The Ahwas of Cairo

The taxi gingerly crosses the Qasr al-Nil Bridge above the wide, green river. Under the tyres, rocks and debris crunch on discarded missiles harvested from pavements and walls. At the kerbside, the shell of a car smoulders, blackened and twisted, the iron road smeared with its oily blood. Souvenirs of a long night’s rioting.

As we drive, little wisps of tear gas seem to hang in the air like the rings of apple scented shisha smoke around the face of the man in the tiny Tahrir café. Unshaven and with a dirty scarf around his neck for the morning’s cold he looks straight ahead. “Welcome in Cairo” he says and he smiles a wide, tender smile. He tilts his head slightly. “Welcome in Tahrir.”

Cairo is vast. A sprawling metropolis that has straddled the Nile for 5000 years. Today, like the river in flood, it’s bursting at the seams. Nine million people live within the city crammed into whatever space they can find. A repository of Islamic culture for a thousand years, it is known as ‘The City of a thousand Minarets’. As Max Rodenbeck in his seminal ‘Cairo – The City Victorious’ has it, “Only one Cairo institution is more common that than the mosque: the qahwa or coffee house.” Twenty years ago Rodenbeck reckoned that there were well over 30,000 qahwas ranging from humble tea stalls to faded Belle-Époque palaces. This is where Cairenes come to meet and talk and discuss the world. In such an overcrowded city they are a pause, a break in the fabric of daily life and they allow the city to breathe. A poor man, even in these difficult, uncertain and revolutionary times, can be rich in his idleness for an hour and watch the world go by.

Twilight on the second anniversary of the Revolution. Near The Ministry of the Interior, the army have erected huge concrete barriers that have become enormous canvasses for graffiti artists and defensive positions for stone-throwers. Around the corner is the Tahrir café. It sits forlornly open amidst a sea of locked and shuttered shops. Crowds of protesters swarm and swirl in good-natured groups up and down the streets taking time out from haranguing the police lines and refuelling with snacks of koshary and taameya from mobile stalls. Inside, men gather around small, chipped plywood tables, stained with decades of coffee and nicotine. The television high in one corner is the focus of everyone’s attention. It beams pictures back from clashes at the frontline (a few hundred metres away) and, reflecting in misty mirrors around the walls, the image duplicates like a kaleidoscope of unrest projecting into infinity. Inside this cosy theatre of protest, people come to watch themselves replayed in an odd audience participation show. The owner (the me’alem) of this friendly hole-in-the-wall sits contentedly on a swivel chair behind a handmade wooden counter keeping a tally of orders using plastic coins. The ahngy (the barista), works feverishly fulfilling orders of tea and coffee from a boiler of hand beaten steel and shouting for more shisha or water-pipe to be filled.

The coffee, hot, black and syrupy, is made from the Yemeni beans that Cairo has been importing since the Ottoman era. Dregs sit ominously thick at the bottom for the unwary but perfect as some Cairenes will tell you for telling your future. Shai - tea with milk or mint - is joined in winter by sahleb a brew of milk, rosewater and pistachio nuts. In summer one may have any number of fruit juices and tamir hindi - a tamarind cordial. The caffeine may be just the stimulant for Cairo’s reputation as ‘the city that never sleeps’. Last year however, the Legal Affairs Minister, Mohammed Mahsoub for the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government declared that “Egypt should not be a nocturnal state” and to wide condemnation mooted that people should be in bed earlier. As a move that smacked of untimely social control, it was widely ignored.

