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:





Alexandria, The Pearl of the Mediterranean

Cities are stories, telling tales of expansion, degradation, conflicts, riots, natural and man-made disasters, of leaders, of change, of persecuted people’s, of cultural, political, of socio-economic histories. Alexandria has many tales on her skin, that would take years to hear and understand wholly. Alexandria tells tales of the mixing and overtaking of different cultures, of fiercer leaders, of a deep well of culture, a trading center, and so much more. It reminded me of San Diego meets Santa Barbara meets Porto. But maybe this is because I make sense of things by drawing comparisons, as humans think and make sense of their world by drawing similarities and understandings. It is how we situate ourselves in the chaotic world, to give some order to the chaos.

Pompey’s Pillar

I went to Alexandria on a little day trip with my SO, as they seem to be calling it nowadays. We started off in what was apparently the armpit of Alexandria – slummy, on the outskirts, poor roads, maybe not even working, and filled with potholes, etc. There we saw Pompey’s Pillar and the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa. Pompey’s Pillar was as you would expect it – a tall pillar standing erect in the morning heat. Not very many tourists. The Catacombs, however, were much more interesting – there was a tragic backstory that we found out about from a guard who was stationed in the catacombs, 100 feet underground, who had become a sort of tourguide. Apparently a poor pottery maker fell down into the catacombs through a shaft with his donkey, dying on impact, and that’s how people found out about these catacombs that were used during the Greek period. After some research, I realise this may well be a folklore tale of myth, however, if so, it is a widespread one. The catacombs show the influence of multiple cultures of the 2nd century A.D. – Greek, Egyptian, and Roman.

We then had some hookah right by the sea. Ah yes, the sea part of Alexandria. The pace of life in Alexandria is exceedingly slow, but not in the same way as Cairo – which is a sort of slowness in the way that “we don’t care if you are here, we are a capital of a big, important country, and so we won’t be attentive or considerate to anyone else’ whereas the Alexandrian slowness was more of a “we live by the sea and we enjoy life here”. Quite c’est la vie-esque. We also dined at the Greek Club – filled with people from all walks of life, with fresh fish and the like and overlooking the Mediterranean sea. At night, families and children would all go into the sea, staying by the mouth of it, where dozens of plastic white chairs seemed to be almost stacked on top of each other.

View from the Greek Club 

The Roman Ampitheatre and the Qait Fortbey didn’t leave much of an impression. Perhaps it was because both were closed, but also due to the amount of castles and ruins I have seen. Perhaps it was the lack of the story behind it that I got to know. We didn’t end up having time to see Montaza Palace, with its stretching gardens. No matter, next time.

I left the two most interesting parts of Alexandria until last – the cars/streets, and the Bibliotheca. We drove to Alexandria from Cairo and therefore had the car between each stop. At the end of the day, I was wondering if we should have taken the train there and hopped in cabs throughout the day from site to site. The traffic was the worst traffic I have ever experienced in my life. This is because Alexandria has recently experienced massive projects of expansion without consideration for how this would affect the congestion, traffic, housing, the local people’s, etc. The constant background hum of car’s honking in the streets reminded me of the chaotic streets in Shanghai. A few years ago, it was illegal for cars to honk in Alexandria. This struck me as particularly sad. Cars would often have to stop and wait for people to cross – this would happen maybe 5-6 times down one block. Parking was horrific, it was like in San Francisco. Anyone that has been to San Francisco in a car or tried to find parking there knows what this is like – almost impossible. We drove around 4 laps, doing u-turns, because we couldn’t find parking in any of the small streets in order to go walk by the quarry bay.

Finally, a young man had seen us desperately trying to squeeze our car in a space (only to find it didn’t fit, just as it had seemed, although desperation had taken over by this point hence the idiotic redundant attempt) and offered us to park on a slope, originally not meant for parking. There was a man who must have been about 100, holding a walking stick and the arm of a younger man who was chewing gum and had his earphones in, who were waiting patiently to cross a very narrow little street. We let him pass, only to have about 20 cars lining up behind us by the time the poor old man had passed. On the upside though, the abundance of interesting little old vintage cars was amazing. I’m not a car person myself, so I’m not able to name names but I could tell they were vintage, and “cool.” Some were pink, some old box-ish brownish red cars that you see in films like Greece. The buildings were colourful – many walls lightly pastel coloured, with trams plodding along slowly, countless people holding ice-creams in their hands, men sitting in big round wooden chairs on the pavements of cafes, one hand with tea, the other holding the pipe of a hookah.

