Maqha, Ahweh: An Etude in Café
An exercise in linguistics unravels the strands of imagery in the words maqha and ahweh – both translated as café – in literary and colloquial Arabic.
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The human mind refracts the material world into different parallel worlds, where reality fuses with imagination and the physical with the metaphysical, a fusion intrinsic to the human experience. Words and language play an essential role in this amalgamation. When words describe things, places, and actions, they alter their features, imbuing them with connotations, nuances, and allusions that people often suppress or let pass in the linguistic subconscious, which shapes our perception and image of the world.

Is it even possible to keep track of the words – their connotations and images – at play in the imagination? This is an exercise to try to discover some of the connotations and mental imagery in the words maqha (coffeehouse or café) in literary Arabic and ahweh (coffeehouse or café) in colloquial, vernacular Arabic. It is an exercise in writing about the imagined character of two distinct places, suggested by two words, the literary and the colloquial. 



The literary Arabic word maqha and the colloquial ahweh share so few connotations that we might conclude the two words do not denote the same meaning or place. The throaty letter qaf (ق), transliterated into a “q,” adds to the first word a sense of inherent weight and density, covered by a hazy fog, even though the qaf is sometimes pronounced silently. This is absent from the second word, which prompts a cool, breezy, and playful lightness that seems to radiate. While maqha suggests an interior, sunken space, isolated from the outside world, with dampened noise emanating from it and with patrons absorbed by its density, the word ahweh suggests a place above ground, raised by the letters alif (أ), ha (ه) and waw (و), with intermittent voices and faint whispers in the pellucid air, with the outdoors visible and the natural world within reach. 

Do the pronunciation and rhythm of these letters distinguish the two words and the two places invoked by verbal cognition? Does the silent letter qaf (ق) next to the throaty letter meem (م), prolonged and open, and the aspirated ha (ه), which pulls maqha down and in, make it seem like the customers and fixtures are colorless, covered with the dust of antiquity? 

The customers in the ahweh are water-like, the chairs and tables lithe and colorful. The passing of time impacts it, with wear and tear from the patrons’ frequenting and usage of the place. As for the temporality suggested by the word maqha, it is abstract or frozen and cut off from time, and consequently unaltered by the changes brought about by time, time at a standstill. Maqha conjures people who are strangers, devoid of distinct features and age, whereas ahweh is intertwined with a multitude of characters, each with his singular gait and peculiar story. It is a time open to transience and variability and to the changes of the seasons. The outside world is intimately connected to the ahweh’s interior, as though it were a balcony, terrace, or part of the pavement and the street, full in summer, spring, and autumn. By contrast, maqha does not tune to the almanac of seasons, weather, or climate. It appears surrounded by an unending winter outdoors and inhabited by permanent warmth. It is as though it were a womb: the patrons identify each other, they do not see nor hear the outside world like sailors in a submarine, where light is murky, dense, and viscous as mercury. Lighting is suppressed and austere, though it is consistent at night as during the day.

“In the maqha, patrons neither see nor hear the outside world, like sailors in a submarine, where light is murky, denseviscous as mercury.”

Time in the ahweh is diurnal, soaked by late mornings and early evenings. Before noon, time in the ahweh accelerates, and it relaxes and slows down in the afternoon, inflected by boredom and monotony, waiting for the ease of sunset. Light bathes the ahweh without seeping through to the core, coating the patrons and enveloping them in shadows. 

The ahawi (plural of ahweh) are affected by people and time. They are where people make acquaintances, exchange, and mingle, a space for transient and spontaneous interactions. The ahweh is a space for winter and summer, sea and mountain, sidewalk and street, talking and silence. It is a space for the visual, the imagined, and the metaphysical, for the city and the surrounding countryside, growing ever more urbanized. 

The maqahi (plural of maqha) appear as a space for sojourns, with a clear beginning and end, that lets nothing precede or follow it. Consider a person entering the maqha – it is as though such a person vanishes in it, his presence there deprived of any previous connection to the outside. As for the person leaving the maqha, he thereafter welcomes the world and engages in it, like someone coming out of the void. For the world of the maqha has no shoreline, while the ahweh is made entirely of shores and would not exist without them. 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the word ahweh is feminine while the word maqha is masculine. In the ahweh, there is a modicum of seduction, showing off, playfulness, and leisure. But in the maqha, there is neither seduction nor comeliness, as though masculinity and manliness dominate the imagined semantic universe of that word. But if playfulness and seduction enter the world of the maqha, then they are often fraught, to some extent, with crossing over a threshold into the domain of a character held in the subtext of the word. It is as though maqha is from an Umm Kulthum song while ahweh is haunted by the songs of Fairuz and her spectral voice. 



