El Shams: Ahwa Like it’s Been for Ages
In an obscure location downtown, on a side street between the Tawfiqiyya Souq and the fruit and vegetable market, this ancient looking café was recently featured in the movie Cairo Time to represent the classic Egyptian ahwa. And while it is still beautiful, El Shams has certainly seen better days. Its gilded walls and faux classical frescoes of women smoking shisha look like music box or carousel scenes, and have faded to a dusty blur of sepia and grey.
Nevertheless, it still maintains its charming atmosphere of men playing tawla or cochina – one of the few places you can still play cards in the city – keeping makeshift score on rickety tabletops in pencil, smoking shisha and nursing their ahwas for hours. Despite being a popular tourist spot, though I’ve yet to see any, the service is minimal, the furniture’s bare, the floor is covered in pencil shavings and the clientele are mostly men.
Don’t expect much by way of menu variety (or menu at all for that matter) drinks are basic here and the unpasteurised milk does taste funny. For a taste of the authentic Egyptian life that has included local ahwas for centuries before Starbucks and Cilantro however, El Shams is a great introduction to the still thriving scene. Dip your toe in and you’ll soon go back for more.