According to a report in yesterday’s al-Shourouk, Café Qashtamar in Abbasiya is closing to make way for an apartment building. The cafe, which some might call iconic, figured heavily in a couple Naguib Mahfouz stories, Qashtamar (قشتمر) and One Hour Remains (الباقي من الزمن ساعة), neither of which TBE has read. It was also the café Anthony Bourdain visited on that dreadful episode of No Reservations set in Cairo.
Anyhow, TBE determined that the story is ideal for the kind of local color piece that journalists produce when Cairo is not on the international news agenda. We put on our Jeffrey Fleishman hat to write a suitable encomium-for-the-café/what-does-it-all-mean think piece. Full disclosure: TBE has never set foot in Café Qashtamar.
Café’s Closing Signals the End of an Era (with video)
In the corner, a maudlin young man, barely 17 by the looks of him, strums a plaintive tune on his oud, the Middle Eastern instrument made famous by Muhammad Abd al-Wahab, a former denizen of Café Qashtamar. A few listeners sit rapt, immune to the chaos that engulfs the surrounding cityscape like swaddling clothes.
Just a few feet away, laughter rings out from a table of elderly men, the hilarity punctuated only by the sound of backgammon pieces being slapped into place. From behind his desk, Hamada al-Helwani, Qashtamar’s manager, looks on, perhaps pondering how this small window into Cairo’s demimonde of artists and intellectuals is closing, its customers never again to indulge in its subtle charms.
Qashtamar’s rise to fame began in the 1960s, when Mohammad Abdel Wahab, a composer and singer whose fame is eclipsed only by Umm Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez, used to while away hours here drinking tea and greeting friends and star-struck fans alike in the café’s courtyard. Its prominence only grew when Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz named a story after the café and set parts of his novel One Hour Remains here.
Like Cairo itself, Qashtamar has endured a long downhill slide since its 1960s heyday, and now Abdel Wahab’s heirs are looking to sell the place. Café denizens describe the gallantry and good manners that seemed to flow forth from Cairenes much as the Nile flows through the city. That era has faded, however, in a haze of smog from unregulated microbuses and the garbage fires that rage in Cairo’s many informal settlements. “These days everyone is scrambling to make a buck,” said Ismail Qadri, a jovial man with an expertly waxed moustache. “The poor so they can put food on the table and the rich so they can buy a new villa on the Riviera,” he added, a twinkle in his eye.
Although the lack of suitable housing is plain to see for all but the most cloistered of visitors to Cairo, some question the decision to build a luxury highrise on the site of Qashtamar. According to al-Helwani, the owner, “If they built subsidized housing for the newly married, I would understand. But no one who can afford these apartments wants to live here. What’s the use?”
Some patrons talk of fighting the decision, of using vague “official” connections to keep Qashtamar open, but like so many plots hatched in Cairo’s cafes over the centuries, this one appears doomed to failure in the face of an unresponsive government. There is also talk of contacting students at the American University in Cairo or Cairo University to organize an oral history project, as was done with another of Cairo’s fading institutions, Café Riche.
For now, though, there are only memories tinged with bitterness, like the bitterness of a cup of strong Arabic coffee without sugar that Sadeq Safwan sat drinking as he declared, “Qashtamar is like home for me. I grew up here. Will I now be made to feel like a stranger in my own city?”
Special Video Feature: Patrons react to the closing of Cafe Qashtamar (محمد عبد الوهاب- الظلم ده كان ليه؟).