A Khawaga's Tale: The sweet black addiction

Peter A. Carrigan
6 Min Read

It was inevitable really, that sooner or later I would be writing about coffee, since I am addicted to my own milky sweet brew, which delivers that much needed shot of caffeine each morning.

There is a correlation I believe between Egypt’s economic boom and the neighborhood espresso machine.

Java, I hypothesize, may well be fueling Egypt’s annual 7 percent economic growth rate as creamy take-away cups of arabica beans provide the buzz that keeps ideas flowing and tired workers wired.

In comparison, the laconic ahwa and its shisha smoke belong to another time, when time wasn’t money and a person’s value wasn’t measured in productivity.

Cairenes fill the city’s array of modern coffee lounges, which are carbon copies of Starbucks’ community philosophy, with their armchairs, free newspapers and sweet treats. Surely their proliferation is a good indicator of Cairo’s economic boom. They offer an affordable luxury and a branded cup that one can stroll along the streets with, declaring your status.

In a recent SMS survey of 50 young urban professionals, both expatriates and Egyptians, there was no coffee shop that stood out as a clear favorite.

People’s preference depended on geography. Those in Maadi opting for Café Greco on Road 9, in Zamalek it was Cilantro’s original store on 26th July. You know the place; it is where you always hit your head when you go upstairs. But people’s favorite spot to partake in the drug, that occurs naturally in more than 60 plants, was at home.

A number of respondents were not coffee drinkers with one wag pointing out that he only drinks Nescafe at work!

Another believed the reason his Tanzanian beans from the foothills of Kilimanjaro tasted so good was that they are brewed to perfection with Cairo’s finest boiled tap water.

Costa won plaudits for having the world’s largest cups and shared with a cigarette the caffeine is metabolized twice as fast by the body.

Downtown, on Falaki square, either side of the legendary Horreya bar, are two coffee shops without the marketing man’s lame brand names. Abdel Maboud and Yemeni Café sell Columbian, Brazilian, Guatemalan and Yemeni beans by the kilo, ground to your specifications.

There is another coffee wholesaler across the road, making this intersection at the back of the AUC campus, a dream for the coffee connoisseur.

Each of the shops perspires with the aroma of ground coffee. I just made it myself at home, no one seemed to mind, and breathed in the heavy rich smells. I watched the process of customers desperately ordering their mix of coffee and spices, including a mocha chocolate if you desire.

As I stood around, with a bright sun shining down on Saturday morning, curious tourists stopped to smell the coffee and snap a photo. A steady stream of customers kept the coffee grinders busy and at the Yemeni Café waiters come and go with stained maroon aprons and hearty glasses of thick Turkish coffee for nearby shops.

Unbelievably, as I am lining up a photo at Abdel Maboud, a face in the crowd recognizes me. It is the friend of a friend who I only met at a BBQ the day before and she had told me that this was her favorite coffee spot.

Coffee and community, it is an old theme. It is just a pity about those names – Segafredo, L’Aroma, Costa and Pasqua, all favorites of Cairenes, but you have to admit there is some Italian envy going on there.

I prefer Café Einstein and I wish they served the coffee he was on. I would have a double.

As coffee shops breed like rabbits on the banks of the Nile, I do remember Insomnia on 26th July in Zamalek. It had excellent coffee, though it still closed down. It had no free newspapers, comfy lounge chairs or wireless internet. Another brand, Segafredo, has taken its spot. Interesting to see how much longer that place lasts. I tried it, but I would never go back.

Nearby Segafredo is Simonds, a Zamalek institution. More of an authentic Italian espresso bar than anywhere else in Cairo. It has plenty of small stools that customers arrange to fit their social group. I went to this café/bakery once, though they didn’t like me helping myself to their sweet treats.

I think I am barred, it was a bit of an ugly scene actually, though with Easter around the corner, I’ll be back for my chocolate eggs and I’ll see if I can’t squeeze one last cappuccino and another free cookie out of them – I’ll just say, the drug made me do it.

Several facts in this story were taken from the National Geographic cover story, “Why We Love Caffeine, January 2005.

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