Despite the relatively chilled atmosphere, running a shisha cafe in Abu Dhabi can be cut-throat. Increasingly, they need to offer far more interesting experiences to their clientele to keep them loyal, but there are those such as Khalidiya's Stanley Cafe that provide a no-frills service. A gritty authenticity is their calling card. This means plastic chairs, teas served in scratched glass cups and askew pictures adorning the walls.
Then there are the swanky venues, such as Ess Lounge in Qaryat Al Beri, and the Corniche's Azura Panoramic Lounge. These shiny spots deliver a luxurious vibe and restaurant-quality food. They are perfect for those who want to mix business with pleasure.
Yet despite the colourful cafe landscape, some things remain the same. And that's the people you find in the plumes of smoke. I would argue that no matter where you travel in the Arab world, you will always find the same five characters in the cafe at any one time. Please, allow me introduce you to them...
The Saloum Man
Here's a tip: do not talk to him. It's not because he is mean, it's just that he likes to smoke a lot. This gentleman is normally in his early fifties and he is named after the harshest kind of shisha on the menu, which he inhales habitually. His eyes are normally bloodshot and he often stares intently at inanimate objects. He is harmless.
The Loner Phoner
This is someone who views his sessions as a time to get stuck in to WhatsApp conversations. He often sits in the corner and doesn't like to be disturbed by idle chatter. I know that personality well, as I'm the Loner Phoner of my local cafe.
Meaning "boss" or "the captain", he is the manager of the cafe and he's the busiest man in the room. A cafe's fortunes are largely down to the calibre of the magdi on the floor and that's because his job is multifaceted. Not only does he have to ensure the smooth flow of service, but he also acts as the cafe's security guard and is quick to eject those who are underage or who sneak in only to watch the football for free. The magdis have a sixth sense when it comes to the latter, and are quick to offer sound financial advice, such as: "Nothing in life is free. You want to watch the match then you have to spend Dh20. Oh, you only want tea? Well, that will be a very expensive tea for you, habibi."
The magdi serves only two kinds of people: the loyal customers and the owner. The latter is the fourth and most intriguing type of person you’ll see in the cafe. The owner is often a quiet and rather shadowy figure. He rarely interacts with his guests and often has shisha in a cordoned-off space or separate room with its own television and couches. To be invited into the owner’s room is a privilege. I have yet to receive such an honour, probably because I am too busy ignoring people on my phone.
The fifth and last type of person you'll meet is more of a collective. They are the gamers and they are split along generational lines. The younger folks play cards and are often loud and sometimes obnoxious. The older men play backgammon with a quiet and studied intensity. These two groups should exist in a parallel universe, and they should never play at the same time or the frustration from the older uncles will boil over and the magdi will have to be called upon to restore order.
It will be these people that I will perhaps miss the most if I leave Abu Dhabi. Their regular presence in the cafes somehow gives me a sense of stability. It also affirms the notion that it is often the regular and unsung citizens of a city who provide its pulse.