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

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http://www.asherworldturns.com/cairo-bazaar-by-night/

 

 

 

Dancing Dervishes

Whether you believe there is a God, Gods, or that there is nothing else other than us, or that everything is just waves, vibrating on some form of energy, or that there are infinite other realms, or that we are merely simulations – whatever it is, they are all attempts to understand the universe around us, indeed, how we came to be, and why.

Often times my friends berate me for going off on what they call “philosophical” tangents, laughing and saying “oh there she goes again” or “this is too philosophical for me right now”. Yet isn’t philosophising merely the act of being a human? A self-aware, conscious human, that is. To speculate, to theorise, yes, to philosophise- about our existence- is this not the most common and fundamental thing of man? For a man not to wonder where he came from, well, he must not truly understand what it means to be alive-  how miraculous it is, that we are here, conscious, self-aware; that all of this around us, is here. I’m not sure if I envy that man. For those angry atheists (of which I used to be one) – name a culture or time where man didn’t have some form of a “religion”? What is culture without religion? At what point do you draw the line between culture and religion? Granted, they have some different elements, but the point is they are inextricably intertwined. Ergo, religion should not be scoffed at, dismissed, or ridiculed- neither should philosophy.

Yet there is an age old argument between philosophy and religion. Many philosophers were persecuted or executed for their condemned thoughts on monotheistic religions. Perhaps most famously, poor Socrates, for not believing in the god of the state, condemned to drink hemlock. The list is too long to go through here. In the Islamic world, during the Islamic Golden Age, many philosophers began to use allegories, which led to what we now call the philosophical allegory. This is a tool, a weapon, of philosophers to use, a clever, sly, way, to theorise, stipulate, ponder upon the wonders of the universe without being clad by the iron fist of certain religions. It is similar to the hidden transcript method used by the persecuted Uyghurs in the North-West of China, who practice Islam and are heavily controlled and abused by the government. Here a religious minority, persecuted for their beliefs, uses linguistic tools in their defiance against the wrath of a nation-state, while, ironically, philosophers in the Islamic Golden Age, persecuted for their beliefs used philosophical allegories, to continue to express their ideas without being prosecuted for it by religious entities. Examining the history of man, it may be still up for debate whether war is natural or not, but one thing is clear – man has always persecuted one another for each other’s beliefs.

And so, one of these many ways of pondering about the universe that is particularly intriguing, and beautiful, to me, is Sufism. It is the mystical, spiritual way of understanding Islam, with most of them being Sunni. Sufism emphasises ridding oneself of one’s ego, of materialism, in order to become one with God. Due to their rather spiritual take on Islam, Sufis are often looked down upon by many Muslims, some even believing they are heretical, others believing many of them are on drugs, or crazy. The Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups condemn them as heretical. In 2017 235 or more were killed in a Sufi mosque bombing in Northern Sinai.

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These dervishes would twirl for up to twenty minutes without stopping, shedding layers of their brightly coloured clothing. This symbolises the ridding of materialism that Sufis believe is necessary to become one with God. near the end, the boys went into a trance- raising their arms as they faced the heavens, lost (Sufi Concert, Cairo)

One of my favourite films, Bab’Aziz – The Prince who Contemplated His Soul, is a Tunisian film about a blind dervish traveling with his granddaughter towards a massive Sufi gathering. This is one of the few pieces of art, that is authentic and that I would recommend for anyone slightly interested in Sufism, or just anyone looking at different paths to facing and understanding the world and the universe. This is a film that deconstructs many misconceptions about Islam, and about Sufism.

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“You’d think he’s contemplating his image at the bottom of the water.”
“Maybe it’s not his image. Only those who are not in love see their own reflection.”
“So what does he see?”
“He’s contemplating his soul.”

“Hassan: But there can’t be light in death because it‘s the end of everything.

Bab’aziz: How can death be end of something that doesn’t have a beginning? Hassan, my son, don’t be sad at my wedding night.

Hassan: Your wedding night?

Baba’aziz: Yes. My marriage with eternity.”

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The people of this world are like the three butterflies
in front of a candle’s flame.

The first one went closer and said:
I know about love.

The second one touched the flame
lightly with his wings and said:
I know how love’s fire can burn.

The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame
and was consumed. He alone knows what true love is.

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Bab’aziz and his grand-daughter in the film, “Bab’aziz”. 

This brings me to Rumi. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, Persian, of the 12th century, is one of the most read poets in the world. Referred to typically as Rumi, his works have been translated into countless other languages, and has influenced Turkic, Iranian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, and other literatures. And, yes, he was a Sufi mystic. His master, Shams of Tabriz, is often pondered about what the nature of their relationship was – merely student and teacher? friends? lovers? I believe all, their love transcended these categories, they had the deepest, purest, form of love- in all of its being. These are some books I have on Rumi, Shams, and Sufism; given to me by someone very special, and that I know will aid anyone in their journey, regardless of the nature of their journey:

  • Discourses of Rumi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • Fiih Ma Fihi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Finally, the moth and flame metaphor, which is said to describe certain parts of Sufism. It is said to describe the relationship between Man and God, or between Shams and Rumi, or to symbolise self-transformation, as the moth’s annihilation occurs again and again as it is always drawn to the flame- the annihilation is said to depict the passing into the Divine (fana) on the Sufi path. Or perhaps the love affair of the soul of the human with That Which We Cannot Understand, which is also Everything. Some call it God. others call it Nothingness.

Moth: I gave you my life.
Flame: I allowed you to kiss me.
-Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan

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