An Anthropological Study of El Fishawy Cafe

Built in 1771 AD, and where Naguib Mahfouz, and many other famous socialites frequented much of their lives, El Fishawy Cafe is open 24/7, with people staying there through the night until morning, with smoke hanging from the mirrors and wafting from the ends of hookah pipes, coming out in bursts as laughter is, also, carried around. It is also known as the mirror cafe, as it is ordained with beautiful, old, mirrors, as well as chandeliers.

Groups of friends sit there, chatting merrily through the night, as do couples, lovers, and families. Unlike the nightlife of most of the developed Western world, it is not dominated by friend-oriented groups trooping to clubs or bars, but it holds groups of friends just as much as family with their children, lovers; all groups of people. We arrived at around 10PM and stayed until about 1AM, with little children no bigger than five years of age who’d be gazing around with their large, innocent eyes. Old, national, famous Egyptian songs would be played by various men with their various instruments – the oud, guitar, or just by strumming their fingers to a beat on the table tops, singing in groups or solo at tables, while the rest of the people listened. At one point, the entire cafe was singing and clapping along to an old Egyptian folk-song.

As the smoke of shisha wafts around, and trays of tea with mounds of sugar and mint leaves go around, I looked around- at the content, sun-kissed faces, and felt that this was truly a unique place. Perhaps an anthropological study would even be sufficient here, and no doubt would produce copious and interesting amounts of information. What are the norms in this cafe? If we see it as a meeting place of all sorts of people, what values and norms are suspended once you enter here, and which ones replace it?

It was an extremely chaotic place – with young boys coming through asking for money, or selling beads and the like, other slightly older boys would come through holding at least 15 books all piles up, carrying it with their hands linked underneath them and the books leaning on their chests, likewise trays of tea and hookah pipes would be swinging around by the very comfortable and obviously very-used-to-this waiters, with people dodging left and right. A waiter put down a drink on our table, and we mentioned to him this wasn’t ours and he said “I know.” After he was done fixing the fan on the wall behind us, he picked it up and swung off again to the drink’s destined table- and so, it was almost as if there was a new set of certain values and norms that had been set in place in this very place, with its mirrors, chandeliers, and laughter. Perhaps the study of human behavior in this segmented part of Egyptian social life could reflect certain values and ways-of-life of the Egyptian common man. There was some form of order to the chaos.

In this cafe, the people seemed drunk – but not on the alcohol that many Western societies drown themselves in after the sun disappears for the night, but on حياة (“haya”, Arabic for life), on friendship, on family. On hookah and sweetened mint tea, or drinks of رمان (“roman”, Arabic for pomegranate). A single policeman seemed to have been stationed there, in his smart, ironed-white uniform, and even he, had a lingering smile on his sun-kissed face, as he gazed around. One could sit there and let many hours slide by, just be observing the like. At least, that’s what I did. And so, this is a place of warmth, laughter, with its own customs and norms. One of the oldest cafes in el-Hussein area, one that has hosted kings, princes, movie stars, and the like.

As I was not able to capture a representative video that night, here is one on YouTube that captures much of the cafe’s essence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuGhtPvfWb0

We know Plato and Socrates, but who are Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd?

Islamic philosophy must be understood differently from the Greek philosophers. The Islamic philosophers, or المتكلمون (“speakers”), flourished during the Islamic Golden Age between the 9th and 13th centuries. They were influenced greatly by the Greek philosophers – employing the dialectic method (attempting to discover some form of truth by examining opposing statements on a subject), originally invented by Aristotle and infamously used by other Greek philosophers like Socrates – and also in examining similar topics, those within the subject of metaphysics. Some of the greatest thinkers within Islamic Philosophy are Ibn Sina (known in the west as Avicenna), Al Ghazali and Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes). Unfortunately, in many Western classrooms on philosophy the chronological order begins with Greek philosophy and often entirely misses the Islamic philosophers. Today many discuss the relationship and compatibility between Islam and democracy, but also Islam and science. Here is a crucial movement that first began questioning things in Islam and is therefore necessary as a basis in understanding the background information to be able to coherently and aptly discuss relevant topics today, such as whether Islam is inherently incompatible with science (or democracy) – for the moment disregarding the problematic insinuations within the wording of these topics/questions.

