Posts Tagged 'Egypt'

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.


Some notes on clothing

People here dress differently than I expected they would. They certainly dress different than people in Lebanon, and undoubtedly I stand out as an American if only by my attire.

The men here, if they are not dressed in dapper suits, can be divided into two categories.

The first, mostly younger (but not necessarily) wear long sleeved (usually some shade of blue) collared and striped button-up shirts, tucked in and paired with dress pants or overly faded or acid-washed jeans. The shirts are either dirty or cleaned, (this is due to the high cost of washing clothes here) but the general sentiment is one intended to impress. Whereas in Lebanon most of the young guys wore tight jeans and even tighter shirts that spell out messages that don’t make much sense, such as “Heroes vs. Zeroes”, “Welcome Mr. Sexy” and “Thunder and Lightning” (I personally bought one that said “My friends, right or wrong.” as a half-joke), things are much humbler and simpler in Egypt. There is still that young population (particularly those who go to AUC) who dress decidedly “Lebanese”, but this trend dies out when people reach about 25 years old.

The second category is mostly older men who wear the full garb (I seem to have forgotten its name). Basically it is a long robe in either white, brown or blue that covers the entire body. These are reserved for those who have completed the pilgrimage to Mecca (The Hajj). They are usually older either because they are no longer (or never were) working in an office-type job, or they’ve spent their entire life savings (multiple decades) on the pilgrimage, and could only afford it in old age. The people who wear them are called Haajiis, or, in Egypt where j is pronounced like g, Haaggiies. You’ll frequently hear on the street someone yelling out “Ya Hag!”, which isn’t an insult, but a way to address someone dressed in this manner. They are generally nice and will most likely speak only in Arabic to you.

The women can similarly be put into two groups: Those who dress “western” and those who are veiled.

Especially within the “veiled” category, there is a lot of room for variation. For example, many of the girls at AUC who are veiled wear much tighter clothing than those who are uncovered. They seem just as fashion-conscious as those dressing in Gucci and Prada, they just express it by matching their scarf with their entire outfit and carrying an expensive (usually Louis Vuitton or Gucci) handbag. For all intents and purposes they act exactly the same, speak exactly the same, and look exactly the same. It really is a personal choice whether or not to wear the hijab that usually has more to do with tradition than it does orthodox religious belief.

The girl who is dressed in a “western” manner looks pretty much exactly like any rich young lady from the US or Europe who is extremely concerned about her looks. These girls mostly congregate on the Greek Campus stairs, and from what it looks like, they never go to class. Many have described these stairs as a “fashion show”, an assertion with which I agree. Remember, all of these students, guys and girls alike, covered or uncovered, religious or secular are the sons and daughters of the elites of the country- and they act as such, buying $2,000 handbags and valet parking their Mercedes’ and BMWs at school.

I really need to buy some long sleeved collared shirts. Not only because it’s turning into fall, but also because I feel perpetually underdressed.

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