3al Kahwa

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Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.

Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
your name.[1]


When thinking of El Kahwa, the famous coffee house portrayed in Egyptian movies and soap operas or seen on the street, a certain image often springs to mind:  a rather mediocre, primitive place with a bunch of men – often bureaucratic employees, low-class workers, and unemployed people- who do not have much to do other than chatting, smoking Shisha, playing backgammon and drinking tea.  Not a very impressive image. 

Is this stereotype true? Why do men go to El Kahwa? What is so special about it? Is it the Shisha that attracts men to sit for hours in such a place? Why is it only a male community? To investigate this matter, Hookah, a common coffee house (kahwa baladi) in Dokki was taken as an example.


Located in one of the narrow, small alleys off Soliman Gohar Street in Dokki, Hookah does not belong to a sophisticated area. At first glance, one could easily frame it into this typical kahwa stereotype attracting lower-class men with lots of idle time to spare.  However, this typical stereotype turned out to be far from reality. Despite the fact that the area is not classy at all, the people who visit Hookah belong to the upper socio-economic standard. They are descendants of very good families and occupy very high positions at work. “My customers go there. I take customers from all over the world to Hookah.  My uncle is a big banker in London. He goes to Hookah and he has a considerable number of his connections going there as well”, says Mohamed El Shafie, Technical Manager at a well-known Telecommunications company. “We have no nouveaux riches at Hookah.  We all come from respectable families”, states Hatem Issa, General Manager at the European Egyptian Real Estate Investment Company. The connections at Hookah are enormous. You can find people from every field. “There are people working in the IT field. We have bankers, lawyers and judges, engineers from almost every branch, politicians as well as people working in the automotive industry”, points out El Shafie.


At Hookah, people socialize, conduct discussions, watch television, especially football matches, smoke Shisha, work and surf the internet (Hookah has a Wi-fi connection). “It’s the gathering, the community that is so attractive about Hookah”, mentions Hatem Issa enthusiastically. “We are a group of almost 200 people and we know each other by name.  People there are true friends. The Shisha is not the main thing. People from outside feel that it’s not their place…it’s our place”, emphasizes Issa. Mohamed El Shafie also confirms this saying “every time I go there, I find someone I know. These people, this community is what makes Hookah so special. To me, it’s a relief from the pressures of everyday life. There is no pretension. I don’t have to concentrate or care about my actions. If I need time alone, this is also possible.”  Khaled El Sadek, Deputy General Manager at Palm Hills Development Company, adds that he goes to Hookah to spend half an hour alone in the evening.  He poetically describes Hookah as a “window to the reality of life: It is like what you read in a book by Naguib Mahfouz, as you see what is happening in other people’s lives.” He underlines that Hookah is a classy, respectable place. Furthermore, it is also cheap, as you pay only 3 to 5 pounds on average per day. 

El Kahwa’s gathering, men exclusively, is not the reason why these people go to Hookah.  “We don’t go there because it’s a male community, but this kind of atmosphere, discussions and behavior never occur unless only men get together”, explains El Shafie.   El Sadek further illustrates it by saying the “kahwa baladi is a men thing”, one never takes his date, fiancé or wife to it. Women sometimes visit what I’d call coffee shop baladi, which is almost a kahwa baladi whose owner gave it a more modern and foreign look. It’s something in the middle. You can even see it in the menu, as these types of coffee shops offer things like ice-cream, fruit salad and milk rice. I can’t think of women going to a kahwa baladi at all. It’s like going to a mixed toilet. I’ve been going to Hookah since 1987. In this long period, I have seen women sitting there only three times, and they were usually foreigners. I wouldn’t have felt at ease, if women would go there.”


It is truly remarkable how dedicated Hookah members are. Most of them have been going there for a very long time. “I’ve been visiting Hookah for more than 12 years”, admits Ahmed Hindi, General Manager at ITSC, proudly. Several ‘’Hookahweya” have a 20-year relationship with the place, if not longer. The daily frequency is also astonishing bearing in mind that the people going there occupy key positions. “I go there about three to four times a day. In the morning, at five and at night”, says Hindi. El Shafie is also found at Hookah in the morning, in the evening, on Fridays after the prayer and during football matches, especially if Ahly is playing. This high frequency definitely affects marital relationships. “I believe that my wife would say that she wants a bomb to ruin the place. However, as a matter of fact, she likes that I’m meeting with friends and she knows at least where I am.”, confesses Issa. El Shafie thinks that Hookah positively affects his relationship with his wife, as he’s always in a better mood when he comes home. “Sometimes she starts complaining when I exaggerate going there.”, he admits.


Hookh is a special Kahwa.  It completely defies the image of the Kahwa Baladi known to us. “It goes with the idea of the café known a long time ago. It was the place where poets and intellectuals used to meet”, says El Sadek. “It is more of an English pub”, explains El Shafie, “The atmosphere reminds me of the bar in the American TV series Cheers.” 


You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
your name.[2]


[1] http://www.lyricsondemand.com/tvthemes/cheerslyrics.html

[2] http://www.lyricsondemand.com/tvthemes/cheerslyrics.html

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