It is likely that coffee came to Cairo originally as part of a Sufi ritual. By drinking boiled coffee grounds, the devoted could stay awake for long periods lengthening their devotional practices, notably zikr (the recitation of the name of Allah). The drink became known as qahwa, ironically a term formally applied to wine (hence it became known to Europeans as the ‘wine of Islam’). The Sufi theologian Shaikh ibn Isma’il Ba Alawi claimed that drinking qahwa when at prayer could lead to the experience of qahwa ma’nawiyya – an enlightened state of “wonderful disclosures and great revelations”. Coffee drinking spread to Mecca where according to Al-Jaziri, “it was drunk in the sacred Mosque itself, so that there was scarcely a zikr… where coffee was not present.” Coffee became something of a ceremony and according to Ibn ‘Abd al-Ghaffar writing in the sixteenth century Cairo Dervish meetings “They drink coffee every Monday and Friday evening… Their leader ladled it out with a small dipper and gave it to them to drink, passing it to the right, while they recited one of their usual formulas…” In 1511, a conservative Imam in Mecca banned coffee as un-Islamic. When news reached the Sultan of Cairo he softened the edict: coffee was legal in Cairo and, as the object of trade, had brought great wealth to the city. Over the next few decades coffeehouses were closed and reopened as various religious edicts fought over the stimulant effects of the drink and the disruptive influences of the cafes that sold it. In time however, the drink and its economic interests won out and coffee entered the secular sphere. By the late sixteenth century, Ahmet Pasha, the Governor of Egypt, was building coffeehouses as public work projects and they had become the roots of social life in the Islamic world. They were also, as their opponents feared, gathering points for people to discuss and debate.

Essam el Sherif is a tired looking man. A little unshaven in a rather greasy anorak, he ushers me down some steps from the street to a cavern-like room with a few scruffy computers and a good deal of graffiti on the walls – some of it less than complimentary about Egypt’s new rulers. At a small table with two empty Coke tins and a full ashtray, he explains that he is the owner of this modern ahwa – this cyber café - known as the Revolution of 25 January Café. Situated at the heart of Bourse area downtown, this is Cairo’s revolutionary arrondissement. Dragged from a similar café in Alexandria in 2010, a young man called Khaled Saeed was beaten to death by two policemen. His murder contributed to growing discontent in the weeks leading up to the Revolution and became a symbol both of the change in Egyptian society and youth’s political reaction to it. “The importance” (of the Bourse) says El-Sherif, “is that it’s a gathering point for the youth – not only to mix socially but to talk politics… here in our country the youths don’t have so many places that they can meet and exchange thoughts and ideas…” Over the last few years, the Bourse has had a reputation as Cairo’s Left Bank for the disaffected of the Facebook/Twitter generation. For youthful activists but also for the bored and the under-employed; the children of rural migrants crammed into hovels on the edge of the city desperate for change and excitement. It is literally a stone’s throw from Tahrir. “The area” Sherif continues “had been subjected to a lot of repression – especially during Mubarak’s regime. When Obama visited… they swept the youth areas but here the youths defended it and prevented the police from clearing them (away)”. “Even before being the owner of this ahwa, I was a political activist - now we support the protesters here with food and places to sleep.” His mobile phone rings again and again and finally he apologises and takes the inevitable call. Up the stairs and onto the street, row upon row of coloured plastic chairs line the pavements. The chairs demarcate cafes, political/social groups and in doing so, different ideas. The Revolution has a Hydra-head of factions and parties and all have their own coffeehouses; their own cartography of protest in a multi-divided city. On a wall facing the 25th January Café, a set of graffiti portraits of young martyrs of the Revolution loom behind Hoksha, 24, and his shy girlfriend. They drink mugs of tea and check their telephones. “I come here” says Hoksha, a slight young man with a wispy beard and glasses, “because it’s inspiring for the young people… we don’t like formal places… but it’s not just about the Revolution – we sat here before that. This is Mid-Town.” “But” he says with perhaps just a hint of a smile “The Bourse is a checkpoint for the rebels…”

