Digging in the Grounds

Gender and Tradition in Cairo's Coffee Shops

by Yousef Hilmy

Illustration by Rob Polidoro

published September 18, 2015

Visit any neighborhood in Cairo, especially ones in its older districts, and you will find countless traditional coffeehouses (called ahawi; singular: ahwa) jutting out from the sidewalk and spilling into the streets. Most ahawi look the same: each has an indoor section consisting of a small kitchen and storage area, and an outdoor informal seating space furnished with an assortment of cheap plastic or wooden chairs and tables. The ahwa is in every sense the primary public space for intense social interaction and networking. In its boisterous atmosphere, Egyptians find a comfortable setting in which to mingle, meet up with friends, talk politics, smoke sheesha, and pass idle time. This is the fundamental place where Cairo’s transformations find their initial expression, the space with the single most transparent representation of political culture in Egypt at large. 

Both local and touristic narratives on ahawi tend to represent them as decidedly democratic spaces, ones in which ‘ordinary Egyptians’ from all walks of life can interact and interrelate. This is true in an economic sense: a cup of coffee or tea at an ahwa costs around 2 LE (roughly 30 cents) and sheesha is about 5 LE. Because of these cheap prices, Egyptians from all socio-economic backgrounds frequent ahawi daily, as they feel comfortable in its unpretentious atmosphere. In addition, ahawi can be found all over the city, almost in every corner, such that each Egyptian typically has his own ahwa at which he is a regular. But the depiction of ahawi as democratic fails when we consider that they are functionally male-only spaces, with strictly enforced taboos on gender comportment. How can a space faithfully be called democratic if it structurally excludes half of a nation’s population, the plurality of voices and expressions of women who form Cairo’s very backbone? 

Critics might respond by pointing to the newer, Western-style coffeehouses, such as Cilantro or Gloria Jeans, that are gender inclusive and whose functions and meanings are open to negotiation. These coffeehouses, clustered in Cairo’s wealthier neighborhoods, cater primarily to cosmopolitan Egyptians and reflect all the sterility and neutrality of what scholars have called a ‘translocal space.’ All of them are indoors, maintain a clean, elegant atmosphere, serve a variety of beverages and food items, and offer their customers free Internet, so that they can work or study if they choose. Most of these coffeehouses were built in the 1990s—a decade during which Egypt experienced an economic boom after Mubarak accepted the thorny conditions of an IMF austerity program—and continue to be built today.

 On a recent trip Cairo, I discovered that two new coffeehouses had sprouted near my grandfather’s apartment, in a process akin to gentrification. As I found, these coffeehouses often have menus in both English and Arabic, as well as exorbitant prices—a latte or cappuccino here (Turkish coffee is served, but tends to be overshadowed by fancier, espresso-based beverages) costs between 10 and 25 LE ($2-4), a price that can be expensive even for foreigners. Gender intermixing at these coffeehouses is considered appropriate: it is normal to find married couples with their children, and even men and women on dates. One research essay done at the American University in Cairo (AUC) found that the customers at Western-style coffeehouses are equally male and female. The difference, according to the research, is negligible: 51% of customers are female and 49% are male, with over half of that purchasing demographic aged between twenty and thirty. Gender concerns notwithstanding, these spaces are riddled with exclusionary problems of their own: namely, that only elite, cosmopolitan Egyptians can afford to go to them, and that even then, they aren’t reflective of traditional or local Egyptian culture. In addition, these coffeehouses aren’t meant to be replacements of ahawi, which are more ubiquitous and don’t exist solely in upscale neighborhoods. 




The question remains why Egyptian women are excluded from ahawi, and what this says about Western interpretations of “right to the city,” an idea popular in urban studies. One reason can be found in what is referred to as illit al-adab (indecent behavior). Here, the ahwa and Western-style coffeehouses diverge, for each space has its own ethics of propriety, a kind of code of conduct that is directly related to notions of gender and acceptability. The ahwa, in keeping up with its history, features a loud, chauvinistic, atmosphere, along with generally aggressive behavior, vulgar language, and, occasionally, catcalling. Most Egyptians therefore perceive it as a “dirty” or “impure” place. This is one reason why it is taboo for women to go to them—for example, when asked about ahawi, one Egyptian man quoted in a Global Post article remarked, “they are not considered places respectable for women. All of Egypt would be able to hear her laugh.” Another man quoted in the same article, Mohamed Abdul Rahman, when asked whether or not he would allow his daughter to go to an ahwa, responded with an emphatic no. “For us from Upper Egypt,” he replied, “it would bring shame if a woman sits on ahwa (in Arabic, “sitting on the ahwa”—ya3ood 3l ahwa—is a popular expression) because of the bad effects of the sheesha, the atmosphere, and the fact that sometimes people use bad language.” Ahawi, then, stand at the intersection of immorality and acceptability: they are perceived as benign, non-violent spaces that are nonetheless dangerous, the Egyptian equivalent of a bar where masculine aggression can be performed with license. 

