The Egyptian Coffeehouse: Culture, Politics and Urban Space
Reviewed by Burcu Alkan
In “Buchmendel” Stefan Zweig tells the story of Mendel who has an extraordinary ability to retain detailed information about books. He frequents a traditional Viennese café, and in time, becomes an indispensable part of its public image. In Karartma Geceleri (Blackout Nights), Rıfat Ilgaz depicts a teacher who is on the run, playing hide-and-seek with the police in Istanbul. He takes refuge in the old-fashioned coffeehouses of the city to avoid arrest. In Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley, the old poet takes his usual place at Kersha’s Café to recite his poetry just like his predecessors did before him. He hopes his son will continue to do so after him, despite the rapidly changing times.
From Vienna to Cairo – and pretty much anywhere else in between – cafés and coffeehouses have always been microcosms representing the foundational fabric of their respective societies, as well as being distinctive worlds in their own right. They are public spaces where people socialise and groups interact, ideas are born and changes are observed. Whether in the city or the country, the coffeehouses are at the heart of social life and societal transformation. They bear a distinct sense of community on their own and they constitute a critical element of the broader community. There are not many other public spaces that are as globally ubiquitous and locally distinctive as the “traditional” coffeehouse, whatever that “tradition” might be.
In their book The Egyptian Coffeehouse: Culture, Politics and Urban Space, Dalia Said Mostafa and Amina Elbendary investigate the prominence of the coffeehouse in the Egyptian culture as one such microcosm with its diverse manifestations and potentialities as a public space. They begin with the history of coffee consumption in Egypt and the earlier frictions with the religious order and they trace its role as a space of resistance during the Arab Spring. In separate chapters, they cover various interconnected aspects of the Egyptian coffeehouse culture, including its relationship with arts and literature; cinema, music, and performing arts; and photography and popular culture.
The writers build their analysis on Asef Bayat’s concept of the “city-inside-out” (Mostafa and Elbendary, p.6), whereby people take their lifeworlds outside their home and the coffeehouses become places through which people live those lifeworlds. Although it reads slightly confusing in the book, this concept is key to both the book’s premise and the cultural context it explores. The porous mobility between the public and private as represented in the coffeehouse culture along the lines of the “city-inside-out” is vital for societal structures that have strict formulations for public and private lives, for the home and the streets, and for the male and the female experiences of the cities. As such, the coffeehouse culture has strong political, economic, and intellectual implications.
While this valuable idea of the “city-inside-out” could have been clarified and elaborated upon a bit more in the book, the way it is matched with the concept of “liminality” (Mostafa and Elbendary, p. 56) enriches the discussions on the spatial dynamism of the coffeehouse. Adopted from architecture as a threshold, a transitory space to define hybridity in postcolonial studies, liminality refers to an in-between space where various kinds of interchange take place and multitudes of possibilities beyond the conventional binaries exist. The liminal space is where change is innately possible. In reference to this concept, Mostafa and Elbendary argue for the liminality of the traditional coffeehouse as a space where social and political change is born and bred.
The writers underline two different types of Egyptian coffeehouses in their work, the ahwa baladi (traditional coffeehouse) and the “cultural-historical” café/coffeehouse (Mostafa and Elbendary, p. 3), both of which they separate from the global franchises and chains. While the former, the traditional coffeehouse is found in every neighbourhood and is primarily frequented by men, the latter is enjoyed by men and women and is representative of the cosmopolitanism of the Egyptian culture and society. This aspect is one of the transregional qualities of the coffeehouse culture, as the same arguments could easily be made for the Turkish coffeehouses, particularly those in Istanbul. This transcultural link highlights the significance of the idea of the “city-inside-out” as it becomes manifest in the private and public cultures in the broader region.
In fact, one chapter I would like to have seen in the book is the transcultural, transregional element of the coffeehouse culture, especially since the history of the region bears much potential for interconnected discussions. While the Ottoman Empire is an evident connection that could have been followed up for a complex picture, the relations with the French and British Empires would further prove interesting for comparative discussions. Still, the Egyptian example on its own as explored by Mostafa and Elbendary is the epitome of the complex constitution of the coffeehouse culture and the dynamism of its relation to the broader local and global public.
