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.
The Gay & Lesbian Scene
Homosexuality is not actually illegal in Egypt, but gay men are subject to a significant level of officially sanctioned police harassment, detention, and, at times, abuse. The existence of lesbians, meanwhile, is simply not acknowledged. That said, there is a lively gay scene in Cairo and wide acceptance of recreational homosexual sex. An important point in understanding this peculiar contrast is that, though it is generally not acceptable to be gay -- a high degree of homophobia is not merely acceptable but expected here -- a man is not necessarily gay simply because he happens to have sex with men. The distinction lies in being either the active partner (not necessarily gay) or the passive partner (to whom the derogatory term khawal applies). Throw into this mix the highly repressive social mores concerning sex between unmarried people of the opposite sex, and you have a complicated, but active, situation.
One of the most surprising aspects of Egypt may be that you can expect the police to come on to you. This is particularly true of the tourist police around the pyramids in Giza. Don't be surprised if you're offered a ride on a camel -- this will be a precursor to a short jaunt to the more discreet area between the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx. Army guards at embassies and government facilities will also try to attract your attention as you pass, and this is more often than not a sexual overture. Stop for a chat, and find out.
Popular civilian pickup spots include areas around the Kentucky Fried Chicken near Midan Tahrir, the Mubarak Metro station in Midan Ramses (sit on one of the benches by the mosque), Merryland Park in Misr Gedida, Horreya cafe in downtown, the Qasr el Aini Bridge (the one guarded by the large lions between downtown and Zamalek), and the Marriott Terrace. The health club at the Nile Hilton is also known to be quite gay friendly, as well as the Hammam al Nahhasin on Muizz din Allah Street across from Harat al Salihiyah in Khan al Khalili.
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