Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 April 2008
Issue No. 891
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Kenyan, Brazilian, Arabica, long or short latte with or without a shot of espresso, cappuccino, plain coffee with milk or fancy herbal teas -- all are available on demand 24/7 at the coffee shops that have sprouted up over the last decade in almost every quarter of Cairo. Fayza Hassan samples the offerings of coffee culture

The cup runneth over

Kenyan, Brazilian, Arabica, long or short latte with or without a shot of espresso, cappuccino, plain coffee with milk or fancy herbal teas -- all are available on demand 24/7 at the coffee shops that have sprouted up over the last decade in almost every quarter of Cairo. Fayza Hassan samples the offerings of coffee culture

Click to view caption
Café Riche in downtown Cairo; café ultra riche in the upmarket Zamalek; and café pauvre in the popular district of Bulaq

It is twelve o'clock on a cold winter day in Cairo. From the gate of the American University students come out in droves, and, defying the heavy traffic, run across the street to dive through an inconspicuous door. It opens onto a brightly lit area featuring glassed-in counters displaying appetising cakes and sandwiches. However, this is not what attracts the young people. Instead, they hurry up the crowded spiral staircase to the second floor.

Upstairs, the din is deafening. Young people occupying a variety of chairs and settees are huddled around small tables, chatting loudly, ordering, drinking and eating. There are veiled and unveiled girls, many in Islamic dress, others daringly showing well-exercised midriffs, and bearded or clean- shaven young men in designer jeans who strut about or engage in animated conversations that sound more like shouting matches. Some have found a relatively secluded alcove where they are working away on laptops. They will stay all afternoon to finish an assignment in better spirit than in their own homes, where absentee parents or meddlesome ones cramp their style.

In every café across the city the scene is the same, whether taking place indoors, spilling outdoors onto crowded sidewalks, or inside busy shopping malls. Most of these cafés feature huge TV screens showing sporting events or tuned to stations featuring foreign musical clips. It has become a tradition among the young to rush to a favourite café to watch important football matches, bonding with supporters and vocally berating opponents.

This self-contained, affluent, under-thirty, population mixes well in the hubbub of the warm and colourful premises that have been designed specifically to attract westernised youngsters who would soon move to other venues if they did not get what they felt their sophistication entitled them to.

The competition for this demographic patronage is therefore fierce, as dozens of similar cafés in all the prosperous quarters of Cairo compete for their business. However, such places, offering an excellent variety of quality coffees and light meals, are far from cheap and they are conspicuously the preserve of a privileged class.

At the other end of the spectrum, the traditional qahwa baladi (popular café) still exists in almost every corner of the city or countryside, as well as in popular districts and small hamlets. According to the novelist Gamal al-Ghitani in his introduction to the Arabic translation of Gérard Georges Lemaire's L'Orient des Cafés, such baladi cafés have always existed in Egypt, though naturally they were not named qahwas (the Arabic word for coffee) before coffee was introduced into Egypt during the 16th century. Before this happened, al-Ghitani says that the customers of such places drank tea or infusions of caraway and anis seeds.

However, once coffee had arrived in Egypt through the good offices of a Sufi sheikh called Abu Bakr Ibn Abdalla, it soon became the subject of religious controversy. While orthodox sheikhs deemed it intoxicating and forbad it, Sufis extolled its many merits. Religious controversy notwithstanding, coffeehouses increased by the day.

From time to time a traveler would mention the Cairo cafés in his journals, but only to indicate that they were rather dismal erections at the sides of the road made of a tented roof and featuring mastabas covered with cheap reed carpets where the poor whiled away the time. It is only with E W Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians -- a work produced after it's author had lived in Egypt between 1825 and 1849 -- that we are presented with a more elaborate description.

"Cairo contains above a thousand Kahwehs, or coffee-shops," writes Lane. "The kahweh is, generally speaking, a small apartment, whose front, which is towards the street is of open wooden work, in the form of arches...Each person brings with him his own tobacco and pipe. Coffee is served by the kahwegee (or attendant of the shop), at the price of five feddahs a cup or ten for a little bekreg (or pot) of three or four cups. The kahwegee also keeps two or three nargeelehs or sheeshehs, and gozehs, which latter are used for smoking both tumbak (or Persian tobacco) and the hasheesh (or hemp)."

By the 20th century, the coffeehouses had become an intrinsic part of the social, intellectual and political life of Egyptian men. Electing a specific café implied allegiance to a political party or the absence thereof. It also betrayed the state of mind and finances of the patrons. Even more importantly, it was a serious affair and the inalienable right of every adult Egyptian male.

When in Naguib Mahfouz's novel Palace of Desire the young Kamal takes his friend Fuad to Ahmed Abduh's coffeehouse, for example, "a strange space in the belly of the earth beneath Khan al-Khalili Bazaar," he mentions that his presence in the café would upset his mother should she find out about it. "She thinks most patrons of coffeehouses are drug addicts and people of ill repute," he explains, adding that his older brother Yassin is free to frequent the place since he is a grown-up.

But that was in the 1920s. Today, Kamal would not have to hide from his mother, since Americanised coffeehouses now target the young, the sportive, the healthy of body and mind (and purse). The less affluent usually repair to more traditional cafés, of which there is still a fair number and which are often suitable for mixed company. Here the prices have not yet reached the same forbidding heights, but the fare on offer is more in the line of qahwa sukkar ziada (extra-sweet Turkish coffee) and ordinary roast beef and cheese sandwiches with no side-serving of fried potatoes. These places, now in decline, include the Horreya Café in Bab El-Luq, Café Riche on Talaat Harb Street, and the battered bars and cafés on Emad Eddin Street.

According to Samir Raafat, author of Cairo, the Glory Years, when it was first established Café Riche extended from its present location to Midan Soliman Pacha, now Midan Talaat Harb. Most of the area south-east of the square had belonged to the palace of Muhammad Ali's son, though this was eventually acquired by the Egyptian Land Company, which cleared the area and sold the grounds. It is not clear who first owned Café Riche, but it was Michel Politis who in 1921 created a garden theatre on the land, which soon became extremely popular with pashas who used to attend performances by young singers and in particular by Umm Kalthoum.

Café Riche was famous for another reason even before Politis acquired it, since in 1919 the café had been the hiding place of the would- be assassin of prime minister Youssef Wahba, who had fled there when his plot failed. When I was growing up, Café Riche had already lost its land and theatre and had been reduced to a simple café. I thought its name made a lot of sense in view of its elaborate façade, which I used to compare to that of the nearby baladi café where our driver waited for my mother to finish her shopping.

The café where the driver waited I dubbed, "café pauvre", my first inkling perhaps of class distinctions.

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