By Hannah Wilkinson
The eerie silence, which reigned in the streets of Cairo immediately after the imposition of the curfew on 14 August, did not last long. Two weeks later, and the cafes of Soliman Gohar Street in Dokki are once again lit up and full of punters until late into the night.
Adham Radhy is sitting in just one such café, smoking shisha and exchanging news and banter with a large group of his friends seated around him. “When the curfew just started, we had to go and see how serious it was,” he said, “and on the first day the café wasn’t open. Now the street has filled up again and the café is open until three or four in the morning.”
The patrons of such cafés are aware that travelling from neighbourhood to neighbourhood is probably a step too far, but nothing is going to stop them from spending their evenings sipping on mint tea and sounding off about their day. Not even the power cut, which has been underway on Soliman Gohar Street for a full forty-five minutes.
Ashraf, the head waiter, rushes around serving drinks to his mostly familiar customers, shining a handheld torch into their faces as he takes their order. As a business which makes most of its money in the evening, Ashraf has a lot to lose from shutting down during curfew hours.
I asked Ashraf whether he minds me using his real name in the article. “Why would I mind?” He looked at me quizzically. “I’m not breaking curfew, look I’m staying here, in one place, all night!”
“Anyway,” he continued, “if I closed the café, where would these people go?” he shines the torch onto the gaggle of Radhy and his friends, as they flinch under the light and giggle. “This is basically like their home,” he explained, “like an extra room of their houses. The café can’t close; what would they do?”
Ashraf is not worried about the police or army coming to shut the café down; after all, he is doing his patriotic duty by keeping the place open, he says. “The police and the army need me,” he argued. “Keeping the café open reduces the number of people just wandering around the streets, so actually we are helping with the curfew.”
“If a policeman came and saw the café open he would probably sit and have tea with us,” Radhy added.
Ashraf is adamant that the café is one of the most important parts of Egyptian culture, noting that cultural bastions such as Naguib Mahfouz were well known to spend much of their time sitting around in their local roadside café. “And look around you. In my café no one is playing tawla. People are talking to each other. And it’s cheap,” he added, “Tea is only EGP 1.5.”
This last remark elicits heckles from the crowd: “It used to be only one guinea Ashraf, what happened?”
“It went up!” he fired back, defiantly.
“The café is the most important thing,” continued Radhy, ‘it’s how people know each other’s opinions, if something happened to Hamada in work today, he’ll tell me, if something happened in politics, that’s how I’ll know. We talk about politics, we talk about sport, we talk about everything.”
Mohammed Hamada has indeed spent much of his evening moaning about work. “There’s so much pressure these days, only bad news on the television, people come here to blow off steam and talk to their friends”.
The curfew has not deterred those who frequent the café, not so much as an act of defiance but, according to one of the customers, to fill a need. “No one is just going to go straight home from work and stay in the house all night,” Hamada said, “people would fight with each other! People would go mad! It’s impossible!”