Cairo: Coffee and Shisha
January 1, 1970
by David Ashy
The Café Life:
I miss the cheapness of Cairo. Here I am using cheap to mean the low cost of living, and it is not meant in a derogatory way. What I miss the most is spending my day on the banks of the Nile in a Café watching the sun go down. I had a Turkish coffee in one hand, and was smoking shisha in the other. Life was bliss. Sometimes I would even order something to eat to go with it. All of this for the cost of what one measly coffee costs here in Berlin!
The café lifestyle is one I have gotten used to. I could spend all my spare time searching and trying new ones. I think I owe this curiosity to Cairo. Of course I drank coffee beforehand, and enjoyed the atmosphere of sharing a coffee in a nice place, and by that I mean somewhere other than Starbucks! But Cairo allowed me to find something else. I realised the setting in which one drank their coffee was essential to the enjoyment of it. What’s the point in going to somewhere that’s the same in every city? I love finding an independent place, with its own character, interesting people, and most of all an atmosphere to bask in.
Ampersand, on the banks of the Nile in Zamalek was such a place for me. I loved it. Although there are innumerable cafés and restaurants located in Zamalek, I would often choose this place to visit. It provided me with a place to work, relax, and converse. It was a cool little place, where one could sit in the inside garden, talk with friends, and drink a nice coffee. There is also plenty of space to work inside, or also simply one can sit down for a meal. Although it was a little more expensive than some places in Cairo, for its location and the quality on offer, this was understandable.
I would often order Turkish coffee, although it is named ‘Turkish’ Coffee it has been present in Cairo for many centuries, and therefore it is a popular choice with the local’s so I also opted for this type of coffee on a regular basis.
Turkish Coffee is basically unfiltered coffee, that is prepared in a special pot called a ‘Cezve’ in Turkish, and one must be careful as to not boil the coffee, instead it must be simmered. The coffee grains settle at the bottom of the pot, sugar can also be added, and must dissolve at this point. When pouring the coffee into a serving cup, there should be a layer of foam on the top, and the more foam there is the better! This amazing drink is so ingrained in Turkish culture (amongst others in the region, with varying names) that it made UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013.
For me this type of coffee is synonymous with friendly people and good conversation. Everyone who has one in their hand is somehow engaged with another, they are enjoying life, and are happy to be where they are. I love the social aspect to drinking coffee, and this culture of sharing and enjoying life is a pleasing thing to experience.
Another integral aspect of my visit to Ampersand was the smoking of a shisha pipe (also known as Hookah). Basically it is a waterpipe used for smoking different flavoured tobacco. Shisha is ingrained in the Arab way of life, and nearly every café in Egypt had them on offer. Of course the history of shisha long and varied, too long to go into here, however walking through the streets of Cairo, one can only realise its importance to the everyday people and how it forms part of their existence. I did not know of one person who hadn’t at least tried to smoke shisha, and many did it on a regular basis.
I often chose a mix of flavours to savour. Strawberry and mint, or melon were my preferences. By smoking in a café, I could enjoy the shisha without the effort of preparation, and usually a waiter would be very attendant to the coals in order to earn a tip. They were of course very experienced in dealing with shisha’s and their expertise definitely enhances your experience. I would of course give them a tip, and after spending many days and nights in Ampersand I became a ‘regular’ and somehow the waiter became even more attentive and helpful!
Although smoking shisha is clearly not very good for your health, I loved it! It doesn’t have the harshness of smoking a cigarette, and when you inhale it slowly and deeply it you get the full taste of whatever flavour you have chosen. The nicotine rush also follows and leaves you feeling very happy. Of course it is addictive, and it is not something everyone enjoys, but in the atmosphere of a café, where everyone is doing it, you truly feel like a local. It is not just an Egyptian tradition, is something that is done all over the world in varying forms, but it still made me feel like an Egyptian.
Cairo has so much to offer a visitor or tourist. It has a wonderful array of heritage, and its history will be forever entwined with that of the Ancient Egyptians and the Pharaohs. I of course enjoyed visiting the Pyramids, and seeing places such as the Saladin Citadel (amongst many other places). Cairo is a bustling city full of life, and noise. The coffee shop is a place of retreat, away from this and the thing I enjoyed the most was spending those afternoons and nights in a café, with the locals. Retreating under the shade and enjoying the waft of air from the fans, with a shisha and coffee. What better way is there to enjoy Cairo?