Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cairo's Qahwa: The Active Contributor to the City's Texture.

Greater Cairo is studded with the monuments of its 5,000 years of history ranging from the Pharaonic in Sakkara, Giza and Heliopolis, to the Christian and Islamic heritage in Fustat and Islamic Cairo to the remains of Ottoman rule in the Citadel. With the exception of the mosques, most of these are no longer functioning and are under the management of the Ministry of Culture and require a few LE to enter. But there are still vestiges of an era in Cairo’s past that are still functioning like traditions, ethics and behaviors, where these aspects were reflected on physical spaces. One of these spaces is the coffee house or "el qahwa". Such place is present in all cultures and through all ages, yet they take different forms. As a spatial representation of communities, the café space changes constantly in the tune with their own journey through time. The changes also follows communities as they move around, settling away from home which they attempt to recreate among the new surrounding.

There is little doubt that the old-school street café, or qahwa, holds immense appeal. Once you grow accustomed to a qahwa, it becomes yours. At once inside and outside, Cairo's best qahwas are straightforward, unpretentious and yet full of history. Alone or accompanied, your presence is diluted into the street, and however rested you are, still you remain an active contributor to the city's texture. As the cup of coffee is the last item in the Qahwa's importance menu… where more prominent is the long list of their offering are social and intellectual interactions, retreat and sanctuary, entertainment and field of political discussions…

The origin of the word Qahwa

The journey started in the 15th centaury, where The beverage known as qahwa — a term
formerly applied to wine — and ultimately, to Europeans, as "The Wine of Islam." It became popular among the Sufis to boil up the grounds and drink the brew to help them stay awake during their night dhikr. (Roasting the beans was a later improvement developed by the Persians. By way of pilgrims, traders, students and travelers, coffee spread throughout the Islamic world. Al-Azhar became an early center of coffee-drinking, and a certain amount of ceremony began to surround it. One 16th century writer describes dervish meetings in Cairo:
"They drank coffee every Monday and Friday eve, putting it in a large vessel made of red clay. 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, mostly "La illaha il'Allah..."
Ibn abd el Ghaffar

“Qahwa”: was a word in common use before coffee itself was known: it has a long pedigree as one of the epithets of wine. The Arabic root q-h-w/y denotes the idea of making something repugnant, or lessening one’s desire for something. According to one medieval Arab lexicographer, qahwa is “wine, so named because it puts the drinker off his food; that is to say, it removes his appetite [for it].” The application of this term to coffee was a simple step: just as wine removes one’s desire for food, so coffee removes one’s desire for sleep.”

The History of Qahwa

I: Islamic Era

Throughout the first few centuries of its history in the Islamic world, coffee's popularity
engendered great controversy. Many were suspicious of the effects of caffeine and the gatherings in which it was consumed — they seemed debauched to some and subversive to others. Coffeehouses competed with mosques for attendance, and as unsupervised gathering places for wits and learned men, provided spawning grounds for sedition. The wags of Istanbul jokingly called the coffeehouses mekteb-i 'irfan, "schools of knowledge." Efforts were launched, and persisted for at least a hundred years, to declare coffee an intoxicant forbidden by Islamic law:
According to hadith attributed to Muhammad by the three schools that opposed alcohol in any form is: “Every intoxicant is khamr and every intoxicant is forbidden.”
The coffee was forbidden and became illegal in all Egypt for four reasons:

  1. Coffee was thought in some way physically or chemically so constituted as to make its consumption a violation of Islamic law, either because it was intoxicating or physically harmful.

  2. Coffee was rejected by the ultrapious simply because it was an innovation, bid’a.

  3. The political activities that became an important part of the sociaal life of the coffeehouse grew increasingly alarming to the governmental elite.

  4. The patrons of the coffeehouse indulged in a variety of improper pastimes, ranging from gambling to involvement in irregular and criminally unorthodox sexual situations.

And during Ramadan in 1539 CE Cairo's coffeehouses were raided and closed.

The moralists fought a losing battle, for they were opposed by well-educated coffee-drinkers from the highest ranks of the religious and political hierarchy who did not look fondly upon innovative legal prohibitions. The "tavern without wine" offered a respectable gathering place for men to socialize and entertain away from home. Business was especially brisk during Ramadan, when proprietors made extra efforts to draw crowds with storytellers and puppet shows. In the 16th century the coffee houses were reopened again.
According to Lane, the coffeehouses of Cairo were frequented by “the lower orders.” Alexander Russell said that the “vulgar” went to the Aleppo coffeehouses. Dufour, writing about Istanbul, says that all but the “very high” come to the coffeehouse.” D’Ohsson says that among those who flocked to the Istanbul coffeehouses were “beys, nobles, officers, teachers, judges and other people of the law.”

