Latté, sadah or soda?
A café can be very much more than just a place to drink, says Dina Ezzat
, who gets a taste of Egypt's coffee-shop culture
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Clockwise from top left: El-Azizi shares coffee and cigarettes with clients at the traditional café of Dar Al-Kotob in Old Cairo; a French tourist couple takes a break at the traditional but posh Naguib Mahfouz café at Khan Al-Khalili; downtown Cairo makes way for the new international chain of cafés, however, Egyptians and foreigners alike still enjoy a good puff at a typical Egyptian café
On the pavement of the Al-Qahwa Al-Thaqafiya, a café off Bab Al-Louq Square in downtown Cairo, Mohamed Abdel-Aziz sits comfortably in his favourite café as if he were in his second home. He looks as if he is resting in his living room, as Ashour, the café's 60-year-old waiter, comes to say "Good Morning" -- which sounds a little odd as it is two in the afternoon.
Ashour is soon back with a tray, from which he serves Abdel-Aziz, who has not placed an order, with a cup of tea with milk and a glass of water. Ten minutes later, he is back with a small package brought over by a younger waiter. He hands it to Abdel-Aziz, who unwraps it and starts eating his sandwiches. Half an hour later, Ashour is back at Abdel-Aziz's table, this time with a small glass of Turkish coffee and a tall glass of very cold water.
The two men hardly exchange a few words. They seem to be conducting a pre-set scene that both know by heart. After all, Ashour has been a waiter at this café for more than 40 years, during five of which Abdel-Aziz has been a regular customer.
"I know my customers very well," Ashour says. "I know what they want to order, and in many cases I just serve it to them -- unless they say otherwise." Abdel-Aziz, too, who has recently graduated from film school, seems no less proud to be a customer of this particular café. "This is not just any café," he says. "This is a café with a certain history and certain level of customer."
According to its owner, the Al-Qahwa Al-Thaqafiya has been in the same Cairo square for over six decades, and during all that time it has rarely had other than regular customers, or at least not many.
"We have our customers," he says, "who come here because we offer them exactly what they want. They like the atmosphere of the café and feel that they are at home here. They don't feel uncomfortable with each other."
Judging by the smiles and greetings that some of the clients exchange, Ashour seems to be right. This is a small café where most of the 20 or so customers are regulars and whom Ashour and his two assistants know pretty well.
However, Abdel-Aziz frequents the Al-Qahwa Al-Thaqafiya for purposes other than just to drink a cup of coffee. He also likes to have his breakfast there, and it is a place where he holds business meetings.
"I live in a small apartment with my family, and I need a place to meet the people I work with and others that I want to establish contacts with," he says. "I also need a quiet place where I can sit to read, write and think." Abdel-Aziz meets his friends at the café, as well as his girl friend, though "I only meet her at the café during the day time," he says, "not in the evenings. A street café is not the right place for women to hang around in during the evenings."
At a table not very far from Abdel-Aziz, Radwa, an actress in her 20s, is also enjoying a cup of Turkish coffee and a glass of water while reading a book. Radwa was first introduced to the Al-Qahwa Al-Thaqafiya through a group of friends, "both men and women," who suggested the place for a cold drink to cool off during a hot summer day.
At first Radwa was hesitant about the idea. "I wasn't sure how I would feel about it," she says. "I mean, sitting at a street café, and such a small one." Now, however, a few months after her first visit, Radwa feels comfortable enough to frequent the café by herself.
She does not feel particularly self-conscious, she says, and she does not need to think too much about what she is wearing. She just wears what she usually wears: jeans and a longish shirt. "I come here every day, and I don't pay much attention to the criticisms people might have. For me, this is a good meeting place. It is convenient, and it is not too expensive."
Radwa is not the only woman who frequents street cafés. Off the more popular Bab Al-Khalq Square, also in downtown Cairo, female lawyers sit with their colleagues and clients to review papers ahead of sessions at the near-by southern Cairo court.
"Although male customers still outnumber females, we still have female lawyers, artists and business people as regulars," says Ahmed El-Azizi, owner and manager of the Dar Al-Kotob, another street café.
Indeed, El-Azizi, like Ashour, takes pride in having female clients. For them, as for the waiters at the street cafés on the corniche in Alexandria, the presence of women customers can be a sign that their cafés are not only popular ones, but ones that reach out to all sections of the community. In lower- income districts, cafés are off-limits for women, whether escorted by male companions or not.