Invaded countless times, Cairo by the Ottoman period was in decline politically and culturally. According to Max Rodenbeck, the Economist’s man in the city for countless years and its greatest Western chronicler, “The beautiful Mother of the World had mouldered into an unsightly old age”. By the time Napoleon’s armies swept in, Egypt was in a sorry state. The occupation brought Italians and others who opened cafés and restaurants. According to Rodenbeck, these “fascinated” the Cairenes and “crowds collected to watch soldiers… lounging in upright chairs… spearing their food with forks, imbibing intoxicating liquors…” The changes effected shortly after by Mohammad Ali including the first secular schools and Egyptians travelled to Europe to master language and science. This coincided with the planting of cotton at home creating a renaissance of wealth and culture. The European powers sought and received legal privileges (known as ‘Capitulations’) for their nationals in Cairo from the weakened Ottoman court and Cairo became a magnet for Jews and Christians fleeing persecution as well as Italians and Greeks eager to make their fortunes. Against this backdrop, a new breed of Egyptian, an effendi class - bureaucrats, teachers and engineers - schooled in the delights and achievements of the West began to assert themselves. They dressed in trousers and some of them even drank alcohol. By 1910 an eighth of Cairo was foreign-born. According to Rodenbeck, “the foreign way of seeing became the way the city saw itself”. Hand in hand with European attitudes, the centre of Cairo was modernized on similar lines to Haussmann’s Paris: wide boulevards, Belle Epoch apartment blocks. According to the academic Mara Naaman, this new central Cairo, the Wust al Balad, was a site through which “Egyptians negotiated their own forms of improvised modernities”. The cafes and ahwas were central to that experience, offering a space in the increasingly confusing city that was both Egyptian and modern. These spaces of course became the focus of moves towards independence and the clearest articulation of that impulse came from the poets and novelists that congregated in them. Renowned translator of Arabic literature Richard Jaquemond saw the cafes as the “beating heart” of the Cairo Republic of Letters. In turn he quotes the poet Muhammad ‘Afifi Mater, “… The cafes are small, free parliaments in which the kinds of things that cause problems for the fraudulently (elected) parliaments take place”. Cafes for Jaquemond are an “important space for cultivating an environment that facilitates the emergence of artistic groups of cliques” He mentions several well-known cafes in Wust al-Balad – the Café Riche, The Zaharat al Bustan, the Isevitch and the Odeon - as primary sites for such exchange, noting “the cafes change, the events also but the institutions reside.”

Ahdaf Soueif is trying to find her cigarettes. Small and determined looking, her round face framed by a mane of black-silver hair, she is the glamorous novelist who has chronicled recent events in Cairo both personally and politically. For years she said, she didn’t write about Cairo but now she has returned to it “because the city is mine again”. On a red and white checked tablecloth at the Café Riche she roots through her handbag finally retrieving her treasure. Her cigarette smoke curls over a room packed tightly full of well- to-do protesters fresh from a march. The dark veneered wood pillars of the room are hung with portraits of poets and writers. The windows steam. A tall Nubian waiter in a blue and gold galabeya costume with a tray of coffee tries in vain to push through the throng of literati and journalists. “We’ve been seeing people today” Soueif says almost shouting over the din, “determined to show that that they are well aware that the aims of the Revolution… have not been achieved… (but) people are not happy… and not prepared to have lost over the last three years, you know limbs – lives - to let the Revolution be stolen and go back to business as usual.” Somehow the noise around us abates and her voice lowers slightly. “We’ve been walking from Shopra – we’ve been walking since one o’clock and it’s now four-twenty. We are going to Tahrir but we really needed a break”. Of course she would come to Café Riche. “Many of us have a soft spot for it – I’ve never known the city without it. I always knew it as a glamorous revolutionary place in theory and when the Revolution happened it became the obvious place to gravitate towards… it’s an oasis and you’re off the street for a moment – you can wash your hands and get something to eat but you’re still part of the action.” “You could say” she continues thoughtfully, “that the cafes are a break – but also a continuation in a different way… because you are still carrying on with your endeavour – which is to push the Revolution – but you’re doing it sitting down rather than walking”. It is an elegant idea and at that moment the waiter surges forward again and people part like a river around him.

In the history of the western coffee houses of Cairo, Café Riche is the cathedral: the downtown ahwa with European intellectual sensibilities. The café’s entrance is guarded by the portly owner Magdi, who wields a fly whisk like a sceptre and he is careful not to allow just anybody through the door. In the next room, several Western hacks file copy on laptops. Fortified by coffee, sandwiches and nicotine they are watched from above by framed photographs of former habitués: writers, poets and singers. Similarly hunched over an iPad is Hassanin, the 59 year old nom de guerre of one of Cairo’s sharpest cartoonists. Bearded and scarfed against the chill, his voice is soft and slightly frail. “My first sit-in was in Tahrir in 1972. Then again in 1977 – the intifada against Sadat”. “Most of them (the cafes) are gone now but its more about the people sitting here – they say things spontaneously – but cafes of intellectuals like here – here you can get the idea for cartoon (because) I can get a reflection of the people’s day-to-day sufferings”.

“You can smell all the previous political upheavals here,” says Mahmoud El-Alaily, the Deputy Secretary of the Free Egypt Party. “Most of the oppositions used to be at Café Riche… it’s a place for people like this.”