The coffee houses in Cairo were quiet simple, it usually had an arcade façade where people used to sit on wooden or stone benches with their back to the wall. Inside, other benches skirted along two or three sides of the coffee house. The floor was usually covered by rags and palm leaves or fabric. ( M. abo Tera( Hookahs and tobaccos were introduced to the qahwa at this time where A Turkish traveler in Ottoman Cairo wrote, in the late sixteenth century:“coffee-houses of Egypt are filled mostly with dissolute persons and opium-eaters.” Also musicians and belly dancers started to perform in the qahwas for entertainment.

II. Khedive era

Muhammad ‘Ali, in Cairo in the nineteenth century, found a better use for coffeehouses: he
allowed them to remain open and sent spies to overhear the plots as they were hatched. “One wishing to hear the latest news—or, more likely, the freshest rumors—needed only to station himself in the coffeehouse for a short time.” Edward Lane. Then Khedive Ismail introduced new cafes in Cairo after that which they had a new setting of French influences, as Groppi and Café Rich, where they served the upper class and the middle and lower classes kept using the traditional Qahwa.

Groppi was a popular café brand in the first half of the 20th century. The first branch opened in 1909 in the newly built downtown; the district planned to resemble European cities. The second branch was designed by Italian architect Guiseppe Mazza and opened in 1924, also in downtown Cairo. Its design is a good example of this genre of colonial cafes; there is a café room, a restaurant, a ballroom and the routenda, a round hall for the taking of tea and dance parties, activities that were solo preserve of the exposed classes. On the other hand was café rich which it started and remained till now the cultural intellectual café. Café Riche has played its part in political history as a place of intrigue and conspiracy. According to the historian Abdel Rahman El Rafei, the leaders of the 1919 Revolution used the café as a meeting place to plan their strategy to oust the British once and for all. It used to has several regular guests as Youssef wahby, Naguib Mahfouz, Amal Donkol, Twfik el Hakim, Mohammed Slamawy and more.. and even all their photos are in there to give the notion of authenticity.

Mean while in the traditional qahwa and before the appearance of the theaters and cinemas all around Cairo, the traditional qahwa played a very important role in art and music, where the qahwa was the secret word for musicians and singers where it was a way to meet together. As Sayed Darwish met Salama Hegazy for the first time in a traditional qahwa in 1911.
The qahwa remained nearly exactly the same as the very old one, just some furniture was changed but the behavior and setting was nearly the same. Simple wooden chairs replaced the benches with the name of the carpenter often engraved on the back, tables were smaller with tall metal legs and metal sheet top that is suitable for drinks, bigger wooden tables for board games. And Radios were introduced to the qahwa.

III. The Modern Era

These two genres of cafes (Groppi and Rich) coexisted side by side until the social mood changed
and became less stable following the political upheavals in the 1950s. after the socialist revolution in 1952, aristocrats were stripped of their titles and land. Places that used to belong to the upper classes, were viewed as a symbol of rotten aristocracy. As a result of this, such cafes and their cultures slipped into obscurity in the 1960s, while the other qahwas kept running without harm. But café rich wasn't harmed as well as its users and regulars considered the café is their home. The middle class gradually lost its popularity in 1970s with the café increasingly perceived as an unclean place for the unemployed, giving way to civilized public spaces of social and sporting clubs.

This continued till the 1990s and despite growing population, new café's barely opened to the extent that the writer Gamal el Gheitany expressed his belief that cafes and their culture were heading towords extinction. But luckily this did not happened where starting from the 1990s the traditional qahwa started to introduce television where the middle class returned back to qahwa to watch football matches. And also in the mid 1990s, a new generation of cafes for the upper class emerged. This new breed of café looks westernized, sounds westernized and even serve western drinks and food.

