My Life in The Ahwa

I do two types of studying; one type is on the internet, and the other is in a book.

I imagine that if I lived in a time before the internet, I would get a lot more done in a lot shorter time.

Lately, I have taken to studying in places called “ahwa”s. The word “ahwa” in Egyptian Arabic means coffee, although most people there don’t drink coffee. As far as studying goes, there is not much in the way of distractions. The clientele is exclusively middle aged-older Egyptian men who go there for what may be approximated as “male-bonding”. They play dominos, cards, and yell at each other a lot, making generous use of wild arm gestures unheard of outside of Italy. Lots of them are wearing the Galabeya– traditional Egyptian garb, and many are moustached, or at least scruffy.

Because I haven’t fallen in love with one ahwa or another, I have visited quite a few of them, and besides some having delicious teas, bad shiishas, unique smells, or eccentric staff, they’re all pretty similar.

They usually consist of 20 or 30 tables for one- portable little ones with indented aluminum tops, uncomfortable wooden chairs, fluorescent lighting, and linoleum tile.

Here is the best picture I could find, of a typical one.

You can order tea- sometimes chopped leaves as sort of a silt at the bottom of the glass, and sometimes lipton. The former is much tastier, until you get to the end when you inadvertently swallow some of the bitter sediment.

You can order coffee- mazbout (Arabic coffee with just a tad of sugar), tourkiyya- potent Turkish coffee, or Nescafe- A blend of coffee flavored crystals, sugar, and chocolate or something. I don’t know, but to me it tastes like dropping some Super America coffee into a glass of warm water and then adding some swiss miss.

My favorite is called einaab. Although einaab is related to the Arabic word for grape- einab- it is a sweet Hibiscus tea, chilled, and purple in color.

When the weather is cold, and you don’t feel like tea, you can have a hot, white drink called SaHlab. It’s made from the starch of ground orchid bulb, boiled with milk, and mixed in with cinnamon, chopped pistachios, and grated coconut. Quite a combination. My favorite part about saHlab is the milk skin that forms on the meniscus of the liquid after every sip.

And of course, there’s shiisha, the staple of the ahwa. Because I’m not Egyptian, and I don’t particularly like the “real” shiisha, which is over Mollassesized plain tobacco with hot coals put directly on top of it- with no tinfoil barrier. I instead smoke apple flavor- I think I get odd looks from the old Egyptian guys, because I’m smoking what the women do.

Speaking of that, there are never any women in these, ever. Although it’s mostly unconscious, to me, this provides a much more relaxed environment- no one is trying to impress anyone, and no one is worried about embarrassing themselves in front of a girl. The majority of play-fights between elderly men I have ever seen in my life have occurred in these ahwas.

Depending on if your waiter recognizes you from before, if he is a nice guy, or you impress him with your Arabic, the pricing is quite varied. It’s all subjective, really. Typically, if my waiter likes me (that is to say, approves of my presence there- usually has to do with my understanding and efficacy in Egyptian Arabic), I will spend 3 hours there, smoke two bowls of tobacco, drink a tea and a einaab or sahleb, and spend between 4 and 6 gineeh (pounds). At the current exchange rate of 5.65 gineeh/dollar, this doesn’t exactly leave me poor.

Especially if I have Arabic homework to do, just being around the white noise of hacking old men intermittently cursing at each other in their native tongue is theraputic, and possibly they’re making me smarter by osmosis. At the very least, I am forced to use my Arabic in ordering things, and talking with the inevitable regular who asks “anta minayn?”; “Where are you from?”, as if I’m out of place or something.


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