CAIRO — "This is indeed a funny country," French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote home from Egypt to announce, surveying the scene in the coffee shop around him where, in one corner, a donkey brayed, while in the other, a swarthy Egyptian quietly relieved himself.
"No one finds that odd," he told his mother. "No one says anything. Sometimes a man will get up and begin to say his prayers, with great bowings and exclaimings, as though he were quite alone. No one even turns his head to look, it is all so natural. Can you imagine someone suddenly saying grace in the Cafe de Paris?"
The Egyptian coffee shop, 140 years later, remains a celebration of the unexpected and a refuge for the preposterous, a barometer of day-to-day life and a haven of quiet in a madcap city of 14 million where, as a rule, anything can happen.
Nowhere is there an institution so uniquely Arab as the place where an Arab goes to sip his coffee, and nowhere has the leisurely art of enjoying a drink and a smoke been refined as it has by the Egyptians. There is on every Cairo street corner, or just a few doors away, a casually assembled collection of round tables and cane-backed chairs, dominoes and waterpipes, backgammon boards and tin teapots, that provide every known accoutrement known to be necessary for the continued dissemination of a civilization that spans 7,000 years.
It remains an exclusively male domain in a country where women have become, to some minds, too restless at home and too apparent in the workplace, a place where thick, sweet tobacco too strong for feminine tongues can be gurgled through a sheesha waterpipe and where mud-thick coffee--ordered mazbut , of course, with the "correct" amount of sugar--can be savored blocks away from the chaos of the living room.
"You go to the coffee shop to meet your friends, you can have a cup of tea for 15 or 20 piasters, you can smell the air and you can stay the whole night for those two drinks," explains Osama Bahrawi. "Nobody will tell you, 'You don't want anything else? Then go.' "
There are, in Cairo, coffee shops for intellectuals. A coffee shop where out-of-work actors go to be hired as movie extras. A coffee shop for the deaf, where the enthusiastic slapping of hands on backs is the only sound to be heard (although singers from the cheap nightclubs nearby have started frequenting it in recent months, and it's getting noisier). A coffee shop for the camel traders, a coffee shop for taxi drivers, a coffee shop for limericists, and one for poets. There is the coffee shop downtown, closed only about a month ago, where Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellow officers plotted the 1952 revolution.
The bakers were thrown out of their coffee shop in Cairo's Shubra district two weeks ago for constantly brawling and have started hanging out at the construction worker's coffee shop down the street. A near-fight broke out the following Tuesday.
Down the street is the coffee shop where Azziz, the 85-year-old wedding broker, goes for his morning tea.
"That man is very well known," a patron inside explained, nodding sagely. "If I have a daughter, and this daughter is getting old a little and I want her to get married, I come to Azziz and I tell him, 'I have a daughter.' He says, 'How old is she? Does she have education? Is she pretty?' And he tries to find a man who wants to get married. After that, he brings the man to the father of the girl, and they sit there and they start to talk, and if they did the agreement, he takes the money from both. Fifty pounds."
Inside, Kamil Abdel Mellik has just arrived to meet his two friends, Safir Shanuda and Wahib Helayn Naash, and is preparing to find out what kind of a price Naash will give him to paint his house, inside and out. They have been meeting here every morning for the last 10 years, but of course it is only this morning that Mellik decided to paint his house. The bargaining will span two cups of tea, and some sheesha.
Down the street, Khalid Rashwan was waiting at the Dar es Salaam (Peace House) for a shy friend who had fallen in love with a girl who passed by his house every day. "He will come here and talk to me--what's he supposed to do with this girl?" Rashwan said. "I don't have experience, but I'm going to help him--give him some nice words to say to her."
Sabr Miligi Hassan, the proprietor, presides imperially over the coffee maker, his head wrapped in a tall white turban and his blue djellaba stretching to the floor. The Dar es Salaam is 55 years old, run by Hassan's father before him, whose own father also ran a coffee shop. "A good coffee shop has to be clean," he said. "And honest. Dignity. Polite. You have to be in good communication with the customers. Everybody loves me."