How to choose from Cairo's thousand and one cafes? First of all, there are a lot more than that: the Egyptian capital has far more 'ahawi' (cafes) than there were 'Arabian Nights'.
Secondly, the very definition of 'cafe' needs to be clarified, as the term covers an infinite range of establishments, ranging from elegant salons to streetside camps - a few plastic chairs, a cupboard, a small stove and a fridge staked out in an alley. Traditional cafes have tables outside most of the year. During hot periods, the floor is washed down several times a day to get rid of dust and clear the air.
Watch the beggars, street vendors and shoe shiners who ply their trade in a corner of the room... Inside, the walls are covered with ceramic tiles and mirrors reflecting the light of neon signs. Fans suspended from the ceiling slice the air with their large blades.
Young couples looking for a few moments of privacy had better meet in one of the new shopping centres, lost in the crowd, or find a quiet table at one of the 'casinos' along the Nile. Traditional cafes, on the other hand, are the kingdom of dominoes and backgammon players who slam down their tiles with a flourish. They're also a place of meditation for smokers, given that some cafes' reputations lie in the quality of their hookah pipes.
Hookahs (or hubbly bubblies) are intrinsically linked to conversation and socialising, and act as a peace pipe with a whole ritual to go with it. When bringing the water pipe, the waiter hands over a disposable plastic tip, sealed in a bag. Cut tobacco leaves, macerated in molasses, mixed with spices and scented with apple, rose and dates are served. Breathe deeply in while holding the end of the hose. Clouds of smoke pass through the transparent vase, colouring the bubbling water inside. From time to time, the waiter carefully uses tongs to place a smoking coal ember in the bowl containing the tobacco, which sizzles deliciously.
Far from going out of style, hookah is all the rage among Cairo's young. But beware - it's been found to be the equivalent of smoking about 20 cigarettes! Theoretically, restrictions on tobacco mean people under the age of 18 are no longer allowed to enter Cairo's cafes, but there's much room for improvement in Egypt. Increasing numbers of young women have started smoking hookah in public. They may have found a clever way to find their own place among the men in the cafes.
Not a drop of alcohol is served in most of these establishments (Al Horreya Café in Bab El Louk is one of the few to serve beer). On the other hand, there are plenty of sweet soft drinks, iced drinks and coffee and tea. Infusions of 'karkade' (hibiscus), 'erfa' (cinnamon) or 'yansoun' (aniseed) are often added.
The tea, served in small glasses, is always consumed in the same way: hot (it's boiled for a very long time), very black and very sweet. Coffee, on the other hand, is prepared in a Turkish style, in a copper pot with a long handle and a narrow neck. The customer can have it either 'al riha' (with very little sugar), 'zyada' (with a lot of sugar), 'sada' (without sugar) or 'mazbout' (with some sugar)... which literally means 'just right.'
Cairo's cafes have existed since the 16th century. Until recently, the establishments had benches rather than individual chairs and storytellers, sometimes accompanied by a stringed instrument, enchanted regulars with their fantasies, fables, and tales of chivalry. They've sadly long since been dethroned by radio and television, especially when there's a big football match on. But even today, cafes near courthouses and government offices play host to scribes and their illiterate clients.
The best cafes in Cairo are not only places for relaxation and entertainment, but also one of the foundations of social life in the city. They are for groups of friends and business meetings, serving as headquarters for companies that don't have one. Hence, why some are called 'nadi' (club).
They are the perfect meeting place for writers and intellectuals, playing host to many a political debate in the past century; that is, when the police weren't around. Naguib Mahfouz held literary meetings at Cafe de l'Opara in the 1940s, and at Cafe Riche on Talaat Harb Street some 20 years later. The latter, located in Cairo's 'European' neighbourhood, popular with artists and intellectuals, reopened in its original form after a long renovation. The Nobel Laureate in literature also left his mark at El Fichaoui Cafe in Islamic Cairo: a beautiful establishment, now a popular tourist spot, whose walls display quotes from yesteryear.