The New Generation of Cafes

These new generation cafes are also detached from the street and public activity hiding away
from them; this is usually achieved by building a wall or plantation fence or being inside a building. It is also thematic with most of the new cafes use the design as a striking attraction for the users, where the designs differ between each café and the other, one is modern cubism, the other is Mediterranean or Latin, and even some designs are reflecting old Cairo and Nubian life. Such themes and designs are interesting as they snatched out of their context and represented as an exotic atmosphere. And as Anouk de Koning said in Cairo Cosmopolitan:
"These upscale coffee houses changed the urban fabric of affluent neighborhoods; enjoying a café latte or a ceasar salade in one of these coffee shops has become part of the semidaily routine of many young and relatively affluent Cairenes."
The new generation of coffee shops was able to gather girls from their houses and the club, where before they did not have any place else to go after work, as in the traditional qahwa the male is dominant.

Egyptian Cafes Abroad

There is a lot of middle eastern cafes abroad, especially London, which has several Egyptian cafes. This Egyptian character of the café is not reflected in its design. Apart from the outdoor areas orientation outwords and the slightly dense interior the café appears quiet English. In fact the café's English patron choosing from the menu during the day are inaware of its night life, simply because there is nothing in the café to reveal it. The café has a modern clean look, a polish waitress in the daytime, a Panini grill and clear window before counter displaying food to choose from elements of an average café at lunch time in London. All of these features remain at night, fitting despite the changed environment. Once again the core of the café lies in the people's behavior within the space with anything else only a marginal trapping (M. Abo Tera) English people spend less then 30 minutes to take a coffee and a muffin, but Egyptian go to the café by 6 pm to spend the whole night there mingling between all tables as they all know each others.

Intangible Conservation

After giving a story of the qahwa in cairo and how did it start and then the different kinds of it till the new generation that is totally different from any of the previous, Edward Lane asked a question: "“If we grant that the tavern provided the most convenient model for those wishing to introduce coffee to the public at large, why then would people continue to frequent such shops once they became familiar with the methods of preparation?”

Which that exactly the answer: Socializing, where along through the history of Cairo we conserved socializing through the qahwa, not for the beverage.


The physical feature and culture of the café is not as it used to be anymore, televisions displaying "Melody channel", very few cultural cafes, no music played… all that affect the setting of the qahwa, also the new generation cafes and the western modern influences affected the culture itself of the qahwa, where all new qahwas are trying to make the design and menus as western ones.
el Fishawy café in el Hussein el Fishawy café in Sharm el Sheikh

Also the banners of the café names are getting to be all in English where it wasn't that way before.

Also some of the old cafés tried to revive the old cultures as café rich which putting all the regular users photos from writers, artists and intellects. In café rich as well the waiters still wear the same unform they used to wear from the day it was opened. Another feature being revived in fishawy as some people playing music go there to sing for money and some to be a first step to be famous.


-Diane Singerman, Cairo Cosmopolitan 2005
- Edward Lane, Traditions of the Modern Egyptians between 1833 and 1835
- Ulla Heise, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 1973
- Serene Assir, Al-Ahram Weekly Living Restaurant review Not quite, 30 August - 5 September 2007, issue no.860
- Mohammed Abo Tera, the Qhwa: A Culture Apart, Magaz Magazine, May 2008, issue no.1
- Coffee the wine of Islam,
- دور المقاهي في النهضه الفنية العربية, مدونات المكتوب, مارس 2008
- كافيه ريش الثقافي :مقهى يدافع عن ذاكرة أمة-www_aljazeeratalk_net-forum-upload-2152-1190880136_jpg.mht

1 comment:

  1. Nice article! Although i would like to disagree with the conclusion. Just as the "Qahwa" tradition/culture has managed to survive different threatening factors along the past few hundred years, so is it still surviving with something very true and deep inside the "Qahwa" concept, that is very attached to the Egyptian life/mood. For years, it is very expected that Qahwa owners and those who wish just to profit from Qahwas, would try and exploit emerging habits in order to attract more people - those who define themselves with those habits. Like writing names in English, or adding a retro "style" to the decoration, or sticking western menus to attract higher classes of visitors with expensive minimum charges. And just as the London cafes are working, although they could not be considered traditional qahwas, something else makes the Qahwa still survive despite those foreign additions. Something about its visitors, and not the Qahwa itself. Something very simple and deeply Egyptian that still resonates with simple Egyptians scattered around in Qahwas all over the not-so-funky-attracting streets and neighborhoods of the Egyptian city.

    Something very simple, cheerful, worry-less and mindless of Life's anxieties. Maybe the same thing that makes Egyptians so eager to just survive/live on saying: "ya 3am we7na malna, khaleena fe 7alna". Maybe the same thing to which we owe our chaotic fate!

    That Egyptian specifity, that which we might occasionly call: "el 7etta de" is what i find very interesting, intriguing and mysterious.