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Islamic philosophy first began to flourish under Ma’mun’s rule during the Abbasid Caliphate, and under him the دار الحكمة (House of Wisdom) came to be, in Baghdad, as the capital of the caliphate was Baghdad then, during a time of open trade: a luxurious age witnessing massive trade in commerce, textiles, and a rise in knowledge centres where academics, scientists, philosophers, etc., would come and discuss certain matters that intrigued them. Their name depicts the method in which they examined these topics – orally, by using the dialectic method or by discussions, at the beginning and only later evolved to being written and recorded. The flourishing of this time led to the simultaneous increase in the translation of works, from Greek and Syriac to Arabic, which led to much original research in the Islamic world, and which aided in the influx of ideas from other cultures and languages into the Empire, as well as the flourishing in education. Under Al Ma’mun it was an open society that flourished, with a meeting of different religions, with those that converted to Islam having a different set of schemata.

There was also political conflict, which led to more thinking about certain topics related to human governance, such as- “who has the responsibility to command the good and bad?” For example, the Kharijites did not support Ali for arbitration, as they believed Ali should have fought. Political conflicts as such led to more discussions on questions like, “is he considered a sinner?” Therefore, both economical flourishment and political conflict led to the emergence of new thoughts through knowledge centres like the House of Wisdom. As the Abbasid empire grew, and experienced much more contact with surrounding people’s from differing backgrounds, cultures, etc., there was increased discussion on the Quran, and things that were considered normative for a Muslim (i.e. what is considered “good” and “bad”, or the aforementioned who has the responsibility to command the good and prevent the evil- us, or leave up to God?). Therefore, the questions the “Speakers” asked unique, despite discussing things mostly confined to faith, as they also pondered metaphysical questions (largely within the frame of Islam).

It was here المعتزلة (Mu’tazila), meaning “those that isolate”, indeed, isolated themselves from the the “speakers”. They were the “rational thinkers”, who placed reasoning as superior and above to the revelation, and were the main school of thought until 848 AD when a new caliphate (under Al-Mutawakkil) replaced Ma’Mun’s. Basra and Khufu became more important than Baghdad in thought due to the Mongol invasion of 1258 and the “Siege of Baghdad”. However, by this time, the Mu’tazilites had already spread beyond the Islamic empire, into lands including Persia and Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). The Mu’tazilites  were now considered heretical with the demise of their movement. In opposition was the الأشعرية‎ (Ash’arites) of Basra, who placed the revelation as superior and above reasoning. The Ash’arites still used the dialectic method, like the Mu’tazilites, however they insisted that reason was subordinate to revelation. These are the defenders, as they believed that because our intellect is created from God, therefore reasoning must not presuppose the revelation.

However, relatively speaking to أصول الفقه‎ (Islamic jurisprudence), both the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites were similar in that they both believed reasoning was necessary in answering, pondering and discussing these questions. The Islamic jurisprudence‎ diverged from the other two in their view of the extent to which this reasoning was to be used in relation to the revelation. The Islamic jurisprudence believed that reasoning had no place in these matters, and the revelation was the most important and only source necessary. Their process, known as اجتهاد (Ijtihad), involved the Quran acting as the primary text, then consultation of the Hadiths, then the scholars’ consensus, attempting to use analogies, before reaching a ruling (fatwa).

The fourth theological group, (the other three being المعتزلة, the Mu’tazilites, the Ash’arites and the Islamic Jurisprudence), are the mystical Sufis. This spiritual way of Islam focuses on the individual, and it is a practical way of reaching the Truth, in other words, God (everything else is a mirage). This attempt to reach One-ness requires the abandonment of materialism, through singing, dancing, chanting; Sufis put emphasis largely on personal experiences, and the idea of الذوق (taste). In this sense, the Sufis have their own language, and thus their own interpretations of the revelations. In contrast to the other three groups, the Sufis are not trying to reach the Lord through analyses but through practical means.

Regarding the topic of cosmology, the Mu’tazilites believed that God first created the atoms, and then He bestowed the attributes/characteristics upon them, therefore creation was able to differentiate. In this sense, the attributes are not static, and can change between states. Dirar Ibn Amr argued differently- he argued that although atoms were first created, and then with attributes bestowed upon them by the Lord, they did not change after this. According to, this is because if an atom has certain attributes, it cannot combine and thus cannot change its state. Al Nazzam and Abu Bark Al-Asamm argued the atoms as mathematical points. In line with this, then, they should be continually “indefinitely visible”, and then God bestowed the third dimension attributes- which is followed by combination and therefore changing states. The Mu’tazilites focused strongly on the topic God’s Unity, which includes and led to other questions – such as if the Quran is created or not.

