Some 240 years ago, a man named al-Fishawy began serving coffee to his friends in an alley of Cairo's Khan al-Khalili district each evening after prayers. According to his descendants—who have not been able to trace his first name—al-Fishawy's gatherings grew larger and longer, fueled by the talk of the town.
Al-Fishawy, they say, gradually added mint tea and anise tea to his informal menu, as well as shishas, or water pipes. Thus was born Qahwat al-Fishawi, Fishawy's Café, now the most renowned café in the Arab world and a monument to the traditional Egyptian social style of relaxing with friends, colleagues and the occasional stranger over coffee, tea and tobacco.
"We are different from the other coffeehouses because we work to preserve the old style," says Akram al-Fishawy, one of the café's seventh-generation owners. "Qalnvat al-Fishawi really represents Egypt's past."
Fishawy's sits cramped and noisy at the hub of Cairo's richest area of Islamic architecture and historic institutions. Besides the labyrinthine 14th-century Khan al-Khalili market, the popular Sayyidna al-Husayn ibn 'Ali Mosque is nearby, where the head of one of the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad is said to be buried. And only a few meters across the road is the 1000-year-old al-Azhar, one of the world's oldest universities.
Partly because of this location, Fishawy's became not only a popular neighborhood watering hole, but also a rallying point for more than two centuries of Egyptian writers, artists, musicians, students and intellectuals, all of whom, it seems, harbored warm feelings toward this comfortable café.
"Loving greetings I present to my beloved home, al-Fishawy," reads one entry in the café's multi-volume guest register. The Arabic script is small and clear. "God grant it and its owners long life, fame and happiness. Your loyal son, Naguib Mahfouz. December, 1982."
Akram al-Fishawy explains that Mahfouz was the café's most famous "regular," and that he wrote parts of his Nobel-Prize-winning trilogy in the café's back room. (See Aramco World, March/April 1989.) "And why not?" asks Hassan Ibrahim, who has been a waiter at Fishawy's for 51 of his 72 years. "His boyhood home is just down the road."
Other notable patrons have included Ahmad Rami, the poet who wrote songs for the legendary singer Umm Kalthum, and even King Farouk, ruler of Egypt in the years before and after World War II. Good wishes also appear in the guest book from the pen of Alex Haley, author of Roots. The television series made from his book, subtitled in Arabic, was one of the greatest hits in recent memory in Egypt.
"Everything that has happened in Egypt has passed through Fishawy's," says al-Fishawy with pride.
This is mostly a café for ordinary people, and each day has its rhythm. In the early morning, cabbies, craftsmen and shopkeepers often drop in for a wake-up pot of tea. Noon brings the peak hours, when camera-toting travelers can often be spotted moving in herds among the tables while the café's waiters stride swiftly through their midst, like egrets. Afternoon brings a wave of students and, as the sun drops, groups of worshipers after their prayers at al-Husayn. On weekends, as the lights burn yellow into the cooling night, Fishawy's seems filled with Egyptians from towns and cities outside Cairo. At such a time, someone might tune up an 'ud, or begin to recite a poem, half-heard amid the nocturnal buzz and bustle.
Despite the changes that have affected both the café and the country over the years, Qahwat al-Fishawy remains a social monument. From the traditional menu to the battered mirror frames and the waiters shouting their orders across the alley to the kitchen, Fishawy's endears itself to all who enter. "We come to al-Fishawy every time we visit Cairo," says Reda Abdel Hakim, who lives in the port city of Ismailia and is visiting Cairo with friends for the weekend. "I like it because people from all classes, Egyptians and tourists, all come here. It has a harmonious feel."
Tea, the most popular drink at Fishawy's—and in much of the Arab world—comes in a battered two-cup enamel teapot with a bowl of sugar, sprigs of fresh na'na', or mint, and a small glass. Coffee is served in the traditional Arab kanakah, a fluted, long-handled copper pot, with sugar on the side. Other national favorites include karkaday, a tart, deep-red hibiscus tea, anise infusion, fresh lemonade and sahlab, a hot, thick drink like thinned Cream of Wheat, especially popular topped with nuts and raisins in winter.
To the habitues, long-handled shishas, the traditional Arab water pipes, are as indispensable as tea. On a typical night, the café's tiny kitchen turns out as many as 400 clay pipe-bowls carefully packed with aromatic tobacco mixtures made sticky with either traditional molasses or a lighter apple flavoring. Women as well as men "drink" smoke, drawing it through a flexible tube and a cylindrical wooden handle.
Most of the tiny, round tables, their marble tops cracked and held together by their aluminum rims, have seen as many years as Fishawy's itself. So too have the large oil paintings, their varnish darkened to deepest brown, and the enormous mirrors, heavy in gilded arabesque frames, some inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Even the walls, timeworn and covered with a dimmed yellow paint, add character, and contribute to the impression that the café is almost as old as Khan al-Khalili itself.
But Fishawy's inner sanctum is the "closed treasure room," once Naguib Mahfouz's favorite writing spot, now used for private parties. There stands a full-length Spanish mirror with lotus blossoms carved into its ponderous dark frame; it reflects light from an oversized chandelier, some of whose lotus-petal shades have fallen off.
"We can't redecorate," says Akram al-Fishawy. "When we tried to repaint the walls, the customers complained. They said, 'We like it better when they are dirty!'"
Nowadays, Fishawy's is most famous simply for being famous. "I just heard of it as a place to visit," says Ahmed Mudara, a Syrian engineer working in Cairo, who admits he knows nothing of the café's history. But generations of shisha smoke, political discussion, intellectual argument, friendly talk and silent contemplation have given the place a patina that is not to be mistaken. "It's real," says Samantha Miller, visiting from England.
That genuineness, al-Fishawy says, is not likely to change. His ancestor started the café for social reasons, for his friends, he points out, and Fishawy's today "is not an investment project. It is something to preserve."
Mac Ghalwash is a journalist who lives in Cairo, Josh Martin, who usually reports on business subjects, free-lances from his base in New York.
Photographer Lorraine Chittock, who also lives in Cairo, recently completed anAramco World assignment in the Horn of Africa.