The paintbrush is replacing the shisha in Egypt’s cafes
CAIRO - Cultural cafes are gaining popularity in Egypt following the government’s campaign to fight smoking, which has led to cigarette prices increasing approximately 680% in the past few years. Local authorities have cracked down on licensed and unlicensed cafes that offer shisha because they are considered nuisances in neighbouring residential areas and violate environmental and health regulations.
The Egyptian parliament approved a bill banning the serving of shisha in locales that serve food or beverages to the general public without obtaining a licence and paying a 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($555) fee. A bill requiring such businesses to close before midnight is under consideration.
Artistic cafes support the government’s measures as incentive to promote a reading and artistic culture. Traditional cafe owners complain their customers cannot afford the price hikes resulting from the new requirements. This threatens their business and their establishments’ role for patrons to find respite from cramped apartments and life’s pressures.
Authorities have been cracking down on traditional cafes for a variety of reasons. Many operate without a licence or in violation of health regulations. Official data indicate that patrons of traditional cafes spend about $186 million a month in them. Smoking causes 170,000 deaths annually in Egypt and the government spends about $167 million on treating smoking-related diseases.
Non-traditional cafe owners support the war on shisha smoking. They argue that outlets wishing to serve shisha must provide appropriate conditions that protect non-smoking customers from being exposed to second-hand smoke, such as air filtration devices and plastic or glass curtains isolating smoking areas. Some demand they be banned for the sake of public health.
Il Penello Ceramic, a cafe, restaurant and painting studio rolled into one place, is the upscale district of Heliopolis in northern Cairo. Customers choose from a selection of ceramic products, such as tea and coffee mugs and dishes stacked on wooden shelves and draw and colour on them as they eat and drink.
Rami Mahmoud, Il Penello Ceramic’s manager, said the cafe’s slogan is “the brush fights the hookah.” There is no room for smoking inside. The same hand that will hold the water pipe can carry the brush and choose a ceramic piece, ranging in price 65-220 pounds ($2.30-$12.25), colour and varnish it and put it in an kiln for it to become a piece of art that can be retrieved in four days.
Art cafes’ products and service cost no less than 35 pounds ($2) in addition to the ceramic pieces. By comparison, customers at traditional cafes can stay as long as they wish for the price of a cup of tea, which will not exceed 3 pounds (16 US cents).
Mahmoud said his art cafe attracts all age groups, from 5-year-olds to sexagenarians. The raw materials used are imported and are in line with Health Ministry’s regulations. The Il Penello Ceramic Cafe offers an environment in which high school and university students can read and study. It has no television screens and the lighting is controlled to create a serene atmosphere.
In the Maadi neighbourhood of southern Cairo, architect Fathi al-Sayyed recently opened Art Cafe. With its narrower space, it is a far cry from the traditional smoke-filled noisy cafe, with the constant clatter of dominos being slapped on wooden tables, backgammon players arguing and waiters constantly called to add charcoal to shisha pipes. Art Cafe provides cultural and artistic content that attracts a segment of young people, children and their families.
Sayyed said he wanted to provide an atmosphere of freedom and comfort for customers, like the feeling of being at home, and where patrons can paint, sing or play thinking games, such as chess. Would-be artists find free canvases and paint tubes and singers can practice.
Art cafes tend not to overlook some basic elements of Cairo cafe society, such as having giant screens on which important sports events are shown, because this activity has evolved from being male-dominated to one that is shared by the whole family. The cafes, however, do not serve shisha or allow smoking and are selective of the kind of music played.
Sayyed said his cafe dedicated a wall to hanging customers’ artwork and the cafe has a yearly exhibition of the varied works produced by its patrons, from portraits to expressionist and landscape paintings.
Some cafes, such as Cilantro in Giza, are trying to promote the sciences. In December, Cilantro hosted a lecture on dinosaurs to mark the discovery of the Egyptian dinosaur Mansourasaurus. The cafe used the slogan “Drink a beverage and get a fact” and dozens of natural sciences and geology aficionados flocked to the lecture.
Social media have contributed to fostering positive publicity for the new types of cafes, helping them avoid the fate of initiatives such as that of the Kabinchi Cafe in Heliopolis. It provided books for customers to read but it failed as a business model apparently because the owners relied on traditional methods of advertising, with only a few posters around the streets of the area.
Traditional cafe owners contend that those waging war on shisha and its users are rich elites who smoke both “hookahs and e-cigarettes” and do not care about the needs of the large public. Mohamed Ali, the owner of a traditional cafe in the Western province in Egypt’s Delta, said the new regulations do not take into consideration the difficult situation of small coffee shops in poorer areas, where prices do not exceed 3 pounds.
Traditional cafe owners also warn that the trend is headed towards the banning of shisha smoking, even though it has become a popular touristic draw. They argue that their cafes are not only places serving drinks but also places for freedom and expression.
Downtown Cairo’s cafes serve as an important base for intellectuals eager to gather around a modest drink and discuss all aspects of life, from politics to economics.