Monday, 1 October 2012

Life in the coffeehouses

Rarely does a day go by during which I fail to spend an hour or so at some point in one of Alexandria's many coffeehouses. Many of the older coffeehouses have remained unchanged since they opened in the first half of the twentieth century (for better or for worse) and now host a unique brand of faded, grubby nostalgia. Customers wind up by default, if not once a day then several times a day, and what emerges within the cracking wood-panelled walls are theatres of Egyptian social life.

قهوة / قهاوي ʔahwa (pl. ʔahāwi) coffeehouse (also coffee - see this post)
بتاع قهاوي bitāʕ ʔahāwi idler (lit. belonging to coffeehouses)

A favourite of mine and my friends' is New Crystal, where we're greeted by the old-timers, some of whose parents would have lived under colonial rule, with shouts of "the British are coming!".

Mohammed has been writing a novel for the past couple of years, and has just left his day job at a courier company in Cairo, and now calls this place his office. He keeps his eyes on the window seats that look out onto the Eastern Harbour in case they free up.

With him is Dr. Mahmoud, a free-spirited character with some eighteen languages under his belt, and somewhere in the rucksack of treasured possessions he always keeps by him is the newspaper article attesting his talent.

Sharing the spindly table is Mr. Yousef, a retired lawyer who leads prayers at the next café along and occassionally gibes Dr. Mahmoud for drinking wine and shunning religion, although another favourite pass-time of his is to test us on English synonyms. We humour him until the rules of the game become too obscure and we declare defeat, conceding to his delight that he is the true Englishman.

The man in the corner is rumoured to have stood for president in 2005 when, under international pressure, Mubarak hosted a multiple-candidate election for presidency rather than a simple yes-no referendum on whether his rule should continue, as had been the case for his second, third and forth terms. The result was, not surprisingly, rigged 88.6% in Mubarak's favour, and our audacious friend probably came and took political refuge here in New Crystal.

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