Creative Cities – A Literary Tour through Down Town Cairo

Creative-Cities: Re-Framing Downtown was the headline of the conference that took place on 31.10/01.11 in the Oriental Hall of the American University of Cairo (AUC) near Tahrir Place. The topic of the international symposium with speakers that traveled to Cairo from as far as Chile was the role of culture as a catalyst for development. Down Town Cairo and its structural evolution was at the center of discussions, especially concerning the Arts, its spaces and doers.

At the afternoon of the first conference day, several theme-tours revolving round literature, cinema, architecture and Down Town Cairo by bike were organised by the Cluster Mapping Initiative (CUIP) with the starting point at AUC Tahrir. I was lucky to participate in the literary tour led by Samia Mehrez, professor of Arabic Literature at the AUC and literary critic. The idea behind was to discover places related to the literary life in Cairo, that are depicted in contemporary Egyptian novels. Making the AUC Campus itself the starting point wasn’t pure image-cultivation. The institute from colonial origins is a motive and relevant setting in numerous novels. Mehrez referred to Edward Said’s “Out of Place” (1999), Ihsan Abdel Quddus’ book “Ana Hurra” (I am Free, 1952) and the work of Mai Khaled “Mi’ad Akhir fi Qa’at at Ewart” (The Last Seat in Ewart Hall, 2005) to exemplify the literary converting of historic changes that effected the life on campus.

We  glimpsed at the French Lycée in Muhammed Mahmoud street and headed for Tahrir Square, THE place of umpteen well-known and lesser well-known novels, blogs and other writings of Egypt’s Revolution in January 2011. Mona Prince’s “Revolution is My Name” (2014) was a well chosen example for a literary eye-witness account of its author.  As we walked on to the famous Café Riche with Zahret el Bustan right behind it, Mehrez explained to us what is by some literati labelled as “triangle of horror”.  Presumably Sonallah Ibrahim was the first to refer to Talaat Harb Square, Riche Café and the Cairo Atelier as such to illustrate the sometimes distressing rapidity with which rumors are spread in the intellectual scene that frequents those places. The expression also demonstrates the symbolic power that the in some ways closed literary circle exerts on the careers of its members and want-to be’s.

The Cairo Atelier in Karim al-Daula Street used to be an essential meeting point for writers and newcomers that sought for recognition in the scene. If you wanted to get accepted,  to rub shoulders and access the field,  up to the late 90’s Cairo Atelier was the place to visit frequently. In the Greekclub in Mahmud Basyouni Street you won’t see many of the avant-gardists who started to prefer the Bar at Lotus  Hotel , both of them have nice rooftop and a friendly atmosphere, but in price Greek Club is steepier. Right at the roundabout of Talaat Harb Café Groppi is situated, once famous for its excellent pâtisserie,  glamour and exclusivity,  wore off during the last decade. Currently Groppi is closed and nobody seems to know, when it will be opened again. But as Café Riche that also has been closed down for  a while after its former owner had died but was re- opened like three months ago – legends don´t die so fast.

Last but not least our group got the chance to visit the automobile club, the high-class clientele of which is persuasively pictured in Alaa al-Aswany´s homonymous book. A discussion on the literary and architectural representation of Cairo closed the inspiring walk through Down Town leaving most of its participants with a broadened view on the city.