Not all ahawi are strictly men-only, however, nor is the taboo distributed evenly. This is often a function of which neighborhood the ahwa is in and whether or not that neighborhood is affluent. As a general rule, the poorer the area, the fewer females you will find at the ahwa and the rowdier the behavior of the men. A neighborhood in which one can find men and women at ahawi is the Borsa (stock exchange) district in downtown Cairo. For several reasons, rules of public consumption in this area are different from other neighborhoods in Cairo, and professionals who work in nearby offices frequent many of the ahawi here. Mohamed, the man quoted earlier, calls these cafes and the intermixing of men and women that can be found in them “untraditional and improper.” The women who are customers at these more liberal ahawi are middle to upper-middle class young professionals, with higher educational backgrounds and generally more liberal views, as opposed to someone like Mohamed, who works as a day laborer. When asked about ahawi, a 22 year-old woman named Aya Youssef remarked that, “I respect our customs and everything but it’s frustrating that a woman is still treated like a woman and not just a human being. We have to take care that our voices are not too loud, even if there are no men with us. If we sat in an ordinary ahwa, everyone would be looking at us.” Here, the ideas of “custom” and “ordinary” gesture toward tensions between tradition and reform. The ahawi Aya goes to in the Borsa are considered to be inherently irregular—indeed extraordinary—because of their gender policies, which, to be clear, are still relatively conservative: i.e. a woman can’t come to these ahawi alone and ask for a sheesha, because if she did so, she would be either denied her request, or dismissed as improper.

It would be facile to argue by negation that the Western-style coffee shops are models of progressivism and tolerance. Although they may lack taboos on male-female intermixing, these coffee shops are just as exclusionary, but in different ways. Many women go to these coffee shops because doing so is a mark of cosmopolitan prestige and because they have the time and money to do so. Conversely, the men who go to the affordable ahawi go to them because they are unemployed or work only part-time, choosing to go to ahawi because it is largely socially and economically acceptable for them to do so. Most of the women married to these men are restricted to the private domestic sphere, where they are expected to fulfill obligations such as taking care of the house, making food, and nursing and raising their children. As has been argued in the academic literature on the topic, lower to lower-middle class women in Egypt suffer the brunt of this exclusion, for they are caught in what anthropologist Diane Singerman has called a “push and pull of cross-cutting ideological pressures.” While they are supported to go outside the home to help support the family in its drive toward middle class status, their “new role of ‘working woman’ is not supported, and indeed strongly opposed, by subcultural ideas about women’s nature which locate women’s place within the home.” What surfaces, then, is that the ordinary, lower-class Egyptian woman is excluded on all fronts, for she has neither the time, nor the resources, nor the privilege to go to any of the coffee shops. And while a coffee shop in the West may seem like an innocuous recreational space, in Cairo they emerge as critical spaces in which one can have a voice and an audience, a privilege that, in a country marred by censorship and disciplinary control, is by no means a trivial matter.




So far, all of the problems I have addressed are directed from Egyptians to other Egyptians. It is imperative not to forget that there is internal critique and resistance, that Egyptian woman on the ground have agency, that they actively resist, within their radical contexts, against forms of tradition or custom that seek to police, subjugate, or otherwise contain them. But by and large, traditional ahawi remain stagnant and unchallenged.  Because of this, ahawi are indispensible places to gauge popular opinion and change. The cultural and historical specificity of ahawi presents us with some difficulty: are ahawi called traditional because the Egyptian tradition is in itself patriarchal? Furthermore, are the very concepts of traditionalism and authenticity gendered ones, as prescriptive as they are descriptive, which serve to exclude women from national and heritage discourses both physically and intellectually? I don’t have full answers to these questions, but I think it is productive to look at specific coffee shops, some of them famous, and to see how they have been depicted in tourist narratives. It is the “outside,” representational eye of the tourist—the individual who needs to find a frame and then the owners who, in response to tourism and capitalism, respond by reframing their coffee shops for those images and representations—that helps us to unpack the complexities at play with ahawi in Cairo. Only then can we deconstruct the larger socio-economic and historical forces involved in the conflation of tradition and gender exclusivity.

    As I have mentioned, most descriptions of ahawi are generalized because of their ubiquity. In other words, ahawi are popular because of their banality: ahawi are a kind of style, an attitude, a microcosm of popular Egyptian discursive logic and habit. Nothing about ahawi stands out so much that they need to be co-opted into an official historical or heritage discourses, most of which are focused on objects and sites associated with Ancient Egypt, as well as on other, more modern sites such as the Baron Empain palace or the Khan el Khalili bazaar. But some ahawi do stand out. One of the few that is featured on official Egyptian heritage and tourist publications is al-Fishawy, an historic ahwa nestled in a corner of the Khan El Khalili bazaar that was once a popular hangout spot for artists, intellectuals, and writers. The descriptions of this coffee shop, particularly on websites like TripAdvisor, reveal the contradictions latent in the concept of a traditional ahwa and the paradox of “famous” ones: namely, that it is only once these ahawi are famous, that is, once they are certified by official discourses in the Egyptian Ministry of Culture (pandering to the tourist industry) as ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic,’ that they become inclusive, open for women, tourists, people from all walks of life.




