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Traditional Coffee Houses in Cairo


Traditional Coffee Houses in Cairo

Cairo remains one of the best cities in the world to sample the traditional coffee house culture of the region. They are called maqhâ in Standard Arabic, but in the local dialect this is turned into ´ahwa. The Turkish coffee remains an invariable ingredient in any Cairene coffee house, and water pipe (sheesha) and tea is even more popular. While considered "old fashioned" for a time, these places are again turning fashionable among younger crowds and even smoking a water-pipe is no longer a male-only pastime. Places vary from just a small affair--plastic chairs and tables put out on the street--to more elaborate cafes especially in upscale and tourist areas. For many, the sheesha or water pipe, is the main attraction of any visit to a Cairene coffee house. It is usually available in at least two varieties, mu´assal, pure tobacco, and tofâh, apple-flavored. Other fruit varieties are sometimes available. Coffee houses range from the more elaborately decorated to a simple counter and some plastic chairs and tables spread out in the street. Foreigners are invariably made welcome, although women might feel uncomfortable visiting coffee houses in traditional, poor areas of the city. However, in downtown and the tourist areas of Islamic Cairo single or women-only groups should not expect anything more than the ordinary hassle. Turkish coffee (´ahwe turki) is served either sweet (helwa), medium sweet (masbout), with little sugar (sukr khafeef) or no sugar (sâda). Sweet means very sweet. Tea (shai) is served either as traditional loose tea (kûshari, not to be confused with the Cairo macaroni-rice stample kushari), known as dust tea in English, or in a tea bag. Most coffee shops usually offer fresh mint leaves to put in your tea, upon request. A range of soft drinks are usually available. Most typically you will find hibiscus tea (karkadee), served warm in the winter season and cold during the warmer parts of the year.

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A social institution

When coffee was introduced to the Arab and Islamic world in the 1600s the Islamic clergy attempted to outlaw it. However people's cravings soon convinced the sheikhs against this, although even today the most pious followers of Islam would still avoid visiting an ´ahwa. For most Egyptian men however, it is an important social institution, usually near one's home and the local mosque or church. It is the place to chat, pick up the latest news, read the paper, watch a TV show or a soccer match, or simply people watch while puffing a waterpipe sheesha. Some say there are more than 20,000 coffee houses in Cairo. Today Downtown and Islamic Cairo are the best places to visit for a sampling of this essential part of Cairene life.


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Cairo Travel Guide from Wikitravel. Many thanks to all Wikitravel contributors. Text is available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0, images are available under various licenses, see each image for details.

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