The Refugee Restaurants of Cairo
Just outside Cairo is a neighborhood known as Little Damascus, filled with refugees who fled Syria after the outbreak of civil war in 2011.
As the sun goes down over the city, the call to prayer rings out and the square gradually starts filling with people. The tables and chairs of the different coffee shops and restaurants merge into one another, and soon the air is filled with food and drink orders mixed with the duller tones of conversation. Of the different Arabic dialects to be heard here, the most prominent is Syrian. That's hardly surprising. This area—located west of Cairo within the satellite city 6th of October—is often referred to a "Little Damascus," thanks to the large number of people who moved here from Syria after 2011.
Most commotion is coming from Midan al-Sham, one of the many Syrian restaurants that opened up here in the last four years. Their tables on the square are all filled, and the restaurant's many different food stations are operating at full capacity. Almost everyone who works there seems to be Syrian, but the customers are a range of Palestinians, Iraqis, and Egyptians.
"Egyptians have always preferred Syrian food to Egyptian," says Samih, the owner and founder of Midan al-Sham. "And since so many people moved here [from Syria] after the revolution, lots of Syrian places have opened in Cairo." Samih came to 6th of October from Damascus three and a half years ago, opening the restaurant soon after. His staff is almost entirely composed of ex-Damascus residents. "The important thing for Egyptian is that the place is 'clean,'" says Samih. "If they feel the food is prepared cleanly and the restaurant is hygienic, then they will come." New Syrian restaurants like this have become a common feature in Cairo in recent years, but they are continuing a tradition that stretches back even further.
"Since the revolution, almost everyone here is Syrian," says Ahmed Aziz as he sits at the counter of Abo Hussein al-Iraqi, an Iraqi restaurant next door to Midan al-Sham. "Everyone here used to be Iraqi." Following the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a large population of Iraqis settled in 6th of October. As the Syrians are doing today, many newcomers opened Iraqi restaurants and businesses there. "Back then, most of our customers were Iraqi, but nowadays there aren't enough Iraqis left," says Ahmed. The Iraqi population has diminished over time, as residents moved on to other countries or returned to Iraq. Ahmed now relies on the other inhabitants of 6th of October to patronize his restaurant.
As he speaks, a Syrian couple comes in to place their order while a family of Palestinians take a table. A 24-year-old Egyptian named Ahmed Fatti can be overheard discussing the menu with one of the waiters. "Speak Egyptian," he says, "I want the meat you have outside." Ahmed Fatti is from the other side of Cairo, an upper-middle-class area in the east of the city. When he was growing up there was no Iraqi food scene in Egypt. "Nowadays it's famous," he says, "especially the meat. Egyptians love Iraqi meat." In just over a decade, the gastronomical terrain of Cairo has been changed by those fleeing conflict.
Some have had less success, however.
In the centre of Cairo, Ataba Square is a relic of the city's faded glory. Built around a statue of the 19th-century viceroy Ibrahim Pasha, the square was once home to fine boutiques, tailors, and luxury hotels. Today, the area is notably less affluent, and the crumbling shop façades now form the backdrop to impossibly slow-moving crowds of cars and people through streets strewn with garbage. The residents have also changed. For years now a population of sub-Saharan Africans has grown in Ataba, mainly made up of men here to work and do business, but also of families who have moved to escape war and persecution in Sudan and Eritrea.
In the backstreets behind the old buildings is a network of alleyways that host the various residences, coffee shops, and restaurants of those living in Ataba. One of these restaurants is half-owned by Ali Hussein. An Egyptian businessmen who has worked in restaurants and hotels from Madrid to Cairo, Ali saw an opportunity for a new business here along with his Sudanese friend and partner Suleyman. They opened Restaurant Sudan nine years ago and have been serving the Sudanese population ever since—almost exclusively. "Ninety-eight percent of our customers are Sudanese," says Ali, "with 1 percent foreigner and 1 percent Egyptian." In stark contrast to the Iraqi and Syrian restaurants in 6th of October, the local Egyptian population has not taken to the new cuisine.
Aside from Ali, there is one other Egyptian working in the restaurant, but not a single one to be seen at the tables. A handful of Egyptian food stalls, selling the few staple items of Egyptian street food, are close enough to smell the kitchen of Restaurant Sudan. "I have never eaten there," says Ahmed, appearing quite surprised by the question. "I have had my stall here for years and years and I have never thought about going in. I really don't know why."
"It's because Egyptians are closed," says Ali. "In general, they are closed. They like things the way they are. It's not racism—that's just how it is." Ali explains how he has tried to introduce Sudanese food to the Egyptian population in vain. "They think it will be too spicy, but it really isn't! A big part of the problem is the area we are in. People here are not up for trying new things." Ali is opening up a new restaurant in a more middle-class area of Cairo. "My hope is to bring Sudanese food to the Egyptians," he says. "I know it is much harder than Syrian or Lebanese, where people feel more connected to the culture, but I will keep trying."