Dining with History
Autumn has come to Cairo.
Looking at all the glorious photos of fall foliage in the Northeast of the U.S., it feels a little silly saying that, but there’s been a little nip in the air. Sure, the daily highs are still in the mid-70s or low 80s, but at night it’s been dipping into the low 60s. That feels colder here than it sounds. Air conditioners are off and it’s too chilly to walk barefoot in the house. Last night on the way to dinner I left my sweater in the cab, and I regretted it the rest of the evening.
I’ve been following through on my resolution to get out of the bubble more, and last night’s dinner was part of that. Friends of a friend from New York were passing through Egypt on a three-month round-the-world trip, so we met up at a storied establishment in the heart of Belle Epoque Cairo called Café Riche. It opened in 1908 and has been a haunt of Cairo’s intellectuals ever since.
The whole vibe is very un-Cairo. With its wood-paneled walls; its faded black-and-white photos of Cairo’s most influential cultural figures; its scattered disarray of books, papers and random memorabilia; and the klatch of old men gabbing over steaming plates, Café Riche feels a bit like a cross between the Friar’s Club and Barney Greengrass, for those of you who know New York. The night we were there, it felt like almost everyone else in the restaurant was a regular.
Café Riche has been the backdrop of many a seminal event in Egyptian history. An assassination attempt on the Prime Minister was staged from its doorway in 1919 (he survived). That same year, revolutionaries used the basement as a secret meeting space from which they agitated for the overthrow of their British rulers, and in 1952 Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted his own coup from the comfort of a Riche table, this one against King Farouk, who reportedly met his wife at the coffeehouse. And Egypt’s favorite songbird, Umm Kalthoum once held a concert there.
The days when famous writers such as Naguib Mahfouz could be found loitering over Turkish coffee are gone, but the tables are still populated with a cast of fascinating characters. We were having an entertaining conversation of our own at our table, but I would have loved to have been able to talk to some of the other guests. I have a hunch many of the same people would be there if I ever manage to make a repeat visit. That is definitely now on my to-do list.
I fear I may have to erase another item on that list, though. I’ve been wanting to go camping with the kids in the White Desert, which looks absolutely stunning. A while ago one of the embassies issued a warning about going there, and this week Egypt’s most active militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, swore allegiance to ISIS. That can’t be good. The desert may well be perfectly safe, but I’m going to watch this one play out for a while before I dust off my sleeping bag.
We never did make it up to Alexandria, and with the holidays coming up our weekends are pretty packed. It looks like we might have to wait until spring. That’s okay. There’s plenty to explore in Cairo in the meantime.