Hookah by the sea

Last, but not least, the Bibliotheca Alexandria. It had the most beautiful architecture on the outside, and in the inside it was all modern, but still kept the qualities a library should have. Many libraries I’ve been to that have been modernised have lost the “library” feeling – with books not even seen in sight. This one was filled with lovely wooden walls, but with modernised tables and desktops. We stumbled across the Rare Books Collection room, with the help of a secretary who wrote us the number of a book (otherwise you couldn’t get in). On a whim, we said we’d like to see the oldest manuscript they had of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – the influential physicians and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age for philosophy in the West and non-West and medicine across the world. We went into the absolutely freezing room and waited in a hushed silence for it. When we left, we saw rows and rows of digital archives in rooms that stretched on for what seemed like miles, alongside shelves and shelves of books, floor after floor. Standing there, it was overwhelming to think about the amount of knowledge compiled and unified together in that building. I strongly recommend visiting the Rare Books Collection for anyone going to the Bibliotheca Alexandria, which used to the biggest library in the world – with much of it burned when the city was overtaken by different leaders and empires throughout the ages, including supposedly by Julius Caesar during his civil war. However it is often noted that historians may glorify and exaggerate, the extent to which the library has suffered destruction and fires.

So that was Alexandria. The second biggest city in Egypt. The old Capital of Ptolemaic Egypt. The old cultural hub of the Mediterranean world.

The Pyramids: Built by Aliens?

The first thing many think of when mentioning Egypt is the pyramids. One of the world’s seven wonders, I’ve heard countless stories of how the sheer magnitude of the pyramids shocked people to their core when they first laid eyes on them. However, for me, having grown up in Shanghai- where there are countless splayed 50 story+ buildings, and as someone who grew up moving around and has grown somewhat immune to new sites (relatively speaking), it wasn’t the sheer magnitude of it that had me in awe. It was it’s beauty. It was truly beautiful, and I’m not sure how they built it. It was unique. How on earth did we these structures, some 4000 years ago, and now, in 2018, with self-driving cars, Sophia the robot, Tesla flinging cars into space, China’s wechat’s monopolisation of everything, AI, etc., we cannot figure it out? We now have the tools of the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the enlightenment, and so on and so forth…


In this day and age, science is our religion. Those that question, how do we know what we know, are called “flat-earthers”, marginalised and shamed, similar to previous eras whereby doubting God would cause you marginalisation and ostracisation from society, and being name-called “Devil worshipper!”. Of course, the degree to which the marginalisation is drastically different, as no longer burn or drown those that question our systems of beliefs. All the recordings we have found of the beginnings of homo sapiens, has shown that systems of beliefs come and go. There was a time when we believed in the rain and sun gods, there was a time where we believed the sun rotated around the earth, where we believed we were the center of the universe. Today, we believe these to not be true, however our mistake is being arrogant, and most of all, hypocritical, by believing we have found the unshakable Truth. If we can see, through history, through artifacts, through recordings, we would know that we have never found the unshakable Truth with a capital T, but only some form, some distortion of truth. Yet we forget this. Our greatest mistake is we do not learn from our past. Otherwise we would understand science cannot be Truth with a capital T, and to believe otherwise is arrogant. Have we really answered any of the fundamental, real, questions? These are what I believe to be some of those questions…

  • What is consciousness?
  • What are dreams?
  • What is “death” (or as it is more commonly phrased, what happens after death- although this is already assuming there is an “after” death and that death is somehow a definitive phase- which we do not really know)
  • How are we here?
  • Why are we here?
  • Do we have a creator?

And so on…

The evolution of warfare, shows a seemingly incredibly progression in human society. We used to fight each other with sticks and stones –> swords –> guns (evolution of guns) –> tanks –> planes –> drones —> ?

The word progression is key here, because, so what? We have found ways to become more efficient at killing each other.  To communicate with each other quicker through ICTs (information and communication technologies). For me to be able to use this platform to reach out to people I otherwise would not have. But so what? Does it answer any of the fundamental, real, questions? I’ve found more and more that we are merely stuck in our own dimension, on our little blue planet, yet we think this is everything. We need to zone out more often. If we don’t understand consciousness, or how we have self-awareness, we do not even truly know how we built drones. As Nietzsche theorised, we must engage in a mindset that goes beyond good and evil. This is because everything is relative.