Despite the sign in the window which says ‘established in 1908’, it is likely that the Riche actually opened in 1914 and although initially registered to a French national it was a Greek, Michel Nikolai Politis, whose name is found on a petition stating he was the owner. By 1918 Iryan Yusuf Iryan sat himself at the Riche just before he lobbed a bomb at the car of the Prime Minister. The failed attempt sparked a revolt against the British. It was only in 1992 that the current owner discovered a secret door that led to a printing press in the basement used to print Wafd Party pamphlets calling for independence. By 1922 Egypt was free and the rotund King Farouk, desperate for popular approval, let it be known that he met his second wife – a commoner – at the Riche. Umm Kalthoum, the revered chanteuse gave one of her first shows there and Colonel Nasser was a regular at the café before his coup in 1952. During the 1950s and 1960s an absence of political parties meant that the cafés in effect substituted for them: the Riche became known as a haunt of writers and artists and liberal socialists. One of the regulars, the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, based one of his books “the Karnak Café” on the Riche and depicts an era of youthful activism literally beaten and raped by an oppressive regime. Mahmoud Salah, a celebrated crime reporter remembers that the tables had ears and the cafes were full of secret police. “Cafes” he says “make the Egyptian talk”. For Ahmad Fouzil the General Secretary of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, “Nasser didn’t like people talking at all but Mubarak let people talk - he just didn’t listen to anybody.” The ghost of Mahfouz who died in 2006 - claimed by many of Cairo’s cafes - still hovers above the Riche. “During my evenings at the Riche coffeehouse… I used to listen to many things which people repressed. Had I not written them, they would have been lost. So I wrote.” For Makkawi Said though, “The Riche kind of intellectuals are kind of ‘canned’ – they don’t really interact with people on the street… they saw the Revolution on television”. It is harsh and sweeping but Said is at 56 an authentic chronicler of the Cairo street and one of the newer generation of realist Egyptian authors. Shortlisted for the Arab Booker he cuts a rather battered but friendly figure at the Zahrat al-Bustan café which sits just behind the Riche. Tall, unshaven and a little shabby looking, he is direct. Today’s Cairo he says “is similar to the time Dickens was writing… there is an expectation that the ‘children of the street’ might revolt – perhaps through hunger. They are my friends in my journey of writing… I write their stories and their personal lives and the times at the cafes and the downtown bars”.He continues, “The Bustan used to be a very small coffee shop in the ‘80s” but what he calls an elitist policy (“face control”) of admission at the Riche means that many of their customers now have their coffee here. “This place is expanding and it’s a major gathering point… (with) a big role in the Revolution… young activists, graffiti artists, painters all sit here… the more that writers gain position, the more they sit in luxurious air-conditioned places… but they miss out on the streets, reading to each other. You always find someone you don’t know (here) who draws up a chair… you feel the intimacy, that’s the difference”. Said, who runs the Al Dar publishing house that showcases much new writing is clear, “A novelists role in the Revolution is encouragement for people to revolt … I am not afraid… if I end up with a bullet, it’s a great ending...” He smiles broadly and means it. There is something of the Arab Bukowski about him and he turns and greets old friends warmly.

Two days later, another march has passed through town and the Bustan is packed. The original coffeehouse, a small tiled room, has spilled outwards in a large ‘T’ shape up and along the surrounding alleyways. Families with banners join serious looking politicos at rickety tables. In a typical ahwa, women might expect to be excluded, but the Bustan welcomes them. “You see the scar on my head?” says Hesham Farahat the manager of the Bustan. “This was due to an American woman journalist during the Day of the Battle of the Camels (the 2nd of February 2011). Thugs attacked her and she came here to hide… we wouldn’t let a woman be beaten and we defended her”. Women he said “felt safe here”. As we talk, a young woman with a political slogan wrapped around her head yells into her mobile and starts to laugh. Waiters ferry lighted shisha pipes, weaving in and out of the throng. The older customers sit in front of the kitchen playing backgammon whilst everyone else finds a space where they can. “No roof” laughs Farahat. “Egyptian people don’t like sitting too long in an enclosed space – they prefer open air where they can sit on the street and talk in a random way” For a society so tightly controlled for so long the very haphazardness of the Bustan is in itself an act of some defiance.

