Walking into the trendy shisha café in downtown Zamalek, I make my way to the open-aired area where they told me they would be sitting. Rich flavours of grape and apple tobacco sifting through the air keep me company as I spot them at a round table cluttered with pots of mint tea, novelty small shisha pipes that rest cutely in the middle, and a selection of IPhones and Blackberries that complete the picture.
Khaled is the first one to stand up and embrace me. It’s been nine months since I left for London and one by one I give each of my friends a hug and a kiss on both cheeks – all the while they make wise cracks like “We haven’t even missed you yet, go back to London,” or “ Don’t they have any food over there? You’re wasting away!”
After all the niceties we sit down. Ibra (short for Ibrahim) grinning asks, “Tell me about the girls over there?” and I reply “I wouldn’t know – I only get to date my PhD – but tell me, Ibra, how’s your fiancée?” I ask with a wink and he laughs back as if to say “Nice one you got me.”
We carry on in that way for a few minutes until the young waiter in uniform approaches. “Would you like to order anything, sir?” The menu’s been in front of me for ten minutes but I haven’t looked at it – I don’t need to. “I’ll have a Coke, a mint tea, and a grape shisha, please.” The waiter writes it down, and is about to walk away when Mahmood waves his hand to get his attention.
“And I’ll have a Stella,” he says, and before I know what’s happening, Ibra chimes, “I’ll have one too,” before the waiter looks at Khaled who lifts three fingers. I’m in the Twilight zone as the waiter walks away.
“Sorry guys, am I missing something? Stella is alcohol, right?” I ask like someone who knows he’s about to be laughed at, and right on cue, they all chuckle to one another the way people do with an inside joke that only they would understand.
“I told you he wouldn’t be drinking in London,” Ibra says to the other two as if I’m not sitting right in front of them.
As I search their faces, it turns out to be Khaled who is willing to explain.
“In nine months things can change, Ahmed, and it has, here in Egypt.” I’m still looking at him with a confused expression, wondering why on earth he’s linking the wider topic of Egypt to my three very good friends ordering alcohol, friends who to the best of my knowledge have never drunk alcohol before.
He sees this and continues. “It’s like this – people our age have gone one of two ways in the last year; some are growing beards, cutting off the bottom of their trousers, fiddling prayer beads all day long and YouTube nothing but religious sermons. Even their Facebook pages are hilal,” he laughs at his own joke and Ibra and Mahmood chuckle too.
I nod letting him know that I’m listening attentively.
“And then there are people our age who are like us, Ahmed. Young guys and girls who won’t be bossed or guilt tripped into believing we have to change our clothes, internet habits or even our entire personalities because the beloved Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi’s tell us to! I’m my own man and I choose how to practise my religion. They should either choose politics or be preachers – they shouldn’t be involved in both,” finishing his sentence calmly.
I look at Ira and Mahmood. “And you two believe this as well?” They nod.
I look back to Khaled. “But don’t you see that by drinking alcohol or doing anything else you didn’t use to do before the Brotherhood or Salafi’s rose to prominence, that indirectly you are allowing them to dictate your actions?”
He shrugs his shoulders. “Ahmed, I’ve thought about that too. But right now I need to be everything they don’t want me to be so that they can see that this country will not bend to its will. They need to know that Egyptians will protest and resist in all its forms.”
The waiter comes back with a tray of three Stella’s and my Coke. “Your shisha and tea is on the way, sir,” he says to me.
We each take our drinks and open them. Khaled holds his beer high in the middle. “Here’s to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says with a smile, and we all chink our bottles together.