Dissertation on Early 20th-century Cairo Coffeehouses Leads Penn Ph.D. Student to Egyptian and British Spy Reports

Two summers ago, Alon Tam embarked on a research trip throughout the Middle East and Europe that he calls his “archival world tour,” with stops in five cities in six months. Poring over texts in the overseas archives, the University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate turned to a unique source of information for his dissertation on 19th- and early 20th-century Cairo coffeehouses: Egyptian and British spy reports. 

The intelligence documents offer new insights about Egypt’s political history and provide a unique perspective on the tumultuous year of mass protests against British colonial rule, known as the Egyptian Revolution of 1919.

Cairo’s cafés, many of which were opened by European immigrants, were hubs for revolutionaries who met to organize demonstrations and plan protests.

Just as social media played a pivotal role in the 2011 Arab Spring, Tam says, coffeehouses played a major role in the 1919 Revolution.

“These coffeehouses were crawling with spies who wrote about what they heard eavesdropping on people’s conversations,” says Tam, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department of Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences.

He says that the state authorities, “whether Ottoman, Egyptian or British-colonial, always had an interest in knowing what was going on, and what was said in coffeehouses.”

The cafés were gathering places for intellectuals, the working class and immigrants. They helped shape a new politically active middle- and upper-class.

Tam says the rise of the effendia,” the Arabic word for “sir” used to describe the new middle class, led to an active café culture.

“These were middle-class people,” says Tam, “who had a need to come together and 'perform that class,' which meant they dressed a certain way, went to a certain place — coffeehouses — to talk about certain subjects and have certain social rituals.”

Such activities, says Tam, were “a clear marker of class.”

Members of this new middle class avidly read newspapers aloud in coffeehouses and passionately discussed politics, galvanizing a new, class-based, political consciousness. During the 1919 Revolution, members of the effendia organized anti-colonial demonstrations and recruited others to join their cause. Pamphlets from various nationalist parties or strike committees were regularly distributed in Cairo’s coffeehouses. Instructions for strikers and demonstrators were also given to those frequenting the cafés.

For his research on the history of the role of coffeehouses in Egyptian popular politics, Tam spent hours in the British National Archives, Durham University’s Special Collections and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

His research trip in Europe began in Kew, in the suburbs of London, at the British National Archives, the summer of 2015. The first spy document Tam found was titled “Foreign Office files from Cairo in 1919.” The document was a copy of a daily military intelligence report which had a sub-section titled "Native Opinion in Cafés and Bars,"  containing hundreds of daily reports from the entire year.

“I hit a jackpot,” Tam says.

The spy report began, “A Military Intelligence report, dated 6 May 1919, recording speeches made, circulars distributed, and opinions heard in Groppi, the most famous café in Cairo, regarding a proclamation by General Allenby that striking students should go back to schools and universities.”

Tam then went to Durham University’s Palace Green Library to search the personal archive of Abbas Hilmi II, the khedive, or ruler, of Egypt who reigned from 1894 to 1914. Tam’s Ph.D. advisor, Heather Sharkey, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, had given him a tip that the khedive’s personal papers were there.

Both Sharkey and Tam were surprised by the wealth of information in the Egyptian intelligence reports from the 1890s to the 1910s. The reports in the archives, hand-written in Arabic, documented conversations and opinions heard in coffeehouses patronized by people from the new middle classes and lower classes increasingly involved in nationalist and anti- government politics. The reports documented conversations and opinions heard in coffeehouses patronized by people from the new middle classes and lower classes increasingly involved in nationalist and anti- government politics.

Tam’s dissertation reconstructs Cairo’s coffeehouses as urban spaces for political organizing and explores social, class and gender dynamics as well as questions of modernity.

He examined photographic collections in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, including, for example, the portrait of a cross-dressing coffeehouse dancer, which offers insights into the gender and sexual dynamics of coffeehouse culture in Egypt during this period.

“Conventional wisdom would have it that coffeehouses were mainly a male space. In my dissertation, I’m challenging that notion,” Tam says. “Women were there. They were there as entertainers, singers, dancers. They were sometimes owners.”

One of the highlights of his sleuth work was tracking down Franco Groppi, the fourth generation and last family member to own Cairo’s famed Groppi coffeehouse. Tam conducted a three-hour interview at Groppi’s home in Geneva.

“I discovered they had a real food industry around this coffeehouse. They had farms, cows for the milk, a food factory, candy factory, ice cream factory and chocolate factory. The king of Egypt, Farouk, sent tons of Groppi chocolate to Queen Elizabeth II when she married Prince Phillip.”

The Tel Aviv born Tam’s connection to Egyptian coffeehouses is through his father’s family in Cairo. Coffeehouse culture is a social institution Tam knows intimately. In Egypt, every neighborhood has a coffeehouse. There are thousands in Cairo alone.

Tam says coffeehouses are to Egypt, what bars and pubs are to America and England.

“I usually joke and say coffeehouses here are either libraries or gas stations. Libraries, because you sit with your laptop, not interacting with other people. Around the Mediterranean, however, you go to a coffeehouse to sit and talk to people and not be with your laptop. You don’t go to a coffeehouse to grab and go like a gas station.”