Abu Dhabi Brew: Café Culture in UAE’s Capital City

It’s a sun-soaked afternoon in Abu Dhabi, UAE, the kind where the level of air-conditioning is as oppressive as the sun’s rays outside. A Filipina barista hands you a crisp, cream-colored menu. You ask her what a flat white is and her sing-song voice launches into a clearly prepared explanation — microfoam over a single or double shot of espresso. Milky but not enough to overpower the coffee. Microfoam? The word sounds vaguely chemistry-related, and you get flashbacks of late nights trying to memorize the periodic table. Other exotic terms jump out at you — doppio, ristretto, marocchino. You look at the barista with a pale smile and wonder when exactly cafés became this stressful. (And isn’t that kind of counterintuitive?) Meanwhile, the waitress, Christine, waits with her notebook, ballpoint pen poised to take the order.

“Uh…could I just get a cappuccino, please?” Cappuccinos are safe; you can get them at Tim Horton’s.

She nods, smiling, the whites of her teeth somehow complementing the café’s interior, clean, sunlit and deliberately minimalist, the ideal setting for an Instagram post. As she turns to leave, you pull out your laptop.

“Oh and Christine? Could I also get the Wi-Fi password?”

Internet connection is crucial. Perhaps now, you will finally start this research paper.

***

At only two years old, No. 57 Boutique Café, which provided the setting for this scene, is one of the many high-end, emerging upmarket coffee shops in Abu Dhabi, where elegant espressos are served in dainty porcelain cups, and the café has a more polished Instagram page than Kendall Jenner’s. Here, you’ll find congregations of sharp-suited businessmen, discussing mergers or the stock exchange or something equally dry and financial, over enormous brunch salads. You’ll find coteries of lipsticked women in pencil skirts, chatting over cheesecake and obscurely-titled coffees. Both the place and the people wear a veneer of class and polish. And as I sit there watching it all I wonder if this is the new face of Abu Dhabi’s café culture, as glass-and-chrome as its downtown office buildings. I won’t lie: the thought of that is more than a little disappointing.

One textbook definition of the term café culture is that it describes the general act, and its associated atmosphere, of people gathering in a café space, usually over tea or coffee or some other equally satisfying beverage, to talk, write, read, entertain one another, or simply pass the time. Interestingly enough, this social phenomenon has its roots right here in the Arab world. Once the miracle of the coffee bean (and I say miracle because God knows my life, and the lives of countless others, would be much drearier without it) was discovered, purportedly in eleventh-century Ethiopia, its notoriety as being equally delicious and stimulating spread to Yemen, sometime in the mid-fourteenth century, where ideal growing conditions led to the country becoming one of the world’s premier coffee producers. Beans cultivated there were then supplied to neighboring nations within the Arab and Ottoman regions, such as Egypt and Turkey, and eventually a coffeehouse culture began to develop in these places, where people would gather together in particular spaces to socialize over games, coffee and water pipes. The culture then spread to Europe, beginning its trajectory in 17th-century Venice and trickling into England, France and beyond.

Every social phenomenon, culture or object that is transported into another country or region goes through a process of translation and adaptation. There is the literal translation of literature, films and music into other languages and adaptations of these are made to fit the local customs and traditions of a country. It’s a journey of transformation, of small, multiple metamorphoses, that objects and ideas take as they travel across borders. Similarly, as café culture voyaged to different parts of the world, it too went through cultural renovations. In the deserts of the Gulf, coffee is laden with ritual and hidden meaning, and acts as a token of hospitality. Its preparation and consumption are bound in tradition, heritage, identity and community. Arab coffee culture, in other words, is its own secret language of gestures and symbols. For example, offering a full cup to a guest signifies, of all things, a heart full of bitterness.

