One of the institutionalized delights in male Egyptian society is the tea shop or cafe or corner smoke house – we were never sure of the correct term. It’s where the men gather to drink (only tea), smoke (only flavored tobacco), gamble (on dominoes!), talk, sometimes watch soccer on television, bond and do whatever else men do in a large female-free group.
One of the delights for Westerners, male and female alike, is to penetrate this semi-closed society, be welcomed as equals, offered every courtesy (hospitality is ingrained in the Arab world) and partake of this very civilized, very ancient and thoroughly comfortable custom.
The essential elements are these: convivial companions, a passing street scene and time to enjoy both, enhanced by karkaday shai, hibiscus flower tea, and narghiles and sheesha, water pipes with flavored tobacco.
First the tea. We would liken it to Red Zinger and the main ingredient is the same: red hibiscus flowers, dried, brewed strong and fragrant and served sweetened in a glass, clear, deep red and steaming. Refreshing and restorative, karkaday soothes the throat between puffs. Great hot, it’s also served chilled for breakfast but does tend to lose its punch cold.
Which brings us to the water pipes. These may conjure memories of Haight-Ashbury some 25 years ago but the truth is that the pipes contain only tobacco (drug use is severely punished) albeit flavored and potent. As non-smokers we wanted the experience, which after 2 or 3 puffs led to our conversion. It tasted terrific, instilled a mellow mood and gave us a decidedly Egyptian view of the world. But this view was not universally reciprocated because Egyptian women do not participate. Western women are tolerated and sometimes receive the evil eye treatment for having transcended gender boundaries.
Essentially, burning coals are placed over tobacco, usually molasses or apple flavored, and the smoker inhales pulling the smoke through the water to cool and smooth the sensation. Sheesha tobacco seems to coat the throat, clear or fog the mind depending on one’s mood and release the conversational urge. Narghila pipes are shared between friends, conversation flows, time passes and not a lot of money changes hands as it costs only about 8 cents a pipe for 10 to 15 minutes of enjoyment. You feel very close to what makes us inherently human, our ability to enjoy each other.