In 1773, a man known as al-Fishawy began serving coffee to his friends in the evening, after prayer. His descendants—they still run the coffee shop today—claim that the gatherings at which al-Fishawy would serve coffee grew larger every year and eventually became a Khan el Khalili staple. The tourist narratives on the al-Fishawy coffee shop are fascinating for their Orientalist imagery and depictions. What is most interesting is that the al-Fishawy family subscribes to these fetishized descriptions, convinced as they are of the authenticity and “essence” of al-Fishawy coffee shop, despite its many transformations in relation to the tourist industry throughout the last fifty odd years.

    One National Geographic article reads: “[The] smoky, mirrored El Fishawy café has been an inviting respite within the labyrinthine tangle of the 14th-century Khan el Khalili bazaar. Beneath checkered archways and tin lamps, wobbly brass-topped tables teeter under the traffic of steaming glasses of mint tea, dark coffee, and apricot-flavored sheesha tobacco from hookah pipes.” Having visited al-Fishawy, I can say that this description is exaggerated and exoticized, if not flat out ahistorical. The description is meant to depict al-Fishawy as timeless and static, trademark assumptions of Orientalist representation. Understandably, the National Geographic passage exists in conjunction with hundreds of other descriptions, which I found mostly on TripAdvisor. After a cursory glance I see (all sic):


“oldest coffeehouse in Cairo…the atmosphere is very welcoming to foreigners”; “Historical Café old Cairo; “timeless café…”


Fishawi’s, an iconic coffee house, is a landmark in itself. There are few specific things to see in the Khan el-Khalili souk, but Fishawi’s Coffeehouse, is an absolute must. Its on a small alley in the souk, having huge mirrors hung on the walls and its packed day and night. It claims to have been open continuously since the year 1773, except during Ramadan month. Sitting here, enjoying a cup of tea is a unique experience, as you soak in the timelessness of the cafe and the souk. Time seems to have stopped moving, and as you look around yourself, the view would, probably, have been the same 50 years back !! You would be pestered by roaming salesmen hawking souvenirs, books and sundry products. There could be a local guy belting out a solo music performance. But, these are the charms of Fishawi’s.


If you are a tourist and want to taste the real Egyptian coffee shop atmosphere, you must go to el fishawi in el hussien area, very classic but crowded, best tea you can drink, prices are reasonable, if you are going to buy any thing from the beside shops try to bargain. The area is not so classy so take care from beggars and female tourists are recommended to wear conservative clothes.


A true gem.


Now, the descendants of al-Fishawi, of course, haven’t kept the coffee house open for so long solely because of its ‘historic’ and ‘timeless’ virtues—they’re good businessmen. And yet it’s hard to tell whether they really believe in these qualities or they’re just great at branding. Akram al-Fishawi, one of the seventh-generation owners (along with his siblings, I presume), said in an interview with Aramco magazine “we are different from the other coffeehouses because we work to preserve the old style. Qahwat al-Fishawy really represents Egypt’s past.” Surely, if the old style has to be worked at to be maintained then it is inherently artificial. In addition, it should be said that al-Fishawy, a once-watering hole for Cairo’s intelligentsia and artistic class, was in every sense of the word extraordinary. That is what marked it off as different and what continues to be added to its legacy as an embodiment of Egyptian and Cairene culture. The “old-style” that Akram mentioned is really a commoditized one, a style that is catered, marketed, and sold to a primarily Western audience for its nostalgic value.

It is only when the coffee shop came to be narrativized on the global, touristic level that it truly began to change. Despite what its owners want to say, al-Fishawy is what is today because of its transformation, over the past 50 years, into a tourist destination. This is what allows for it to be, simultaneously, “a café for ordinary people” such as “cabbies, craftsmen, and shopkeepers,” for “camera-toting travelers” as well as “Egyptians from towns and cities outside of Cairo” and, most importantly, for women—a place where, as Reda Abdel Hakim says, “people from all classes, Egyptians and tourists, all come.” Al-Fishari and the few others like it may be isolated examples of the contradictions that surface when an ahwa becomes famous. But it is powerful that the reduction of the ahwa to its aesthetic tropes is what simultaneously allows for Egyptian women from all backgrounds to subvert its historic traditions and customs, and to participate in a space that has been denied to them for so long. Fame, here, bestows liberty.




All of the examples explored in this article—the traditional male-only ahawi that people like Mohamed, the day laborer, frequent; the more liberal ones in business areas like the Borsa that some women can go to; the Western-style coffee shops in wealthy neighborhoods such as Heliopolis and Maadi; and lastly, the famous ahawi which paradoxically manage to be at once traditional and gender inclusive—bring to light some demanding questions about the very nature of tradition, authenticity, and heritage. These questions continue to be asked and challenged on the ground today. I am left thinking: Can what we have been calling traditional ahawi ever structurally change, assuming that the inclusion of women is a transformation in the very idea of what an ahwa is? And what does this mean if we understand ahawi as microcosms of Egyptian culture at-large that are much more significant that the sum of their parts? 



YOUSEF HILMY B’16 sips ahwa on the daily.