Meanwhile in Europe’s cities, whether lining the boulevards of Milan or Paris or Madrid, café culture beats and throbs like an important artery of the heart of the city. Lingering in cafes is not just a pastime but a social norm, one that has come to be a defining characteristic of the continent. It’s difficult to untangle the image of street side cafes spilling people who are engaging in intellectual or political conversation, arguing over café crèmes, smiling over brioche buns, filling notebooks with drawings and observations, with our general collective idea of European café culture, because this is how the region has translated and adopted it. For example, when I think of Paris, I can see the image of Ezra Pound and Hemingway and the old sport Scott Fitzgerald assembled in a café over sandwiches and coffee, talking about writing. And this is not just me indulging in my love for the quixotic, romanticized lifestyle of the Lost Generation (or Paris, or cafés, or literature in general). The proof lies in Ernest Hemingway’s memoir on Paris, A Moveable Feast. The proof also lies, right at this very moment, in the streets of Paris, where people engage with café culture every day, as if spending time in such a space is merely a common refrain in the symphony of their days. The European café (also: coffee/tea shop, coffee/teahouse, if we want to be technical) has been translated into a hub for intellectual rendezvous, cultural and artistic production and dialogue, as well as a hotspot for socio-political conversation.

And then there is the American translation of café culture too, which brings to mind cities like Seattle, the birthplace of Starbucks, and so-called hipster coffee shops tucked into areas like Williamsburg and Brooklyn, New York. Such café spaces too, perhaps taking a note from the Europeans, are regarded as sites of alternative culture, carrying a faint tang of bohemia, of making art and writing and having conversations about Nietzsche and the demise of politics. Of course, I’m stereotyping, or generalizing, a little. But this slightly sweeping idea of Westernized café culture, combining both the European and American translations, is one that pervades the mainstream consciousness.

Last spring, I spent time writing a food column for my school publication, which entailed visiting a lot of cafes, Instagramming pictures of them and then sharing my views of both the quirky décor, dishes and lattes that I encountered. No. 57 Boutique Café was one of them. So was the more low-key, ramshackle Art House Café, located in the city’s Al Bateen area. And so was an unnamed shisha spot in a crevice of downtown Abu Dhabi, a place which seemed to veritably float on a cloud of smoke, anchored to tiny wooden tables flowering hookah pipes and the smell of strong Arabic coffee. Each of these places was wildly different from the other: one was a glittering glasshouse, with checkered tablecloths and vigorous air-conditioning. One had chairs made out of car tires and invited guests to paint peace signs on its brick walls. One was packed with almost entirely Arab men, middle-to-lower class workers it seemed, crammed so close together that I felt I was watching blood burst out of a wound.

None of these differences really mattered and perhaps the fault was mine for not emphasizing and analyzing them enough, both in my articles and in regular conversation. The word ‘café’ and the notion of café culture, I’ve realized, have very particularly connotations attached to them in Abu Dhabi, and that largely stems from our general collective idea of European-American café culture. People on my college campus have now identified as me the “artsy café girl” and have explicitly asked if I spend afternoons eating baguettes and perusing fat literary tomes in some café in the city. Other labels I have met with are ‘elitist’, ‘hipster intellectual’, ‘pretentious’ and ‘bourgeois’, despite the fact that the cafes I visited often greatly differed in terms of ethnic, cultural and class variations in both their structures and demographics.

These labels feel uncomfortable because not only do they narrow and diminish my identity and beloved hobby (Come on, what if I just like writing essays in cafes? Or, I don’t know, having a chat over a latte? ) but it demonstrates quite a deep misunderstanding and misinterpretation of café culture within Abu Dhabi. At the same time, I get why people are thinking and speaking this way. Earlier, I mentioned that the European-American translation of café culture asserts that the café is an intellectually-culturally-socio-politically productive and discursive space. But this space also tends to attract, or be inhabited by, a certain kind of individual, one who is admittedly likely to be upper-middle class, fairly affluent, well-read and privileged enough to be exposed to certain kinds of education and information on politics or philosophy or art, for example. It explains the ‘bourgeois’ label, the “elitist” label, even the ‘pretentious’ label borne from the European cafe-goer’s privilege to indulge in something as obscure as spending hours reading Kant over an espresso. Trust me, I get this.

