Egypt: Kahwas, Egyptian Coffee Shops (cafes)

Kahwas (egyptian Coffee Shops)

By Dr. Maged El-Bialy

One night in Cairo the heat was unbearable. Humidity was chest tightening so I head out to an open-air caf to refresh myself with some drinks. A caf is the usual gathering spot. My friends and I sometimes meet without prior arrangement. Cafs in Egypt are nice gathering spots for friends. In Egyptian Kahwa means coffee and can also mean a coffee shop. Often, they are like local pubs in the West, where people from a specific neighborhood gather. Like Paris and Greece, Kahwas are often sidewalks Cafs. The main item served in a Kahwa is the sheesha or hookah pipe. You will not find any American coffee in a Kahwa. All drinks are traditional and include tea, Turkish coffee and tamarind. What is interesting about Kahwas is that they are extremely cheap. In some Kahwas one Egyptian pound can buy you two drinks. The source of entertainment is board games like backgammon, chess and dominos. Often one may find friends setting up miniature tournaments of one of these board games. In Hussein and the Khan El Khalili Kahwas are common, the most popular being El Feshawi, which has been around since the time when Egypt was a monarchy. Even in Zamalik you will find Kahwas. An excellent example of a Kahwa is Robaeyyat El Khayaam, which is on 26th of July St. and within walking distance from the Marriott hotel.

While many Kahwas remain rustic, others have been modernized and and can be very fancy to match the look of a nice locale. They are of coarse more expensive than the local Kahwas as the service is more stylish. A television with satellite receiver might be a source of entertainment. Yet still these fancier Kahwas are gathering spots where friends meet on a regular basis. The menu is different from that in the local Kahwa. You may find cocktails and fancy drinks in addition to the traditional Egyptian drinks. Some of these coffee shops even serve food. The names of theses new Kahwas have even been modernized, and include places such as the Time Out Caf which is near a local Kahwa called Nadi Hammo (nadi means club).

Whether the Kahwa is local or modernized the crowd is the same. Mainly young men working in all fields can be customers to such places. In a Local Kahwa (far away from Hussein and the Khan El Khalili) women are not regular customers because it is a tradition that Kahwas are meeting places for men. However women are regulars in a modernized Kahwa.

In a local coffee the waiter takes beverages orders using a special terminology. The following are some of the terms used in a local Kahwa:

  • ShaySokkar Bosta :tea with sugar on the side. In local Kahwas the tea comes already with sugar added.
  • Shaykhamseena: tea in a small glass (you drink tea from a glass in a local Kahwa)
  • Shaymenno feeh: a special tea with milk added to it. The milk is heated and then tea is added without added boiling water.
  • Ennabis: same as karkade
  • Vanilliameans: hot chocolate
  • Kahwascitto: Turkish coffee with out sugar
  • Kahwamazboot: Turkish coffee with medium sugar
  • Kahwaziyada: Turkish coffee with a lot of sugar.

Next time you are in Egypt visit a Kahwa away from the Hussein and then visit a modernized Kahwa. You will feel the difference between the two types of Kahwas. Yet I guarantee you will have a very close encounter with the daily lives and entertainment of the Egyptian people.