Cafes, at the heart of Middle Eastern tradition

middle eastern cafe

Despite what you may think, not all cafes serve coffee. In the Middle East, you’re more likely to smell the sweet scent of shisha pipes than the earthy aroma of coffee. And even there, cafes are actually kingdom of tea. While we normally associate tea culture to the British people, saying it belongs to the Middle East is quite the euphemism. Tea is the drink around. Everyone drinks it, all the time. Every country has its own variation of black tea but we find Turkey’s to be most remarkable. A coarse, unfiltered black tea is served in abundance from breakfast to bedtime. It serves as much as a source of hydration as a social bond between people. The Kurdish people, on the contrary, prefer it sweet. Very sweet. In both cases, don’t expect a tea bag. Tea here is prepared in the traditional way and is mostly grown around Turkey‘s black sea coast.

Middle Eastern cafes are more popular in the afternoon and evening, rather than the quick morning coffee stop of Western countries. The duration of time people spend relaxing in Middle Eastern cafes far outlasts busy western coffee shops.

We know this is a generalization. Cass personally has spent 10 hours straight in a coffee shop studying for final exams. The difference is she was locked into her own world of primary source documents and scientific papers, ceaselessly switching between staring at a laptop and scribbling notes. In contrast, cafes in the Middle East are for socializing. Sometimes the din is loud with strands of live music playing from a stage, and sometimes the atmosphere is toned down. Regardless, people, primarily men, come to cafes to relax after work or to meet with friends. You don’t need a reason to go to a cafe.

Origins

Middle Eastern cafe, over 100 years ago.
An outdoor cafe in Istanbul, Turkey, circa 1900.

The beginning of smoking shisha and cafe culture is contested, but we do know it has been around for centuries. Some claim smoking hookah dates to 16th century India, although it didn’t become accessible to common people until 17th century Persia. Others will claim it was invented in 16th century Persia under the Safavid Dynasty, and later spread to India. Turks may tell you that they invented the shisha cafe as we know it today. We do know the hookah pipe came first and was used exclusively at the higher levels of society before trickling down to universal availability.

In the Middle East, cafes are the chief place to socialize, and cafes are as easy to find as pubs are in Britain. Particularly in the past few decades, the popularity of cafes has soared and spread around the world. Today Middle Eastern cafes are used as gathering places, whether for conversation, games, smoking or simply relaxing.

What about the women?

Egyptian men enjoy a relaxed afternoon talking and passing pipes in an outdoor cafe.
Egyptian men enjoy a relaxed afternoon talking and passing pipes at an outdoor cafe in Siwa Oasis. Some larger city cafes may allow women to join, but in a rural area cafes such as this are a man’s domain.

 One thing you’ll notice in Middle Eastern cafes are the high ratio of male to female patrons. Like everything, cafes differ from region to region. In Egypt, you’ll find cafes with a special women’s section. One cafe we went to had the second floor dedicated to women, and the light bulbs were tinted a vivid shade of hot pink, making it inescapably clear who was welcome (and who was unwelcome) at the stairs. Cafes in larger cities such as Istanbul or Tehran are more likely to be relaxed about allowing women. Other cafes may have a small corner for women, or a side room.

In Turkey, cafes usually don’t cater to women. Some allow women if they are with a man, but others don’t allow women at all (touristy Istanbul is an exception). A casual cafe within a fairly liberal city of Iraq (yes, Iraq) welcomed Cass into the premise because she was with our local host and Dereck. Another cafe in the same city, however, flatly refused when our local host asked if Cass could come in the venue. We asked where the women hang out, and we never got a satisfactory answer. “The mall, maybe,” is the best we could get from one of our male hosts in Iraqi Kurdistan. (By the way if you know where women in the Middle Eastern countries hang out, please let us know in the comments below!)

A note on shisha

 Charcoals are placed on the top of water pipes to burn the shisha.
Charcoals are placed on the top of water pipes to burn the shisha.