While such labels, explained in the way that I have done so, seem to carry negativity, they are also equally romanticized. People may criticize café culture, in their slang, as ‘bougie’ (a truncation of ‘bourgeois’) but at the same time, they secretly yearn to embody the label too. There’s a big trend in Abu Dhabi right now of Instagram café photography, where customers spend a couple of minutes arranging their food and their fingers and their fruit smoothies in ‘artsy’ arrangements they can show off to their virtual friends. It seems that the aesthetic experience of a café has begun to matter just as much, if not more, than the coffee’s taste. Newer café establishments are cashing in on this, modelling themselves on quirky, Western coffeehouses that beg for an iPhone camera lens.

Stephen Underwood, the owner of the Blacksmith Coffee establishment, a first-of-its-kind sophisticated café space on the campus of New York University Abu Dhabi, pinpoints his inspiration for the entrepreneurial project as coming from his experience of high end coffee shops in Prague and New York. The first thing Blacksmith reminds me of is a brunch café I visited in Amsterdam last spring called Little Collins. There’s the same spare, minimalist arrangement of potted plants, the chic, industrial lighting (which just means light bulbs randomly suspended from the ceiling), the wooden floorboards that are somehow the exact same shade as the caramel syrup that comes drizzled on my macchiato, and if I take it a step further, I can even hear the soft, acoustic indie music playing in the background and the Wi-Fi symbol on my laptop screen fully colored in and buzzing with energy.

“Oh my God, it looks so artsy, Vamika. You’re going to love it,” a friend tells me before its opening. I nod; I can picture the softly-lit Instagram shots I’ll take there already.  

***

At the beginning of this ramble, I mentioned I was worried about what Abu Dhabi’s café culture was starting to look like. That worry is still legitimate. Changing lifestyles and an increasingly emergent interest in coffee and cafe culture have led to the opening of more than 2,200 cafes in the UAE in the past two years and that number is steadily growing. Additionally, in 2011, which is still fairly recent, more than 4,000 coffee and tea houses were catering to 65 percent of beverage consumption in the UAE. Coffee is, as I previously mentioned, a significant part of Arabic culture. You can find almost all big brands of coffee industry present in the UAE. Moreover, international coffee tastes have found steady footing in the region and an espresso coffee culture has flourished, which seems to me like a symbol of the importation of European-American café culture into the region. Consequently, large international coffee brands and chain outlets have flocked to the UAE, in hopes of catering to the growing demand. With convenient locations, recognizable products and welcoming settings, big names such as Starbucks, Tim Hortons and Costa continue to pepper any walk through a mall or commercial setting in Abu Dhabi.

But is the importation of the notion of European-American café culture encroaching upon Abu Dhabi’s development of its own distinct translation of café culture, one that reflects what it is as a city?

As a musician, I look at café culture like it’s a symphony, where each café is a unique melody line which comes together with the others to produce some kind of harmony, whether that’s concordant or discordant, and finally reveals a product that is a distinct symphony. Abu Dhabi’s symphony would ideally be a progressive, experimental global-contemporary work, reflecting a complex mix of ethnicities, cultures, classes and languages. There’s a reason why we see the label “multicultural crossroads” used to the point of tired cliché in tourism brochures for the city. Abu Dhabi is not just Emiratis; it’s South Indian restaurant managers, American expatriates, Pakistani vendors, Ugandan taxi drivers, Sri Lankan businessmen, Nepali bankers, Filipina waitresses. And many, many more that cannot and should not be distilled into one sentence. The food scene of Abu Dhabi, encompassing not only its cafes but also its multitudes of restaurants, cafeterias, fast food joints and baqalas (convenience stores), reflect and represent the tapestry of diasporas that make up the city, not only by name or cuisine — Chinese Hotpot! Bonna Anne Ethiopian Restaurant! — but also by choices of décor, language, the nature of the clientele attracted to the place and, to put it in a nutshell, the way the establishment utilizes its space, down to the minutest of details.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that the sum of the cafe spaces in Abu Dhabi exist as microcosms of the city itself. They can be places where a wide variety of people from different social classes, ethnicities, cultures and nationalities can come together over a cup of coffee (or karak or Moroccan mint tea) and exchange dialogue, make conversation, learn and thrive off each other, whether that’s intellectually or culturally, or just make idle chit-chat and simply be. And isn’t that a miniature prototype of Abu Dhabi itself and the “multicultural crossroads” we all love to speak of in the brochures?

