Filling its own little niche all over Egypt and found on almost every street corner, the ubiquitous coffee house, or AHWA, plays an important role in the everyday life of Egyptians. Not unlike the Starbucks of the US or the cafés of continental Europe, AHWAs are social places where the locals congregate. They are places where people meet for a chat with mates, idle away an hour reading a newspaper, or watch football on the telly.
A typical coffee house is no more than a collection of old tables and chairs placed in a narrow alleyway, like Fishawi's in the Khan-el-Khalili Bazaar. Frequented predominantly by Egyptian men, foreign women are usually welcomed. Coffeehouses are busy at all hours of the day, with many remaining open round the clock.
Apart from tea (SHAI) and coffee (AHWA), most serve fresh lemon juice (LAMOON) and iced KARKADE, a fragrant and refreshing crimson infusion made from boiled hibiscus flowers and leaves. There is also a milky drink made from yogurt called ZABAADY, and SAHLEB, which is a hot drink made with semolina powder, milk, and chopped nuts.
No coffeehouse would be complete without the SHEESHA or HOOKAH (water pipe) through which tobacco is smoked. Offered at coffeehouses as an accompaniment to drinks, the tobacco is soaked in molasses or sometimes apple juice.
Backgammon and dominoes are the most popular of the coffeehouse games, with animated players slamming down their pieces. Chess is not particularly common in Egypt, but a few coffeehouses are venues for fans of the game. A site popular for this is the Horreyya Ahwa, located in downtown Cairo (Midan al-Falaki, Sharia at-Tahrir).
Each AHWA is frequented by its own particular set of clientele, and several of the more interesting ones are tucked away down tight alleys, like Ash-Shams in downtown Cairo (Souq al-Tawfiqiyya), which is notable for its garish wall paintings. One of the oldest is Fishawi's, buried in the narrow lanes of the Khan al-Khalili, one block in from Midan al-Hussein. Open day and night for the past 200 years, it is crammed with small copper-topped tables, while huge antique mirrors line the walls. Patrons are seen puffing away on their SHEESHAs and sipping mint tea round the clock. It is as much a must-see for visiting out-of-town Egyptians as it is for foreigners!