Egypt's Coffeehouses

Writer Carl Hoffman traveled to Egypt in February 2011, a week after popular demonstrations led to the president's resignation. These are his observations.

The air was smoky but sweet, the sounds unmistakable: glasses clinking and dominoes and backgammon dice clacking, newspaper pages turning, and the constant low hum of voices.

In Egypt there is a coffee shop on every corner. Sometimes in the middle of the block, too, and even right next to another one. They’re all different and all similar—open to the street, often old, with feral cats prowling underfoot and ceiling fans slowly turning overhead. Men drink tea, smoke water pipes, play table games, and talk or read the newspaper. Some cafes are tiny holes in the wall; others are large and sprawling. Often they fill whole alleyways, especially at night.

Called ahwas, the shops are an Egyptian institution. Mostly you’ll find only men in them, though tourists are almost always welcome, and in parts of downtown Cairo, accompanied Egyptian women are seen.

As protesters and revelers moved in and out of Tahrir Square I took refuge from the action to slip inside an ahwa for a shisha and sweet tea.

The tea is always in glasses served on an aluminum tray and the shisha, or water pipe, comes with fresh, flavored tobacco topped by hot coals. The smoke is smooth and gentle, even to a non-smoker like me. Sit as long as you want; there’s never a hurry, and there’s always time to talk.

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One afternoon I fell into conversation with Shady El Tawansy, 26, who gave me the lowdown on Egyptian dating.

“We don’t date,” he said, taking a long, slow drag on the hookah. “You go out in groups. To the mosque on Fridays. The parents and families are very involved in the process all along the way. It is very complicated.”

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