I am worried that Abu Dhabi’s café culture is in danger of being over-diluted by European-American notions of café culture for this idyllic notion to be realized. There is already a saturation of big-name international coffee outlets like the American Starbucks, which has 101 outlets in the UAE alone, the British Costa and the Canadian Tim Hortons; these are certainly part of the café culture here and apart from being totally homogenized and yes, overpriced, I have nothing against their presence. They fulfil a certain demand in the city and add to the touristic appeal of Abu Dhabi.

At the same time, consumer demand for quality coffee is growing and people are starting to understand that coffee is a complex beverage with many flavors to it. In other words, people are starting to delve into what exactly constitutes that grande café latte they ordered at their local Starbucks yesterday and are beginning to question it. Consumers have also begun to increasingly drink coffee for the appreciation of the beverage, as they become more aware of the origin, roasting techniques and even the altitude at which the beans have been grown. Consequently, serving specialty coffee has become a rising regional trend. The café industry has shifted, where it is now being spearheaded by independent specialist coffee merchants that focus on the best quality rather than volume by serving single origin coffee. And so, cafes with specialty business models have become increasingly regarded as “go-to destinations” more than the traditional franchised cafes. One example of this is Joud Café, one of Abu Dhabi’s first and only specialty coffeehouses which exclusively serves single-origin coffee. The café was specifically opened for the purpose of filling the supposed gap in the market for specialty coffee, and has become immensely popular. No. 57 Boutique Café is another café that prides itself on the premise of only serving specialty coffee.

But there’s a problem here, and that is one of price and class. It’s well-established that international franchise cafes like Starbucks are overpriced because they use their big brand names and international fame to leverage their prices. To counteract the homogeneity and arguably poor taste of the coffee served in such establishments, along with a growing interest in the mechanics and art of making and serving coffee as a complex beverage, there has been a rise in cafes serving specialty coffee in Abu Dhabi. But here’s the thing: specialty coffee is expensive. It’s a luxury. And that’s an issue because such an establishment will only attract upper-class customers who can and are willing to pay for such highly-priced drinks. Because of that, the café ceases to function as a space where people from all walks of life, specifically from various social classes, can come together, co-exist and engage in conversation, despite their differences. Avid coffee drinkers agree that cafes offer a culturally acceptable meeting place for people to socialize and mingle, whether it is for business or pleasure. I assert that the café that is distinct to Abu Dhabi can function as a microcosm of the city, meaning that it can provide an intellectually/culturally/socially productive site for people of various classes and cultures to engage in. But this is not possible if the structure and pricing of the café screams ‘bourgeois” and alienates lower social classes. Some of my friends argue that this is classic UAE behavior — to import European-American concepts, ideas and objects, without any kind of translation or adaptive process to the region taking place, so that these imports exist as overpriced luxuries that alienate everyone but the decently to extravagantly wealthy.

There’s also a common growing concern among Emiratis that big-name, European-American and upmarket cafes have emerged at the expense of traditional gahwa (Arabic coffee) cafes, and their products are preventing the consumption and awareness of traditional Arabic brews or items such as zafrani tea, which are distinctly of this region.

“They want to preserve national culture, which is somewhat missing among the new wave of coffee and tea cafes around us,” local Dina Rashid stated. “Today you can see lots of vans selling karak tea and coffee, but have you ever seen a gahwa cafe?” It’s a legitimate concern that has failed to be addressed.