If everything is relative, then, the belief that we have progressed is logical if we compare it to where we are before, and our measuring stick is defined by our success now relative to our success before. However, if we see progression as obtaining authentic, true, fundamental understanding of ourselves and the world around us, have we really come so far?

Going back to the pyramids — we do not even truly understand how we built those pyramids thousands of years ago, with many skeptics going so far as to theorise that aliens created them. This is laudable – on the one hand, most constantly proclaim that “we are at the peak of humanity!” acting as if we’ve “almost figured out the secrets of the universe”, yet on the other hand, we do not address the fact that despite paper-less planes, we do not understand how they built pyramids.


During my first trip to Cairo, I visited the Pharaonic Village in Giza, Cairo. I highly recommend it to anyone going to Cairo. It is basically a historic park, where they replicated what life looked like “back then.” They replicated a poor man’s house, a working man’s house, and a rich man’s house. They had people working the fields, women kneading doe, as we went down the boat on the stream. I was the only one on that boat, which had loud, almost cringe-worthy (at least for me, a self-proclaimed introvert) touristic music (you know the type). They also had a few small museums, relatively empty, and dark. I was one of the only people in that entire village.* My tourguide was a kind, relatively young man, who, at the end of our tour, spoke to me and urged me to be careful traveling alone as a woman in Cairo. When he showed me how they mummification of ancient Egyptian people’s, including the removal of all internal organs, which would then be tried and then placed in separate jars, and the people still living would leave plenty food, and gifts, for the poor, so that they could have them in the afterlife. I asked him, if they saw that the food never disappeared, and stayed there, why did they keep on believing those in the afterlife could receive it? He laughed a little and didn’t say anything.

*Side-note: this was in 2017, in 2018 the tourism in Egypt is already steadily picking up and will most likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

It was during my visit to the Pharaonic village where I learned of the two main theories on how they were built. It is not just the sheer size that baffles people but also the unique shape of a pyramid does not render it easy to be built. Both theories maintain, first, that it was on the backs of thousands of slaves. The first, they would build square-shaped slabs on top of each other, from widest to smallest, and then build structures on the side to add the limestones to make it in the shape of the pyramid. The second theory, maintains that they built slowly increasing upwards-structures around a center they had first built, dragging limestone up that way. The third maintains that they built one structure on the side, where they’d carry limestone up. Each of these do not explain it very well, or in detail, but I took photos of mini-structures inside the small museums that will most likely do a better job of explaining:

Theory 1:  

Theory 2: 

Theory 3: 

Regarding my personal trip to the pyramids, a female tour-guide I had for the first day took me (I discarded her after that and never used another tour-guide again – personally think it’s much better to do things on your own, own time, free of their wiry ways of taking you to their friend’s stores to make money and their incredibly overpriced charges), and I went on a camel, whose name, apparently, was Bob Marley, and the young man who was taking care of him was called Jahid. Jahid would sleep, eat, and live with the camels. He and Bob obviously had kindled a very close relationship.


Also, contrary to another popular belief- camels are not slow; he slapped the back of the camel I was on and it galloped forward – I had to hold on for dear life. The reason they are considered slow is because they must work and respect the desert, maintaining their energy. There is no need to be quick, or rash, or hasty, in the desert. So me and Jahid talked, and played music for each other. He had on a sports cap, but a long robe. The greeting of traditional religion and mass consumerism. What a sight. At one point, when he had my phone and was taking a picture of me on Bob the camel, he picked up a large rock, and told me to put up my hands. I was a little alarmed, but I did as he said. This was the result.


One cannot speak of the Giza pyramids without speaking of the Great Sphinx of Giza. This was more beautiful, to me, intrinsically. I’m not sure why, it just was.


Similarly to the pyramids, there are many theories as to how the Great Sphinx was built, which I will not go into here. It has suffered much deterioration due to time, however many believe the statue’s nose was shot off by Napoleon’s troops, others believing it was destroyed by Sufi Muslims in a protest.

One can wonder what the Truth with a capital T is.

I write this from Abu Dhabi on my layover flight from Shanghai, where I was writing my MA dissertation and spending time with my mother, to Cairo. How surreal.