Traditionally, Egyptian street coffee shops have been associated with men -- especially men from the lower-middle classes. In the past, some cafés have been specifically associated with journalists, musicians or actors. For blue- and white-collar workers alike, a café is a place to socialise or do business over hot or cold drinks.
Such men spend their time in cafés playing chess, cards and above all backgammon, and they also follow the news on the radio, TV, or the free newspapers, and, most recently, cable. If arguments have to take place, it is better that these are had at a café and not at the house.
"For years, cafés served as the main social hub for many Egyptians. With the exception of the upper- middle and upper classes, who were more dependent on sports and social clubs, Egyptians went, and still go, to cafés to meet people," says sociologist Saniyah Saleh.
According to Saleh, until a few years ago cafés were the obvious places for communication to take place, though, she adds, wider access to technology today, especially with easier access to land lines and mobile phones, has made people less dependent on cafés. Tighter budgets, due to the higher costs of living, have also forced people to reduce what could be qualified as "extras", café visits included.
Waiters at cafés in lower-income neighbourhoods also complain about their clients' decreasing spending. An average of three drinks and two shishas [water pipes] every three hours has now been reduced to two drinks, mostly the less expensive tea and coffee with medium sugar, and one shisha.
Fewer and fewer customers are inclined to spend money beyond the drinks they order. Shoe-polishers, who used to be based next to almost every café, are now scarce and so are the newspaper sellers who used to pass through cafés to sell papers.
Historians have noted that during past centuries, coffee shops were a centrepiece for the social life of Egyptians, especially in cities like Cairo and Alexandria. Politics was much discussed, as was literature.
In his novels, the Nobel-Prize winning writer Naguib Mahfouz often makes the local coffee shop a place where angry Egyptians meet to express their frustrations at the British occupation, or the failed promises of the 1952 Revolution, for example. The television dramatist Osama Anwar Okasha also makes the Al-Helmiya Café the centrepiece of his celebrated soap opera Layali Al-Helmiya (Helmiya Nights).
El-Azizi, the manager of the Dar Al-Kotob café, is living testimony of the social, political and cultural roles played by the coffee shops in Egypt. During his early years as a young waiter, El-Azizi proudly recalls serving coffee and tea to the prominent poet Ahmed Rami, for example.
"He was a very special customer," El-Azizi says. "He would come in and have hot drinks -- never a cold drink, even during the hottest summer days -- and he would only exchange a few words with the other customers, preferring to sit, sip his drink, and read." El-Azizi also recalls the early days of famous artists who made their debuts at venues on the Mohamed Ali Street in Cairo where many street cafés are still located.
"The singer Moharram Fouad and the belly dancer Tahiya Karioka were both once here," he says.
Like El-Azizi, Ashour has many recollections to share of what they both call "political talk," especially from the late 1940s to the late 1970s. Customers used to discuss the British occupation, the Egyptian kings (Fouad and Farouk) and ministers, the 1952 Revolution and the Arab-Israeli wars.
Both men have vivid memories of how customers once gathered around the radio sets placed on high shelves to listen to the news during the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, the defeat of the Egyptian and Arab armies by Israel in 1967, and the crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 October War.
Talking politics was a dominant feature of the cafés, bars and tea rooms frequented by the upper-middle and upper classes at the time. The downtown Café Riche and the Groppi tea rooms in Cairo, as well as fashionable tea rooms like Delices and Le Grand Trianon and Baudrot in Alexandria, were all once venues for discussing politics, their managers and staff recall.
However, one measure of the transformation that has taken place in Egypt's café scene over recent years is that today customers seem largely uninterested in talking politics. "When I first took a job here in the 1960s, I often heard customers discussing political issues," says Anwar, a waiter at the Delices tea room at Ramleh Square in Alexandria, "but this is no longer the case. Now people come here to find entertainment."
The groups of young men and women who once discussed political developments in Egypt and the Arab world over cups of coffee are now only a memory, Anwar says. Most of the café's customers today consist of "couples, families who bring their kids for ice cream, or visiting foreigners".
Ashour and El-Azizi have similar accounts to share. The TV sets that have replaced the radios in many cafés are now rarely tuned to the news channels, though during major events like the US-led invasion of Iraq, many cafés had to subscribe to cable services to provide their clients with Al-Jazeera.