But in most sorry situations, one can find the dregs of hope. Through my regular café trawls in the city, I’ve discovered what I call a small, burgeoning grassroots movement of cafes that I believe represent, or could evolve to represent, the ideal translation of café culture in Abu Dhabi. One example is a tiny café called Shay Madhboot, which specializes in serving karak, a strong Indian tea with milk that has become common to the UAE food scene, alongside other Arabic teas and coffees and a small all-day brunch menu that mainly consists of porottas, which are Indian flatbreads, and traditional Arab breakfast dishes such as foul and shakshouka. No espressos, no lattes, no Mediterranean salads. Shay Madhboot also deliberately chooses to use Arabic as a primary language in its menus and signage, firmly grounding itself as a café specifically of this region. At the same time, its interior and décor is very much modelled on what could easily be a European-American coffee shop, with its industrial lighting, potted plants and exposed brick walls. The café functions as a microcosm of the city, reflecting the influence of the diasporas present within it, from Emirati to Lebanese to American to Indian.

Another example is the well-known Café Arabia, which also somewhat borrows from the European-American café model of an intellectual-cultural space; its walls are lined with bookshelves crammed with popular English novels while its menu offers a decent selection of traditionally ‘Western’ dishes and drinks such as pastas, sandwiches and lattes. However, it very much markets itself as a café of Abu Dhabi and of the Arab world, and that’s not only by its name. The interior is full of Turkish lamps while the walls are mapped out with photographs of scenes of traditional Emirati culture and rituals, alongside portraits of famous Arab people, ranging from writers to actors to politicians. The menu also offers several Arabic dishes and drinks, like fatteh, falafel and Moroccan tea. Moreover, items served in such cafes are extremely affordable — the teas at Shay Madhboot are amazingly all under five dirhams. What this means is that the café can attract a clientele that is as varied as the diasporas and cultures represented in the city. And it’s these kinds of cafes that Abu Dhabi should be working on growing and encouraging because that will breed a more inclusive café culture that is unique to, and representative of, the city.

And then there are the tiny, smoky shisha cafes, often so obscure they may as well be underground. Sharing shisha is an important part of Emirati culture and heritage but how does this cultural ritual translate into Abu Dhabi’s café space? While there are more exclusive and luxurious shisha bars present in Abu Dhabi, ones that attract international and/or wealthy visitors, there are also more prominently smaller shisha cafe spaces, more hole-in-the-wall, hazy atmospheres. Should both of these be advanced in the argument of advancing Emirati culture? Both types of spaces attract a particular kind of clientele: either the elite, or mainly local males and many, such as the eponymous chain of Special cafes, have been shut down for being hotbeds of illegal activity, primarily through violating the country’s shisha laws. Since shisha is a common part of the city’s culture, to rectify this situation, or reach some kind of compromise, I’d suggest creating special areas designated for shisha and smoking in the cafes like Shay Madhboot, of course still adhering strictly to the shisha laws at the same time. That being said, preserving shisha-focused cafes as a way of practising Emirati culture is equally important, provided these spaces become more inclusive of different peoples, accepting women, people of other cultures, more varied ethnicities, origins and social classes.

As of now, there is no immediately pressing problem with Abu Dhabi’s café culture. It’s still a highly eclectic symphony, filled with international coffee outlets, shisha cafes, more localized cafes that are representative of the city’s diasporas, and even cafes that are themed around a specific region or place, such as the Lebanese Manoushe Café and the French Paul’s Café, which I think could lead to greater intercultural exploration or understanding through the realm of food. Each of these kinds of cafes have their pros and cons, making up a symphony that’s both concordant and discordant. Ultimately, what needs to be prevented is excessive discordance, which could possibly stem from opening cafes that are too European-American and cater more to upper-class individuals. That’s still a real danger at present. But it can be prevented by developing and encouraging the growth of cafes like Shay Madhboot which function as microcosms of the city and enable people from all walks of life to co-exist and utilize the café as a productive, safe, discursive and multicultural space.  

This piece is part of our Invisible Cities series.
Artwork: Unknown mural in Singapore

References
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