What the bar or pub is to Western culture, the ahwa, or coffee shop (ahwa means coffee in Cairene Arabic), is to Cairo. The ahwa is a place to relax at the end of the day or late into the night, meet friends, and watch passing strangers. The staples of the ahwa are shisha (the water pipe known elsewhere as narghile or hookah), coffee that comes strong and black in little cups, and shai, or tea, in glasses rather than cups. Ahwas are a ubiquitous presence in Cairo, from the neighborhood dive stuffed into the cranny of an old building to the well-cushioned opulence of a five-star hotel.
There are ahwas literally everywhere in Cairo, and I highly recommend taking a moment to stop randomly and grab a cup of coffee or a glass of tea. Watch the TV, read the newspaper, or find yourself in conversation with whoever's in the place that speaks a little English. This is the real Cairo.
One of my favorite places is right next door to the popular downtown Townhouse Art Gallery. This ahwa actually features an old car under a tarp that's used to store shisha tobacco. Attracting the after-exhibit crowd from the gallery, as well as a full roster of neighborhood locals, this place features a comfortable mix of classes and nationalities. Possibly the most famous ahwa, however, is Fishawy in Khan al Khalili. It's cramped, busy, and incredibly atmospheric, with high ceilings and enormous mirrors on the walls in which you can watch the whole bustling scene of the busy souk from several angles at once. The tea comes in ancient enamel pots, and you'll have a stream of vendors trying to sell you everything from Chinese Rolexes to incense. At night it's particularly attractive, as the alleys between the shuttered stores echo with the words and laughter of the off-work storekeepers.
A Note on LGBTQ+ Rights in Egypt
Though homosexuality is not technically illegal in Egypt, police rely on several old so-called public morality laws to harass and arrest LGBTQ+ people. In addition to carrying out raids of LGBTQ+ spaces, officials have been known to entrap users of popular mobile apps such as Grindr.
As in many places where anti-LGBTQ+ bias is prevalent, residents are more likely to suffer abuses than tourists. Still, all LGBTQ+ visitors to Egypt should exercise caution for their own safety.
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