A cup of coffee, narghile smoke dissipating in the air, a news website run from a café in Jordan, political discussions at the Havana in Damascus; many fascinating stories come to life as we look into the history of the Arab café.
The Arab world seemed to have been sentenced, before 2011, to live in a different dimension, distant from the everyday problems of western societies and their race against time. The Arab world, at least to a western eye, seemed to chime to the sound of the adhan (the minaret’s call) and by the roll of dice on the backgammon board. Apparently that western eye turned out to be wrong.
Arabs might have taken more time than expected, but they were not passively sipping their cup of coffee and reflecting on the next move to make on the chessboard. They were patiently meditating on the right time and on the best move to regain control of their country and their lives. Ulysses did the same at the time of his return to Ithaca; he disguised himself as an old beggar to observe the nobles who had taken possession of his kingdom and to launch the attack in due course.
Arab cafés have always played crucial roles in every community, hosting men who escaped from their wives’ shouts and their working routine, relaxing in front of a cup of coffee while looking at the puff of smoke from their narghiles dissipate in the air. These cafés were not only places to relax in but to discuss political and social problems and to hear different perspectives. Sometimes they could become forums or imagined parliaments where discussions took place, problems were presented and often also found solutions. Unfortunately these places, where a vivid public sphere emerged, never affected the policy of the state, which was far from hearing the voice and the demands of people.
Arab cafés were also places used by intellectuals and artists as a listening post to take inspiration from the everyday life, to meet people and share new ideas. Many of these gave birth to new “ideologies”, political conspiracies and famed novels.
The Riche café in Cairo is a perfect example of a haunt where ordinary men and the country’s future rulers gathered, where political coups were planned and where books were written. Founded in 1908 in Cairo’s Belle Époque quarter, two blocks from Tahrir Square – the battlefield of the Egyptian 2011-12 revolution – this café still preserves in its walls and in its coffee blend, the history of Egypt’s last one hundred years.
In late 1919, a bomb was thrown from the Riche café at the car of the prime minister, who survived, but which inevitably led to Egypt’s slide into a nationalist revolt against the British rule. Some years later, in 1922, Egypt had gained its independence but kept a corrupted and inefficient king, Farouk, who is said to have met his second wife at the Riche café. If this is the case, then King Farouk might have also met in the café the same men who later deposed him. Indeed Jamal Abd el-Nasser was a habitué of the café and is said to have plotted his 1952 coup sitting at one of its tables.
Under this new Nasser government, an atmosphere of increased freedom and independence was at first felt by many musicians, artists and writers who gathered at the Riche café, such as Umm Kulthum, Taha Hussein, Abla al Roweny. Unfortunately, the real face of the regime was slowly revealed as freedom of expression was restrained and a system of corruption and fear corroded the hope of the revolution’s first years. To be sure, national independence did not realize the wishes of all of those who had hoped in the instauration of a democratic country.
The Riche café continued to be a hub for intellectuals and writers, like Najib Mahfuz, who wrote his novel Karnak Café about the Riche and its guests, but gradually the dynamics of the artistic life diminished. Although the Riche did close for several years under Mubarak, the iconic café reopened in order to witness a new piece of history: the outbreak of the uprising last year. Being just two blocks from Tahrir Square, it offered a buffer zone for activists and demonstrators to rest, providing first aid assistance or simply an escape route through its underground secret exits, just like it had done in the past.
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Another café, not in Cairo but in Damascus, played a central role in setting Syria’s political and cultural panorama. The Havana café, situated in the al Bahsa area of the city centre, has an exotic name but a very traditional atmosphere inside. Its history is shrouded in mystery. No one quite knows when and who built it, but the legend sets its founding in the 1940s, becoming a meeting point for artists, poets, and writers; like for the spiritual father of the modern Arabic prose poem, Muhammad al-Maghut.
Once again an Arab country’s political destiny was decided around the table of a café with dimmed lighting, dark wooden ceiling and in the background, the cracking sound of old loudspeakers playing a cheesy love song. This time the protagonists were Michel Aflaq, Salah al-din al-Bitar and Zaqi al-Arsuzi, who established the principles of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party’s ideology at the Havana café. This ideology did not just change Syria’s future destiny but that of neighbouring Iraq with tragic consequences.
However, the golden era for Arab cafés is not over yet. Old fashion Arab cafés still survive the change of time, although being pushed aside by the new category of the Internet cafés. They are modern public places that combine the traditional friendly atmosphere of their ancestors to a powerful revolutionary ingredient: access to the Internet. The Internet has changed the Arab world’s perception of itself and of the world outside, offering news that the regimes wisely kept covered before and giving people the right to choose their version of the story.
Moreover, given the high cost of home-based Internet connection, Internet cafés have gathered a new generation around their tables, with two major outcomes: the birth of a public sphere online and in the cafés itself. For those who are able to escape the government’s on-line tight control, the Internet is a goldmine of information but also an opportunity to discuss, question, debate, allowing everyone to express their own opinion in a way that has never happened before.
Unlike in the West, the Internet has not turned people into antisocial creatures; quite the opposite, it has turned these cafés into places where information found on the web is shared face-to-face between friends. A fitting example is the Arab news website, Ammun news, whose editorial office is based in a café in Jordan, a real melting pot of web and street news, of virtual and concrete people, making the digital human.
Many have argued that the Arab Spring was not the result of a digital revolution. Certainly it was not the result of fervent activities happening in cafés. But revolutions are not even the result of a moment of madness, rather the result of a patience that has ended. Internet cafés made that patience unbearable through dialogue and information, connecting people through the web and keeping them together with a cup of coffee. Once people acknowledge their reality and feel united, then a new day is approaching. Checkmate (from the Persian “The king is dead”) – the move Arabs have waited so long for - is now close to happening.
Billie Jeanne Brownlee is a PhD candidate in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter.
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