 Spelled a variety of ways, we chose to spell it the most common way. You’ll also see sheesha, sheer, or synonyms like calean, chicha, hookah and narghile. Sometimes the word “shisha” is used as both the name of the tobacco patty, and the name of the pipe. Shisha smoking is a way of smoking flavored tobacco through a hookah, or water pipe. The tobacco can come in fruity flavors such as strawberry, apple and watermelon, or floral-based varieties like vanilla and rose. Our host in Iraqi Kurdistan swore by mixing a couple flavors to make cinnamon.

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Shisha smoking is a staple of cafes, although some places are starting to ban shisha because of increasing concern over health risks. Saudi Arabia is working on a country-wide ban of smoking in public places, which includes shisha. Despite this, more and more young people are attracted to shisha. In Western countries smoking shisha is considered exotic and chic, while Eastern cultures simply continue their tradition. Some people smoke alone, but it is most popular to share a pipe among a group of friends, while enjoying the relaxed atmosphere.

What do cafes serve?

Kurdish men hanging out and enjoying live music at a Middle Eastern cafe.
Kurdish men hanging out and enjoying live music by local university students. This cafe is pretty casual and most people smoke and drink basic drinks, but in some fancier joints it is common to see a variety of non-alcoholic cocktails.

 In Iraqi Kurdistan we went to a cafe to see live Kurdish music, and no one begrudged us for only getting tea and water. You won’t see alcohol in traditional Middle Eastern cafes, but they do serve juices, teas and other simple drinks. Coffee will likely also be available, although it probably isn’t the type you’re used to. Kurdish coffee, for example, is extremely strong and unfiltered. You’re actually getting a shot of coffee. Fancier places may have cocktails without alcohol, for a high price. Cafes in touristy cities may serve alcoholic beverages, primarily to attract Western tourists as alcohol is forbidden in Islam.

Of course cafes serve shisha, with attendants walking around to adjust coals or take orders. Disposable pipe mouthpieces are usually offered so each person in a group can have their own. Cafes may set little bowls of nuts and seeds on your table, and sometimes they offer light food. The emphasis is not on food, though; it is on socializing. If you go to a cafe to socialize or watch live music it’s okay not to order anything beyond water, but it is expected that you’ll tip the cafe when you leave.

Cafe culture

A group of young men play cards at a cafe in Iraqi Kurdistan.
A group of young locals play cards at a cafe in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Sometimes cafe culture will spill out into the street, and outdoor seating allows people to smoke and drink in the open air. Often patrons engage in games of backgammon, the timeless pastime of the Middle East. Other times you’ll get a group of ten or so men sitting in a semi-circle as far as the road will allow, smoking and chatting the afternoon away. For a while cafes were most popular among older men, but today you’ll see more youth than age in the average Middle Eastern cafe. In Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, local university music students would gather at night to play music in a cafe. Patrons sat, danced along, or brought out their own instruments to join in. Generally, cafes are a laid back place to hang out.

Why does it matter?

Two Nubian men enjoy an outdoor cafe in Aswan, Egypt.
Two Nubian men enjoy an outdoor cafe in Aswan, Egypt.

For one, we have now saved you the confusion of walking into a place labeled “cafe” and seeing pipes where you expected pastries. Especially popular among males, cafes in the Middle East and Asia are a significant part of everyday life. Smoking shisha is a centuries-old tradition that has recently crept into western society as well, particularly with young people in college towns. Las Vegas has one of the first cafes in the United States, called the Hookah Bar, but more have opened since then. When you travel to the Middle East or Asia, you might want to check out a cafe. See if you can go with a local, as this is more fun than going alone.

Too often travelers see only the touristy façade of a culture, that is, the guides and touts that are aware that the better they are at entertaining you, the more money they will make. Going to a cafe in the Middle East will give you an authentic glimpse into the local culture, uninhibited and raw. Not only will it be an adventure, you may make some lasting friendships as a result.

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