The streets of Cairo are mad with cabs and cars and trucks packed to the gills with livestock. They jockey for position along wide avenues, sans lanes. Old Fiats belch diesel. Pedestrians dart between vehicles. Policemen direct traffic at intersections. And a constant chorus of honking runs through it all. But directly off main thoroughfares are coffeehouses or ahwas where patrons drink Turkish coffee, play backgammon, and smoke shisha, escaping the din. Ahwas are everywhere, if sometimes hidden, an integral part of the city’s life.
Winding our way through the souqs of Khan-al-Khalili market where tourists barter for copper platters, Bedouin rugs, hanging lanterns, belly-dancing costumes, and pyramid-shaped paperweights, a stall keeper asks us, “How can I take your money?” He calls us Spice Girls as we barrel past and into Al-Fishawi, Cairo’s most famous coffeehouse. We sit down and order strawberry-flavored shisha. Though mostly filled with foreigners snapping photos, large framed mirrors, elaborate chandeliers, and intricately painted wooden chairs hint at the coffee shop’s two hundred year history, and for a moment, we imagine the place in the sixties, when Naguib Mahfouz would frequent. A hawker thrusts fake Dior wrap-around sunglasses in our faces, insisting, “Very good price,” and breaking the spell. We scoot out, leaving for downtown.
Just off a hectic roundabout in the center of downtown, we walk along an alley, El Saidi St., to al-Bustan. Taking a seat on the ahwa’s green and aqua plastic chairs, we order Turkish coffees and watch as regulars, mostly men, smoke shisha, meet with colleagues, and work on laptops. We eye a waiter holding hot shisha coals with his bare hands. He doesn’t even grimace. Years of practice, we guess. A cat brushes up against our legs — there are so many cats in Cairo, almost as many as in Rome, but the feline moves on as soon as it realizes we don’t have any morsels to share. Once our coffees are down to the dregs, we move on too.
On Falaki Street where traffic is gridlocked, we pop into al-Horreyya, which is large, dilapidated, and filled with Stella branded tables (the Egyptian brand not to be confused with significantly more upscale Stella Artois). Al-Horreyya serves the cheapest Stellas in town. Some men are drinking beer and eating Termis, the yellow beans being Cairo’s answer to bar peanuts. Others drink Turkish coffees or juices while smoking cigarettes. Car honks and sunlight filter in from the street, blocked only partially by large wood boards spread across the open windows, al-Horreyya’s answer to shades. After downing Coca Lights, we pass the café’s shoe shiner on our way out the door.
En route to the pyramids of Giza, we stop by Mena House, walking under the hotel’s grand portico entrance. Everything about Mena House squeals Golden Age decadence, and we take our coffee in the Khan-al-Khalili room at a copper table with a Bodum French press, drinking from porcelain cups made in the Kingdom of Thailand. It’s a room with a view. In the foreground, uniformed gardeners water rose bushes and grass that given our proximity to sand dunes, looks freakishly green. Beyond it, are the pyramids, perfect triangles etched into the gray-blue smog sky. We almost expect the folks at the adjacent table to pronounce, “The sun never sets on the British Empire…”
We take a cab to Zamalek, a mid-city island surrounded by the Nile. After walking streets lined with old colonial mansions turned embassies, we hit a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. It’s no different from the CB&TL’s in the States, except the tree trunks in front of the shop are painted in company colors and branded with the CB&TL logo. We get out of there.
In Maadi, we arrive at the sleek, clean Egyptian coffee chain, Cilantro, and find expats reading novels and language books, Egyptian businessmen using BlackBerries, and waiters serving iced lattes and warmed butter croissants. Cilantro’s tagline, written on the wall in English is, “Appetite for Life.” Having satiated ours, at least for one day, we make our way back to the flat for a nap.