiful buildings with a variety of carved columns, windows and balconies, built in French, British or Italian styles. You look down, so as not to trip over the newspaper and booksellers crowding the sidewalk. Sometimes, you even look sideways to the interiors of buildings, with their cavernous old stairwells, banisters gleaming from use, like crumbling museums of a glorious yesteryear.

But walking this way, you might miss the slice of history that is Cafe Riche. It is located at the corner of the street named after Egypt's first banker, Talaat Harb, who established its film industry and represents modern Egypt, and the street named after the first Egyptian feminist, Huda al-Sharawi. At the Cafe Riche, the modern Egyptian intelligentsia sprang up.

The walls are covered with portraits of all its important patrons, among them author Taha Hussein, Gamal Abdel Nasser, poets Naguib Mahfouz and Naguib Srour, singer Umm Kulthum (who is believed to have performed here for the first time in public in 1932), Saddam Hussein (when he was a student in Cairo) and dozens of other famous personages.

Visions traded

The pictures tell only a small part of the establishment's history. It is here that the Egyptian leftist party Al-Tagammu got started. Its members would gather here in the `60s to discuss the country's problems, until they began to be persecuted by the government, and they moved to Cafe al-Bustan. But even then, they would start out at the Cafe Riche for a game of backgammon, and only a few hours later, slightly inebriated, would they move to al-Bustan.

It was at Cafe Riche that Taha Hussein founded the Egyptian literary magazine Al-Kateb El-Masri (The Egyptian Writer). Naguib Mahfouz met with friends and wrote the first words of many of his books at its old tables. Here, poets and authors among the most important in modern Egyptian culture, like Yusuf Idris, Tawfiq al-Hakim,and Ahmed Fuad Negm, traded gossip, ideas and visions.

Today almost nothing remains of the spirit of the `60s and `70s, not to mention the early days of the cafe, which in 1915 was the first to become a cafe-restaurant, changing the face of intellectual street culture. The cafe's patrons now are mainly tourists who read about it in their guide books. The assurances of the owners to restore the premises to their former glory have not produced results, despite - or perhaps because of - renovations.

But heritage is not measured by a new coat of paint or a refurbished kitchen. The spirit of the place is deeply ingrained in the memory of every Cairo intellectual over 40. And it is a spirit that has begun to stir in recent weeks. The owner of the building where the Cafe Riche is located, Rafiq Atia, has decided to make a few changes in the building, mainly involving ripping out the old balconies and turning them into windows. According to the Cairo district engineers, the building is too weak and can no longer support the balconies. The walls, they say, are full of damp due to cracked sewage pipes, and the building has to be saved.

These claims, and especially what is behind them, are all too familiar to the heads of the Organization for the Conservation of Urban Harmony, founded a year ago. Its purpose is to make sure that the appearance of the city, especially its old buildings, does not suffer from unchecked add-ons, ugly billboards or "over-creativity" on the part of their owners.

The organization's activists believe the planned restoration is intended to weaken the building further, so in the end there will be no choice but to demolish it. They are concerned that a modern commercial building will rise in its place, sure to bring in huge revenue to its owners and the city. With the destruction of the building, and Cafe Riche along with it, will come the destruction of the traditions connected with it, according to the organization.

Money talks

The Cairo district engineering office rejects the organization's claims. The district engineer explained that in order to demolish any building, several conditions have to be met, the most important of which is that damage to the building be irreversible.

If the owner wishes to destroy a building on his own initiative, he is bound by four other conditions: the building has to be empty of tenants and businesses, it has to be at least 40 years old, it cannot be of a special architectural character and it cannot be a palace.

But Cairo's watchdogs of heritage conservation do not believe these comforting words. They know too well that when money talks, any condition can be bent.

One Egyptian citizen, who says that he himself never patronized Cafe Riche, wonders what all the fuss is about. "This cafe was once the most important intellectual center. Today it is just a souvenir of the good old days, which we can only dream about when we see what is happening to intellectuals in Egypt." This is one man who would certainly not agree with the poem written by leftist poet Naguib Srour in his collection "The Protocols of the Elders of Riche":

"Come, come to the Cafe Riche. All the world is the Cafe Riche. All will drown their shame there in the depths of the wine glass."