In quotidian speech, the colloquial word ahweh is used. In general, it is used in conjunction with the official name of the destination or meeting spot. The word becomes specific, defined, and reflective of a choice. There are those who use proper nouns alone to identify a specific ahweh without preceding the place by the word itself. Thus, the proper noun becomes the equivalent of the word in social spheres where people share common references. Similarly, a person might say: “let’s meet at the ahweh,” without mentioning the specific name of a café, as long as they both mean no other place whenever they agree to meet. 

By contrast, the time suggested by maqha is stationary and rigid. So when we say and write maqha in a context of formality and eloquence, we mean all coffeehouses, not a particular place. Such a coffeehouse transcends time and space. It is as though the word entails only one holistic image, fixed and immutable, no matter the succession of time. 

The word ahweh in the oral vernacular, meanwhile, takes the literary Arabic and written word maqha down, or away from, this connotation, removing its strength, firmness, age, and immutability. It gives it a feminine gender and grants it tenderness, charm, and playfulness while placing it in a local space and time, for ahweh is the product of the Lebanese dialect, which has been carved by city life, multiculturalism, and exchange, where accents have been mixed and hybridized. This is what maqha is, in fact – a space wide open to people, which came into being by virtue of people’s escape from their time, accents, communities, and collective identities to individuality so that they may get acquainted like strangers in a public space, in a changing and fleeting time. 

Perhaps the intention behind removing the throaty letter qaf (ق) – which the Lebanese dialect considers a signifier of literary Arabic, of its fabric and imagination – and replacing the letter meem (م) with an alif ( أ ) in the beginning of the word, ahweh reflects a desire to loosen the rigidity of literary Arabic. Perhaps this replacement bespeaks a desire to take the literary Arabic word from its throaty depths, from the tyranny of its connotations and age-old implications in order to give it familiarity, tenderness, and imagery linked to local character, the product of exchange and hybridization. 



The nuances suggested by the literary Arabic word maqha are linked to old traditional cafés, such as the ones that existed in Beirut’s city center and its residential quarters, including the old seaside cafés. These cafés, generally referred to as maqahi al azaz, or glass cafés, predate modern sidewalk cafés, such as those in the Hamra, Ras Beirut, and Raoucheh neighborhoods. The glass cafés are first and foremost a space for men, where they display their manhood and masculinity, especially in popular urban neighborhoods. The roles performed by men in these cafés are linked to the local community around the coffeehouse. Meanwhile, the “glass” character of these cafés, although in the local social imagination it entails insalubrious connotations, lends a heaviness to time in these establishments, despite the fact that only glass separates the inside and the outside. The glass maintains a porousness between the interior and the exterior, but the glass walls do not engender a culture of spectatorship, in contrast to contemporary cafés, where patrons – even if they are family members – behave as if they were meeting for the first time, like strangers connecting with one another, the way a passerby interacts with a passerby, as observed by anthropologist George Simmel. 

The traditional coffeehouses, before the era of modernism and consumerism, were exclusively for men, for playing cards, backgammon, and smoking shisha. Coffee pots sat on marble tables, and waiters carried metal trays to serve the patrons. Time was sluggish, like an aged man. We could hear music by Umm Kulthum, Zakaria Ahmad, Abdul Muttalib, and Abdel Wahab. The noise and bustle that filled the broad hall of the café was deeply rooted in the city, evocative of its spirit, social structures, harbor, and the old souks. 

Neither ahweh nor maqha encompasses entirely the old cafés of our cities. The places did feature some connotations of both terms – the local flavor of the first, the weight and masculinity of the second – but in fact the old cafés were neither a maqha of abstract eloquence, atemporality, and fluidity, nor an ahweh, at the nexus of the urban and rural experience, in a city haunted by nostalgia for the countryside.

“Our coffeehouses today are the cafés of our arrested, schizoidmodernity, mute and void of language.”

The coffeehouses we frequent today in our cities and villages do not resemble what the maqha of literary Arabic implies, nor do they embody what the ahweh of our vernacular language calls to mind. Moreover, they do not evoke the old traditional coffeehouses of our cities and towns. Our coffeehouses today are the cafés of our arrested modernity, mute and void of language. It is a schizoid modernity, estranged from the literary Arabic and its eloquence, heritage, and culture, which colloquial language cannot express. Our modernity has been residing for decades, nay centuries, in the empty space between that rigid cultural, linguistic, and religious heritage and a present in which our societies do not yet know how, where, and in what manner to engage with and inhabit the era, nor how to create a dynamic language and imagination, free to express how we live today.


Translated by Sabine Taoukjian

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Muhammad Abi Samra is a Lebanese journalist and novelist whose latest book is Trablous: Sahet Allah wa Mina Al Hadatha (Tripoli: Allah Square and the Port of Modernity) (Dar Al Saqi).
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