19th and 20th century coffeehouses in Cairo, Egypt, were an urban hub for revolutionaries, intellectuals, writers, middle- and upper-class men and women, workers, immigrants, and people from different ethnic, racial, and religious groups. Beyond the daily leisure activities they enjoyed there, coffeehouses were a place to get the news, discuss personal or public affairs, and even recruit and organise for political action.
Thus, tracing the history of Cairo’s coffeehouses can offer invaluable insights into Egypt’s social, cultural, and political history.
Indeed, Cairo’s coffeehouses appear everywhere in the historical record, from literature, to memoirs, journals, photographs, films, statistical yearbooks, travel accounts, and more. One unique source of information is state surveillance records. The state, whether Ottoman, Egyptian, or British-colonial, always had an interest in knowing what was going on, and what was said, in coffeehouses, as a measure for ‘public opinion’ that had the potential to turn into political action.
Tipped by a study of the popular music industry in Egypt, which referenced British intelligence reports mentioning popular songs spreading throughout Cairo’s coffeehouses during those year-long mass protests against British colonial rule, known to Egyptians as the 1919 Revolution, 1 I set out to The National Archives in Kew. There, I started a journey of reverse-engineering the history of the role of coffeehouses in Egyptian popular politics. Continue reading »
- 1.Ziad Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) ^