CAIRO – From the outside, the “D.cappuccino” looks like a cool hangout for the hip kids of Cairo. But once inside, the bearded waiter ushers any female customers into the premises, and gently explains that they must sit in the “women only” part of the café, located in the back. The men enjoy the street side on the left, while the “families” – meaning, married couples - have the right section for themselves.
“Our café wants to reflect society’s good moral values. We want our customers to feel at ease, this way, women won’t be harassed and the families can bring their kids without exposing them to indecent scenes such as a couple holding hands,” says Mohammad Sayed.
Wearing the typical Salafist long black beard and thin iron glasses, this 28-year-old engineer is the cofounder of this halal café, which has been open for six months. The first such pious dining establishment to open in central Cairo since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
Since the Raïs was removed, the political landscape of this mainly Muslim country of 80 million is conducive to such endeavors. Censored and oppressed by the former regime, the Islamists, who used to live in the shadow, are in firm control in this post-revolution context.
Their formerly banned political parties are now in the spotlight. Elected in June, President Mohammed Morsi belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. The new constitution, approved by referendum, is guided by Islamic law. The liberal opposition is disorganized, clearing the way for the religious factions to take over during the next legislative elections.
Sayed doesn’t have a lot to say about politics, per se. On the coffee place’s Facebook page, the D.cappuccino is described as a “new experience,” relying on “pure, Islamic values.”
While he won’t shake a woman’s hand, the young owner refuses any assimilation with the Salafists – the fierce defenders of a radical Islam – and says he feels more like a “conservative Muslim.”
Here, you won’t be find any beer or hookah – the popular water pipe long smoked in the old cafés of downtown Cairo. No cigarettes allowed either. This new kind of establishment – open from 7:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. – offers pizzas, Paninis, “sunshine” cocktails, a fruity “Hawaii” drink or a “Cherry cola” soda pop. The menu is as pleasant as the relaxing setting of more than 3,000 square feet establishment.
A safe escape for women
Still, everywhere are little hints promoting a pure Wahhabi incarnation of Islam, including no human representations on the walls, as forbidden by the ultra-religious. As a result, they display pictures of cardboard figures and the televisions show animated programs as well as Islam-friendly hits from famous pop star Sami Youssef as background music.
“We shut it down at prayer time,” adds Sayed. His coworker Ahmad Mahmud nods in approval: “It’s just so that we can hear the Mosque’s call better.”
Behind them, a young couple is taking its place in the “family” section. Hair slicked back and hairy chin, the man orders an espresso while his partner, in her blue hijab, goes for the mango juice. They both have their eyes set on the flat screen TV broadcasting Ratatouille, the young hero from the eponymous movie based on the life a rat who becomes a chef.
No proof of family status was asked when they came in. “We’re not here to play the morality police, checking IDs and marriage certificates. Sometimes, we even make a few exceptions to the rules: for example, when a group of interns in medical school asked for permission to study here with their colleagues,” confessed Sayed, obviously concerned with his café’s image.
On the other hand, the all-male waiters have to stay alert. “If some clients misbehave, we discreetly go and tell them,” adds the young owner.
The concept of gender segregation in the public space isn’t entirely new in Egypt, and is already very common in Saudi Arabia. The subway for instance has had a “woman only” wagon for a long time, and the access to a specific beach in north Alexandria is restricted to the fairer sex.
The female customers seem to be okay with it. On that day, Amina, a longhaired young mother with a black blouse is meeting her best friends in the “women’s” section, discreetly hidden from the masculine eye by a large glass. Amina has brought her toddler, who is passed around and covered in gifts. “We feel more comfortable being just us women,” she says.
To the skeptics who only see the D.cappuccino as a bitter appetizer foreshadowing a potentially more puritan Egypt, Amina responds that she prefers to see the problem from a social rather than religious angle: “Our country is rooted in a patriarchal culture where men have a distorted vision of women. You just walk down the street and people start whistling at you, and even make indecent propositions and dirty jokes. As long as this remains an issue, I’m all for these cafés.”
At the back of the “women only” area, Heydi and Rana, two students in computer science, are quietly typing on their keyboards. One wears a light blue veil and the other a small white bonnet covering long brown hair. It’s their first time here. “We were looking for a nice place to work. It’s quiet in here and the setting is nice,” noted Rana. “However, if we want to meet up with our friends, we’ll go to Cilantro’s or the Costa café like everyone else our age. The D.cappuccino will never replace the other cafés!”
Paradoxically, perhaps, the harshest criticism is coming from the Islamists themselves, who espouse a lifestyle modeled on the prophet’s in his own time. “Islam and cafés are incompatible. Have you ever heard of cafés during the early years of Islam?” wonders Hany Ismaïl Mohamad, a member of the Al-Nour radical movement.
The relative tolerance from the D.cappuccino owners, willing to let un-veiled women inside is also a constant question. And in this place, the waiters may enter the woman section. "But only to take orders,” adds Sayed.