The Teahouses of Sana’a
While many foreigners, perhaps used to a more fast-paced city, may decry the lack of a serious nightlife in Sana’a, I would argue that a vibrant night culture does in fact exist, just at a more subdued and chilled-out pace. Yemenis take their tea seriously, and while Yemen may be the birthplace of coffee, it is tea that reigns king amongst hot beverages here. Drinking tea in Sana’a is more than just getting a caffeine fix. It is a way to watch the world go by, see friends socially, and let go after a long day spent chewing qat and seeing friends socially. No one takes their tea to go, because the tea is just a medium: the real reason for the teahouse is the social network of friends and co-sippers one can only experience at the café. These are a few of my favorite spots around the city.
Café Exquisite aka Café Paradiso
The name of this café is not Café Exquisite nor is it Café Paradiso. These names were given to it by the staff of the Yemen Language Center in 2008. In reality, it has no name. It is beyond names. It exists by raving word of mouth alone, and business is booming. A call to rendez-vous at Café Exquisite usually goes something like, “Ok, you know the Silaa? There’s a tea place on the…oh you know it already. See you there, then.” However, for those who have not experienced the wonder that is Café Exquisite, it is located in front of the Qubat al-Mahdi mosque, a short jaunt from Bab al-Sabah. The tea is perhaps the tastiest in Sana’a, due to the ratio of sweetened condensed milk to tea being vastly higher in favor of the milk than in most cases. If the owner likes you, he’ll give you a quarter-cup of overflow while you wait for your order to be filled.
However, the trick about Café Exquisite is brevity when ordering. Get in, get out. Don’t try and chat the guy up, you’ll end up getting screamed at. The owner goes by many a pseudonym among the foreign crowd, most notably the Tea Nazi. In reality, his name is Ali al-Amrany. The café does, however, retain many similarities to the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld: amazing, delicious product, terrifying and dictatorial owner. Despite his comparatively high price (100 Riyals a cup), the end result is most assuredly worth every qursh. The busy time is from eight to ten PM and the place is jumping the whole time, often with a line out the door. He is open well into the night, and seating space is limited.
The Boy’s Club aka Kursi-Shay
This is more of an archetype than a particular location, as spots like this exist throughout Sana’a and beyond. The Club that I choose to frequent is just off of Tahrir Square, three doors down from Al-Jazeera restaurant which is next to the Tahrir bus depot, and was named al-Rahab. The Boy’s Club is just that: a place for men to sit, chew, sip tea, smoke shisha and mida’a, and reminisce about the good ol’ days before they had wives and children, presumably. Given the fact that whenever I come here I am greeted by the same friendly, qat-addled faces I assume that Kursi-Shay (so-named for the two things they provide- Chair & Tea) is a regular night-time hangout for hundreds of men throughout the capital, in its various manifestations.
The Boy’s Club is a relatively simple set up: bedframes and mattresses fill the space, each with rectangular diwan pillows to lean against (it is said that qat is best chewed while leaning), and a TV playing the latest MBC Action movie marathon. You can order apple shisha or mida’a, the Grizzly Adams Yemeni version of shisha that makes its Egyptian cousin look like a pathetic little toy. Discarded qat leaves cover the ground, and neighbors offer you sprigs from their personal supply, and often peer into your bag of qat to judge your qat-purchasing ability. Usually the conclusion is that foreigners are lousy qat buyers. A tea and a shisha will run you 200 riyals ($1).
The Enclave at Souq al-Enab aka Shumaina
In the Old City, few teahouses compare to the Enclave. Set in a former hotel (from the days before cars, so there’s a horse hotel on the ground floor), the atmosphere and surroundings here is so uniquely Sana’ani that it had to be included on this list. It may be the Old City’s best kept secret, and long are the hours I’ve spent retracing my steps trying to find it a second time. It is sort of like the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter: when you really need a great teahouse, just pace back and forth three times near the Great Mosque while thinking of delicious tea, and the Enclave will appear for you. It is located adjacent to the Great Mosque, at Souq al-Enab. Benches line the space, and there is a definite communal feeling to drinking tea here. Says Murad, who comes daily, “It’s the best in town.”
As with the previously-mentioned teahouses, they offer one kind of tea prepared two ways: Al-Kaboos with milk, Al-Kaboos without milk. There are also several restaurants in the area that will bring take-out to the Enclave around meal times, so you can sit and eat a sizzling bowl of silta while drinking your tea, if that strikes your fancy. The Enclave provides the perfect pit stop for weary legs when browsing in Souq al-Milh.
Ok, so everyone who has been in Sana’a for any length of time is well aware of Coffee Trader. Supposedly, it is the only place in Sana’a to offer espresso, wireless internet, biscotti, and all the other trappings of a more Western-style café. Well, I present you with Mokha Bunn, a brand-new café that offers all of the above, but with crepes, apple pies, and a variety of tea flavors as well! Their espressos and cappuccinos could be direct from Turin, and the apple pies straight out of Iowa. While not exactly like the three teahouses that precede it, it is a cut above the rest. This is no Boys Club. This is a classy joint, so leave your AK-47 at home. No, seriously. A sign on the door warns, “Qat and Weapons Forbidden. Thank you.” It is around the corner from the Korean restaurant, which may or may not be Korean or a restaurant.
Mokha Bunn is a coffee-drinkers establishment, which essentially means it is a purveyor of Western drinks, of the non-alcoholic variety. The tea they offer is Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Green Tea, and the like. I’m not even aware if they serve Al-Kaboos, the Yemeni standard. If you’re bored with the norm, and looking to get away from Coffee Trader’s muzak hymns, Mokha Bunn is the place for you. Also, decent baked goods are a highly rare commodity in this fine city, so if you’re looking for some marbled coffee cake, carrot cake, or cinnamon apple crumble, look no further.
Sana’a may not be on par with Los Angeles, London, or Istanbul when it comes to crazy parties till dawn or bumping clubs spitting obnoxious techno music, but if you came to Yemen expecting that, tea may not be your biggest problem right now. For the rest of us, Sana’a is often a welcome change from that lifestyle, even if it only existed on the periphery of our lives before we came here. The teahouses that I’ve mentioned here are really just a sampling of what Sana’a has to offer you in the way of cafés. There are no doubt others which bear mentioning. If what you’re looking for is a place to sit down, relax, perhaps speak to some normal Sana’ani folk, occasionally puff a hookah, then the teahouse is the answer. Now it’s just a question of 7leeb or 3ady– with milk, or normal.
All photographs by Rachael Strecher