Across the city is the third of the great Trinity of the Cairo cafes and a parallel narrative. The Qahwat al-Fishawi claims to be nearly 250 years old. The café, which also cites Mahfouz as a regular, sits in the alleyways of the Khan al-Khalili market near the Sayyidna al-Husayn mosque (where the head of one of the Prophet’s grandsons lies). Nearby is the thousand-year-old al-Azhar University. Fishawi’s is a delightful cave of arabesque framed mirrors and dark wood. Puffs of shisha smoke curl around corners, the only clue to an alcove being occupied. These days, devoid of tourists because of the unrest, hawkers try and sell their trinkets to local girls in headscarves more interested in making eyes at two boys across the alley. Tea is the most popular drink here. It comes in a tiny, battered enamel pot with an equally ancient bowl of sugar and a small glass with sprigs of fresh mint (na’na). The varnished oil paintings loom over smokers who, over the years, have darkened their patina to a nut-brown with vapours of molasses coated tobacco (ma’ssil). An Orientalists dream. Every Cairo backstreet has a hundred stories and a hundred cafes. Behind a fluttering curtain in the El Darb el Ahmar district I find an old woman smoking a pipe in a tiny café with peeling yellow wallpaper. Beside her, two contented cats, sleek and imperious. The café is called ‘The Doctor’. It is hers. She will say no more. Across the city in the Moqattam district, home to the Coptic Zabballeen community (that collects and recycles the city’s waste), two men smoke shisha beneath a giant mural of the Virgin offering benediction. Everyone has their own space. The city belongs to all and belongs to no one.

A pink building overlooking the Nile in the smart Zamalek district houses the office of Max Rodenbeck. Tall, with perfect swept back wavy hair, he might be from a Graham Greene novel. A servant brings tea - English tea with milk - to a very tidy desk. I ask for a prediction for the coming months; a reading from the tealeaves in such an uncertain Cairo. In clipped and cultured American he compares much of the Arab Spring to Paris in 1968, cafes and all. “In fact even before the Revolution (there were) a lot of people hanging out in cafes and there was … quite a lot of pushing the envelope … in terms of… music, literature and even sexual freedom.” “The Brotherhood still talk about Western hegemony and champion Islamic authenticity but … Egypt has always been more of a sponge than anything else - it’s always soaked up stuff. There used to be very much a visible line between native and European… cafes with distinct identities - one for leftist intellectuals, one famous for its shisha … (but) the cafes now are more like mass youth meeting places”. “The Brotherhood” he continues, “is looking for respectability for its class (their base is largely petty bourgeoisie - often, like President Morsi, the first generation that has had an education) and “they see themselves as progressive traditionalists… but you haven’t had a new idea from them for forty years.” He sees their narrative as reactionary – “it’s a story they tell: ‘resist, resist’.” Downtown and Tahrir are new social spaces with the internet being central to the mix. “That’s why these cafes are so popular – these kids can get a couple of teas and hang out for hours. Before they served a slightly different function - a working population would hang out, read the newspapers in the mornings or take a break after work. Now, there are literally hundreds and thousands of small (social) structures - some of them religious, some secular and the cafes serve all of them. For him, the whole function of central Cairo has changed. “It’s become more of an empty shell where people go to meet (and) there’s a need for public space that wasn’t quite there before.” The intellectuals of an older generation, politicised through the cafes, were “brought up reading Mahfouz, Dickens and modern European literature” but “a lot of modern (Egyptian) art and literature is now self-generated and not reverential to that older European stuff.” In that way the Riche is a “bit of a theme park… Mahfouz didn’t hang out there that much… actually (he spent most of his time) in a really dumpy place in Tahrir overlooking the Square.” Revolutions though need memories - however constructed. Back in the Riche, undergoing something of a rosy reappraisal after years of political irrelevance, the aging Am FilFil who has remarkably been a waiter here since 1943 sits quietly. He rests on a rickety wooden chair in front of a portrait of Umm Kalthoum and an ancient gramophone watching sharp, angular light catching dust fluttering above the wooden bar. “You know” says the reporter Mahmoud Salah starting yet another of his Mahfouz stories, “If you are afraid to talk - don’t talk - but if you have to talk you must…” His words ring for a second through the Riche, like all the ahwas - half colourful historical document and half contemporary narrative.

The cafes, like Cairo are evolving again.

© Stuart Freedman