Mostly, however, what people like to watch today are football games, primetime soap operas and foreign movies.
Customers of the street coffee shops are also more interested in business today than they are in politics. In Cairo, Alexandria and Damietta, café-goers can easily be heard discussing selling a car, or what they can expect to earn from an overseas work contract, or the budget for refurbishing an apartment. Politics, on the other hand, seems to come up only briefly, when a customer makes a passing remark about an item in a newspaper, for example. More often than not these are items from the independent or opposition papers, and they mostly have to do with the doings of top state officials.
"You have to be careful," adds Ahmed, sipping a medium sugar Turkish coffee at a small café in Abbasiya in eastern Cairo. "You sit and talk with someone and you don't know who could be listening at a nearby table."
Some café managers also say that as a result of the enhanced security regulations that have followed the wave of public demonstrations that have taken place in Egypt over the past few years, they have politely asked their customers to steer clear of politics to avoid "security headaches".
"If the security people are upset, they can send [representatives of the Ministry of Health] to close down the café for violation of health regulations. I live off the income of this café, and I do not want to get into trouble," says Saleh, the owner of an Alexandria café.
Now in his early 70s, he recalls very well the days when politics provided a main topic for café talk. At this time too there were security concerns, but it was not a problem to discuss political issues like the Israeli occupation following the 1967 war. "Today [people] talk about other things, like the president and his son. But my café is not the place for this type of discussion, and I make it clear when I have to," he says firmly.
"However, it also has to be said that general interest in politics has decreased. People today are unlikely to engage in the same kind of political talk like they used to, even in their own homes. The political apathy that marks society today cannot be overlooked. After all, discussion in cafés reflects developments in society at large," says Saleh
Moreover, Saleh says, politics is now being "consumed in different ways. People are more interested in reading what the newspapers have to say about the main political issues than they are in spending time discussing political issues among themselves," he says.
Another person who has noted these changes is Asmaa, a member of the opposition 6 April Group, who says that "politics is now discussed more through the Internet than at the cafés." Asmaa frequents street cafés with other members of the group, but this is mostly a social exercise. "Most of our political coordination is done via the Internet," she says.
Asmaa and her peers used to use home Internet access for such purposes, but when "we felt insecure we moved to Internet cafés, or international café chains that offer free access."
Indeed, it used to be from these fashionable coffee shops, which now dot the higher- income neighbourhoods of Cairo, that politics was discussed online, such that it was difficult or impossible to eavesdrop. However, all that changed in the spring of 2008, when the ministries of the interior and communication forced all customers at cafés that offer Internet access to register their ID details.
The new regulations prompted a drop in revenues for some cafés, managers say, but not significantly. "Those who used to come for the Internet access were not very many, and they had limited budgets anyway," says Amr, a waiter at one of the Heliopolis branches of Costa Coffee.
According to Mohamed, a waiter at a Mohandessin branch of Starbucks, the regular client of his café "is the one who comes to enjoy the distinct taste of our coffee and our cookies and enjoy the comfortable and informal atmosphere that we offer. He doesn't come primarily for the Internet access."
Obviously Costa, Starbucks, Cilantro and other international chains cafés offer a distinctly different atmosphere from that offered by the Al-Qahwa Al-Thaqafiya and the Dar Al-Kotob. They are equally different from chic "street cafés" like Al-Fishawi in Khan Al-Khalili in Cairo, where an order of tea with mint costs LE5, five times more than at Dar Al-Kotob and not much less than the LE10 at the international chains.
The international chains also offer a wide variety of Italian, French and American coffees -- at around LE20 per order -- which are not available at cafés like Al-Fishawi, and are unheard of at places like Dar Al-Kotob, whose manager is proud to say that they have a wide range of drinks, "not just coffee and tea, but also herbal tea and different types of soda," and the Al-Horreya café in Bab Al-Louq Square, whose manager offers Heineken along with the local Stella beer.
"If you go to the Naguib Mahfouz café at the heart of Khan Al-Khalili, a glass of tea or a cup of coffee will cost you as much as in Cilantro," comments Sherine, a financial analyst at an international company. Yet, she explains that at the Naguib Mahfouz café you also get a totally different atmosphere, such that you are able to feel you are in Egypt.
