Sunday, 21 March 2010
Last week, a few friends informed me of the closure of Qahwet El-Horreya (Café de la Liberté), an old bar-café on Midan Bab El-Louk in Khedival / Downtown Cairo. The reasons each gave were different.
According to one Egyptian activist and friend with whom I shared many days and evenings on El-Horreya, the closure came under the legal pretext of registration irregularities. A Arab-German friend and colleague of mine whose knowledge and study of public space, urban culture and spaces of social protest in Cairo is formidable, reported that the closure came as a result of increased pro-Baradei activism on El-Horreya.
According to another, and probably most alarmingly, the closure was a mere capitalist overtake of El-Horreya by the Saudi Islamic Bank.
The reason that is alarming to many is the possible cultural and imperial background of the capitalist overtake. Cairo is known as the City of a Thousand Minarets, but it is also known as the City of a Thousand Cafés - a city with an entrenched culture of cafés which provided its residents with much needed social spaces for interaction, association, expression of opinions and artistic recreation. I probably can't express how instrumental cafés are in the formulation and evolution of Cairene urban identity and social existence - but for those of you interested, I recommend reading Max Rodenbeck's "Cairo: A City Victorious".
For many, me included, Horeyya is far more than a café. Far more than a place to have a coffee, a beer or play a game of chess. Horeyya is a space in the very heart of Cairo where liberals, activists and young men and women congregated, socialised and discussed social life, politics, culture and traffic. Arguably, Horeyya retained its cultural role - unlike many of its contemporaries and neighbours in Downtown Cairo. Unlike Café Riche for instance, Horeyya retained its clients as well as the legendary 3am Sa3d and Melad who have become icons of Bab El-Louk and socio-cultural life in Cairo.
Horeyya made it to the heart of Cairene fiction and the pages of Egyptian novels, it even recently became the setting of "Qahwet El-Horeyya", a novel by Ossama El-Shazly due on the market in April 2010.
El-Horeyya isn't however the only café in Downtown Cairo that has retained its character, clientelle and role in Cairene urban life... Round the corner from Horeyya is another café which has retained its traditional role in Cairene cultural life - Qahwet El-Nadwa El-Thaqafiya (Café de la Séminaire Culturelle). Qahwet El-Borsa (Café de la Bourse), Qahwet Champilion, El-Grillon and others also dot Cairo's Khedival heart. However, most of them are traditional Cairene cafés serving shisha, teas, coffees and other drinks. Their alcohol-serving counterparts have gradually turned into elitest spaces, exclusive bars and nightclubs - somewhere in between the traditional Cairene café scene and westernised night life.
El-Horeyya stood out in the heart of Cairo because it retained its very traditional character, resisted the shift towards a westernised pub and yet, continued to serve beer.
I was in Cairo less than a month ago, and spent numerous evenings on El-Horreya with colleagues, friends, activists, bloggers, journalists and lawyers, film directors and actresses. Today, Horeyya is closed. The reasons remain uncertain.
If closure was a repressive measure by the authorities to shut down a space of Baradei support, they clearly went for the wrong target. But if closure was a result of a capitalist overtake by the Saudi Islamic Bank, I worry more. Cairene heritage in Downtown Cairo has been threatened by suspicious overtakes, evacuations of residents by ambiguous buyers and now a Saudi Islamic Bank overtaking a beer-serving café...
Is Cairo suffering an imperialist overtake by zealous capitalism? Will we have a Cairo whose heritage and urban culture we can pass on to the next generation of Egyptians?
Perhaps investigative journalists and the curious minds amongst you should seek some answers for us? Anyone to validate news from Bab El-Louk for us?
I just received news and photos from Cairo reaffirming that Horeyya was indeed closed for refurbishment purposes only. Horeyya has now re-opened and looks as authentic (they say) and yet new and clean as ever. Here's a photo (taken by Ahmad Samih I believe, sent to me by my dearest Noov.)