In the book, the writers map out the cultural, economic, and political implications of the emergence of the coffeehouse as a public space of private encounters (city-inside-out). They discuss the literary aspects of the coffeehouse culture by focusing on the relationship between the literary worlds of the writers and the coffeehouses, both as depicted in the works and as a space where the creative acts of thinking, writing, and sharing take place. Accordingly, there is an entire chapter on the famous Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. Not only his own relationship to the coffeehouse culture through Café Riche, but also the place of the coffeehouse in his literature receives ample attention. With his many works centring on the Egyptian city culture, its squares, streets and coffeehouses, Mahfouz is no wonder dubbed ‘the writer of the coffeehouse’. Once again, parallels can be drawn with other cultural landscapes, such as, the Ottoman and modern Turkish intellectual cityscape, where coffeehouses and cafés have been renowned for being places frequented by a diverse range of artistic and intellectual figures.
The writers are quite comprehensive in their discussions on the coffeehouse as a cultural space. They draw a composite picture of the urban panorama of the Egyptian coffeehouse. A chapter is devoted to the representation of the traditional coffeehouse in Egyptian cinema from 1940s-1950s onward. As times change, the medium and the modes of representation also evolve. The coffeehouses, the streets, and the squares stand out as integral elements of urban life, while more and more female characters appear in the traditionally male space of the coffeehouse.
The writers also examine the Egyptian coffeehouse as a public space where historically and traditionally poets recite their poetry. This tradition continues in modern times as well with the addition of other kinds of creative performances, such as music and dance. The coffeehouse, therefore, is not only a place to come together and entertain, but also a place to reach an audience and engage. It is a place where art and the public meet in a diverse and enriching atmosphere.
The final chapter of the book comprises of interviews with a range of people that is representative of the cosmopolitan demography of Cairo. An atmosphere of progress and societal transformation stand out in these interviews: the coffeehouses are ‘where the real Egypt is to be found’. The traditional coffeehouse also contributes greatly to the resistance culture. Its impact on the 2011 Egyptian Revolution is undeniable. Some of these interviews also show the responses of the Cairenes to the revolutionary mood in the city at the time and in its aftermath. The observations on the coffeehouse culture in its relation to the pro-democracy protests in the country are somewhat limited in the book; however, the topic would surely require an entire study of its own.
It is not uncommon to come across representations and depictions of the coffeehouse culture as a part of the social, political, and cultural makeup of a city and studying the coffeehouse culture is a valuable opportunity to gain access to its local character. The Egyptian Coffeehouse is the kind of book that would appeal to both a broad and a specialist readership in this regard.
 Stefan Zweig, “Buchmendel,” in The Invisible Collection. Tr. Robert Boettcher. Kindle edition, 2021.
 Rıfat Ilgaz, Karartma Geceleri. Istanbul: Çınar, 2011.
 Naguib Mahfouz, Midaq Alley. Tr. Trevor LeGassick. New York: First Anchor Books, 1992.
 Dalia Said Mostafa and Amina Elbendary, The Egyptian Coffeehouse: Culture, Politics and Urban Space. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.
Burcu Alkan is a EUME Fellow since 2021. She specialises in comparative literature with a focus on the modern Turkish novel. She is the co-editor of a two-volume reference work: Dictionary of Literary Biography: Turkish Novelists Since 1960 (2013 & 2016). She also co-edited a volume titled Turkish Literature as World Literature (2021), which locates Turkish literature in the world literary scene as a source of influence and challenges the conventions in world and Turkish literary studies. Alkan is currently working within the field of medical humanities with an interest in the relationship between literature and psychiatry, sciences of the mind, and mental health.
Citation: The Egyptian Coffeehouse – Book Review by Burcu Alkan, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.01.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/44740