"When you go to Costa or Starbucks, you are not exactly in Egypt, or anywhere specific. You are just somewhere in the world, since these chains are exactly the same wherever you are, whether in Cairo, Beirut or Seattle," she says.
A resident of Heliopolis, Sherine says that she likes to go to branches of the international chains in the older quarters of the city, with Beanos, Cilantro and Starbucks in Korba being among her favourites. "I used to love Groppi in Heliopolis, and I used to go there as a child," she reminisces. "I would love to take my children there too, but the place is so run down now that I substitute the new places," she says.
However, for Sherine what she values most are the reminders of the Heliopolis she loves. If she were able to choose, she would go to Al-Fishawi or Naguib Mahfouz, though she says that these are not places her children would enjoy.
For Sherine, the spread of such international café chains is a consequence of globalisation. It is a little sad, she says, but it is inevitable. Similarly, in the opinion of a regular client of the downtown Café Riche, Maged, "the spread of these international chains should not come at the expense of the more authentic places that have layers of history about them. If this happened, it would be a sad loss."
Maged is not concerned about the fate of the more street cafés. "They would survive because they have their own customers, and they are not challenged by the spread of the international chains. It is the upper- middle and upper-class cafés that are at serious risk."
The image presented by Mahmoud, the nearly 60-year-old waiter at the Brazilian Coffee branch off Ramleh Square in Alexandria, is perhaps as good a testimony as any of the fears expressed by Maged.
Mahmoud has now abandoned the white outfit his clients have known him to wear for some 40 years, even if today he is still serving cappuccinos and espressos behind the refurbished bar of this century-old café. Like other, younger waiters, today he wears a sports shirt of the Brazilian football team. "Kaka, 8" is written on the back, though the Egyptian waiter of Nubian origin bears little resemblance to the young football player from the Brazilian national team.
Much more has changed besides Mahmoud's outfit. The café's interiors have also recently been redone to make the place similar to the international chains. The coffee and tea served have also lost their taste and their original cups and saucers.
At the Starbucks terrace at Saint Stefano, a 20-minute drive from the Brazilian Coffee, Saleh, a retired army officer, regrets that he has had to abandon his favourite café off Ramleh to a modern café "that has no soul". Yet, he was no longer happy at the Brazilian Coffee, since, he says, after the renovation work "the coffee was not as good, and the place had also lost its soul."
Saleh still goes to the Brazilian Coffee every once in a while for old times' sake, however, and he feels that there is no particular tie between him and his new café. "There is nothing particular about it. The coffee is good, the place is clean, and it is an open-air café that overlooks the sea," he says.
In their book The Coffee Shop of Egyptians, Mohamed Kamal Hassan and Mustafa Al-Husseini argue that there nevertheless needs to be a certain relationship between a client and his café. "It is not just a matter of a few chairs, a few tables and some ashtrays randomly placed here and there, and it is not just about people playing backgammon or dominos, or watching a football game while sipping their tea," they write.
For them, a café is a place with which one finds, or at least develops, a certain affinity -- unless it is simply a place to meet someone or just go to for a drink. This, they say, was once the purpose of the cafés stationed next to offices and courts of law, these being known more for business meetings than for their regular customers.
Yet, real cafés offer something more, and guidebooks that attempt to introduce tourists to Cairo or Alexandria are never without references to these cities' traditional cafés, especially Al-Fishawi and Naguib Mahfouz, though foreigners tend also to frequent other, less touristic places, like Noubar and Al-Central.
During the holy month of Ramadan, many people spend some time at such street cafés, including the touristic ones, though most cafés tend to suspend business during the day time. "We used to be open for tourists and those who do not fast, but a few years ago the administration decided that it was not a good idea to serve clients during Ramadan, so we now start at sunset," says Younis, a waiter at Al-Fishawi.
It is mainly at the Western-style cafés and branches of the international coffee chains and the cafés of five-star hotels that coffee and tea is served prior to sunset during Ramadan.
However, as soon as evening comes it is in the street cafés that the true mood of Ramadan can be most clearly sensed.
"We serve special Ramadan drinks, like qamar eldin [apricot juice] and Karkadeh [hibiscus]. We serve customers until the break of dawn when the fast starts," El-Azizi says.
Additional reporting by Mariam Fishere