x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Cafe Arabia combines a love of art and desire for community

The artist and restauranter Aida Mansour wanted to bring something like Vienna's Landmark Cafe to the UAE.

The Wall of Fame Arabia in Cafe Arabia was inspired by a bar the owner visited in Scotland. Ravindranath K / The National
The Wall of Fame Arabia in Cafe Arabia was inspired by a bar the owner visited in Scotland. Ravindranath K / The National

I’ve been in the UAE since 1990, but my inspiration for Cafe Arabia goes back to when I was studying in Beirut. My friends and I used to go to a tiny, simple cafe with only five tables. The owner served only tea, coffee and whatever she baked that day. It made me realise how you can create something from little or no resources.

The Landmark Cafe in Vienna, where the likes of Arthur Miller and Andy Warhol would discuss ideas and introduce their works, was another inspiration. After visiting there I felt I wanted to bring something similar here in the UAE. I wanted Cafe Arabia to be a community cafe, with members active in literature, music and art.

As well as holding a book club, art clubs and film nights, we show and sell the work of local artists and artisans. We also hold a monthly arts and craft bazaar.

People need to support individually owned, independent businesses here. We need more people to create new concepts with distinctive characters, and not just copy international chains.

The things we sell in the cafe are a combination of things I collect through my trips and travel: Moroccan green tea pots, lanterns, Lebanese mouth-blown glass, Palestinian hand-painted plates, Syrian and Egyptian handmade ornaments. The local artisans we support include the cushion designer Moon By Mazoon and the artist Jen Simon (02 643 9698), whose prints are her reflections on living in the UAE.

Decorating Cafe Arabia single-handedly and with a minimal budget was a big achievement. I had to use my personal home furniture, and all my cutlery and crockery.

My Wall of Fame Arabia was inspired by a bar I visited in Scotland, which has a wall of great Scotsmen and women. I wanted to do the same with a gallery of Arabs who have made a difference on the global stage. 

I love modern quirky art, and my work reflects that. It is our way of making life less serious.

I was told I should only portray Sheikh Zayed in a serious black and white image, but I went ahead with the multicoloured piece because I felt that this is a man of all seasons, whose legacy is beyond borders or time. He was also well-known for his sense of humour, wit and optimism and here I portray him just like that. It is an optimistic, happy and reassuring image. I get lots of orders for this piece – even from a couple of royals.

Cafe Arabia is on 15th Street, between Second and 24th, opposite Choueifat school. Opening hours are 8am to 10pm weekdays and 8am to 11pm on weekends. For more information on the cafe or on Aida Mansour’s art, contact the Cafe Arabia office at 02 643 9699. You can also visit Cafe Arabia’s page on Facebook