In Egypt, they call it shisha, in Syria and Lebanon they call it argeella, and in Turkey they call it nargile.
In English people refer to it as hubbley bubbley, waterpipe, or “that Arabian smoking thing.” These names all refer to the same traditional smoking device usually seen in Middle East cafes and restaurants. Walking the streets of Cairo, it’s impossible to miss the sight of men, and sometimes women, sipping on their tea and resting a smoking pipe between their fingers.
Although widely thought to be a Turkish or Iranian invention, shisha is originally an Indian and Nepali tradition that gained popularity in the Middle East around the fifteenth century, and is currently becoming fashionable in Europe, the United States and Brazil.
Cairo shisha joints are part of the structure of Egyptian society. They are considered a social meeting point where youngsters and vintage shisha-lovers meet to watch football matches and enjoy an engaging conversation among friends, strangers and passers-by. Pure tobacco (maasel) used to be the only shisha flavor, but new flavors have been introduced gradually into the cafe scene in Cairo.
Here is a list of the top five shisha spots around the Egyptian capital, ranked according to budget, class and quality of shisha. They all offer maasel, aside from a variety of flavors which differ according to the spot.
5. Arabesque – Garden City
Arabesque is arguably one of the best shisha spots in the downtown area. The place, known for the variety in its juice menu and noisy location on Qasr el-Aini street, has an interesting mixture of clientele that ranges between older Egyptians enjoying their shisha, the hip young crowds of Garden City, and foreigners who live nearby and consider it an extension of their living room where they meet friends for a nice evening outing.
The shisha quality varies between the morning shift and the evening one: While the quality of the shisha in the afternoon can be drastically bad, the evening shift, led by a young shisha-boy mysteriously called Saroukh (meaning “Rocket”), provides you with one of the best shishas you might find around town.
The budget is reasonable, considering that you pay less than LE12 for your shisha, and the variety of shisha flavors changes according to what is available in the cafe for the day. The standard flavors, however, including apple, cherry, watermelon and peach are always there for you to pick from.
Address: 44, Qasr el-Aini Street, Garden City.
4. Pottery – Zamalek
While the shisha in Pottery Zamalek is a personal favorite, the underwhelming service pushes this shisha spot down the list.
Random shisha flavors, including the strange combination of Lemon and Red Bull shisha, are available at the cafe which is located on the shore of the Nile river passing around Zamalek. Enjoy their coconut-flavored shisha while sipping the Oreo milkshake if you are there for a late evening soft-drink with friends. The pizzas are extremely tasty as well.
You might, however, have to fight for a table in the tiny place, or wait for an hour for your order to arrive. The indoor section becomes extremely smoky and unbearable if two or three tables order shishas, and the outdoor section is under direct sun most of the day. So, an outdoor table in the late evening would be your perfect choice for this place.
Ordering a shisha and a drink is enough to cover the LE50 minimum charge per person.
Address: Om Kalthoum Tower, Abu el-Feda Street, Zamalek.
3. Aal Qahwa – Dokki
Although opened years ago, Aal Qahwa is a new, and joyous, discovery. Located in a quiet street in Dokki, the place has a very pleasant atmosphere to it with its tasteful decor and the warm colors of its chairs and tables. The menu is funky, written in franco-arab; the smoothies can be a bit sugary but other than that the drinks are nicely mixed and the food is well-cooked.
Recommendations include the meat shawerma and the feteer with sugar and milk. Shisha in Ala Qahwa has a soft and smooth feel with well placed coal and freshly-made tobacco. You might need to nag the shisha boy for a refill of the shisha coals though.
If you are a playStation fan you can ask for the playStation screen to be moved to your table where you can enjoy both the shisha and the game.
Budget is reasonable with LE20 for the shisha and LE25 for the PlayStation hour.
2. La Pietra – Mohandissen
La Pietra Mohandessin, one of the chain of La Pietra cafes around town and on the North Coast, is considered to be a closed community by the crowds that visit the spot on almost a daily basis. The staff is extremely friendly and remember your favorite shisha, that would be placed next to your chair minutes after you arrive at the restaurant.
Of course, the regular cafe-goers get a better service, but still the service in general is good and the basic shisha flavors are all available.
The budget is reasonable, with LE80 covering a full meal (the food is extremely good), a drink and shisha.
Address: 34 Higaz Street, Off Wadi el-Nil Street, Mohandessin.
1. Sequoia – Zamalek
Sequoia is not for those who consider the different tastes and flavors of shisha unnecessary and who prefer to enjoy either the harsh taste of maasal or the sweet smell of apple. The place is the heaven of shisha flavors: The waiter brings you a wooden tray carrying samples of all flavors which you can pick, smell and decide on before you order your shisha.
From the delicious flavor of Moroccan Apple to the unmatchable taste of fig-flavored shisha, you can pick the shisha that suits you. Sequoia’s location at the tip of Zamalek island overlooking the Nile ensures a beautiful and relaxing evening with your friends. The loud MTV music might disturb you, but don’t hesitate to ask the waiters to turn it off. For the amount of money you are going to pay, you might as well ask for a pound of their flesh.
Minimum charge is LE100 on weekdays and LE150 at weekends (which includes Thursdays and Sundays as well).
Address: 3 Abul-Feda Street, Zamalek.