If the Quran is created, that means there must be an end. This, then, leads to the discussion of God’s attributes. The Mu’tazilites believed that there is God’s Essence, and then there is God’s Attributes. The “Essence” (صفات الذات) cannot be separated from him, they argued, and this included knowledge, ability/power (قدره), life (حياه), and also existence. Therefore, these essences are identical to him, while the attributes (صفات الأفعال), are related to the acts and deeds (i.e. speaking, willing) He does, and so they have a time and place. Therefore, following this line of thought, they believed the Quran must be created, as speaking is an attribute that has a time and place. It must therefore be accidental, and also have a time and place.

The major issues discussed by these four theological groups were- the topic of Divine Will, توحيد (God’s Unity), the question of “who can commend the good and bad”, and “who will be a sinner?” The main discussion of the Mu’tazilites was God’s Unity, which they used to defend their faith against atheists. His attributes, according to them, are just different from us, so therefore even talking or comparing about his attributes makes one an atheist. This is supported by the aya (verses in the Quran) “God is unique/none is like him” which negates certain attributes are his to prove his One-ness. They believed the Quran is created, due to the aya “we have made in Arabic, the Quran” (italics mine). The word “made” is emphasised here because this means that it was created.

Personally, my beliefs and method of thinking would fall more along the lines of the Mu’tazilites, rather than the Al’asharites, as the defenders. The fact that they are defenders defines the epistemological issue I have with their perspective, in that they are aiming to defend the revelation first and foremost, whereas the Mu’tazilites do not have this “burden”, if you will, but rather can focus solely on pursuing the “unshakable Truth”. In this sense, the Al’asharites are therefore constrained in their ability to think, as all their lines of thought, ideas, discussions, must be based on and stem from the underlying assumption that the revelations are not to be questioned. After all, as Socrates famously quipped, “the only thing I know, is that I know nothing.”

The Boy Without a Future

Khan al-Khalili, a major historic center and one of the many beautiful aspects that collectively create what we know as Cairo. Located in Islamic Cairo, this سوق (pronounced “souq”; market in Arabic) is today largely focused on tourists, with overly repetitive mini pyramids, mini pharaonic gods, stores of chandeliers, stores of hookah’s, stores of papyrus paper posters, and so on. There are also stores with many lanterns, which is perhaps a more well-known characteristic of Khan al-Khalili. These have become almost iconic in its relation to Khan al-Khalili today.

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However, when Naguib Mahfouz published his book “Khan al-Khalili” in 1925 (and set in 1942), it was regarding how World War II was affecting the average citizen in Cairo, depicting the story of a young man from a middle class family, who had to move from a much more affluent neighborhood to the crammed, rowdy alleys of Khan al-Khalili under the belief they’d be safe from the bombs of the Germans due to the religious significance of the holy site and the mosque of Al-Husayn.

Living in Maadi, crammed with little alleys, children playing in the streets from 7 am-  disrupting what sleep I dreamt I could have – alongside the incessant honking of cars that does not cease to rest, I often think of Mahfouz’s “Khan al-Khalili”. Due to this, and because I had still not yet been to the actual area of Khan al-Khalili, I finally went.

As we were sitting in a cafe, enjoying some tea with mint and with too much sugar along with some hookah, a little boy came up to us, hands clad in سبحه (pronounced “sobhah”; prayer beads in Arabic), asking me if I wanted one in broken English. We decided to try teaching him how to say “please” because he was saying “bleeze.” He asked us how to say “do you want one” in English, and we taught him. Later on, we had switched cafes, after some roaming around and browsing the repetitive stores, and he appeared again. I was so delighted to see him I purchased a sobhah from him, and decidedly took a photo of him.

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He must have only been about 9 or 10, with golden-brown hair, and big, brown eyes. He was an adorable and polite child, and he most likely didn’t have a future in front of him. The streets of Cairo are largely cluttered with groups of young men, bored, restless; the economy is doing poorly (although Sisi is doing many things to improve it and tourism, crucial to the economy, is rapidly increasing, with Egypt experiencing a 35% increase in tourism in just 2017) and there is, unfortunately, a case of overwhelming supply and devastatingly little demand – many with the tools,  motivation, will, intellect, and education for certain jobs, but there are not enough jobs for them.

While I do not pretend to understand this little boy’s life in it’s entirety, I do understand the characteristics of his social class, and what this most likely entails – given the circumstances of the time and place. This little boy would most likely grow up and work blue collar jobs, taking in the dust of the streets, struggling to make ends meet, perhaps living a consistent life albeit in times of abnormal circumstances, such as if a caretaker passes away early or if there is a disease that plagues a member of his family or his own life that requires masses of medicinal bills, then he will struggle many of the days of his life.

But he is not one boy. He is the millions in Cairo. I wonder- does he know yet, that he most likely doesn’t have a future ahead of him?

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