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Coffee shops and the ‘cafe-rati’ in Kuwait

A small coffee shop in the heart of downtown Kuwait City has a wall-mounted sign saying ‘Free Wi-Fi’. A few steps away, another cafe has a blackboard sign in front of its door reading ‘No Internet, talk to each other’. At the end of the street, another cafe has a large seating area for people who have no interest in communicating with anyone, and want complete isolation. Each table here has only one chair, and is separated by a divider.

Kuwait has witness an explosion of local coffee shops opening. From cozy tea house decor to industrial lighting, you can find pretty much any type of cafe to suit your personal taste and style. Young Kuwaitis in droves now hang out at these hip hotspots, with new ones opening up each month. Most offer some hipster-esque menu options – artisanal cold brew or French press, designer cookies, hand drawn cakes. And each appeals to a segment of the caferati through decor and location.

Ali Akbar, an engineer and a businessman, wanted to try his luck in the coffee business. He wanted to open a coffee shop for readers, because he personally loves to read and has a rich library at home. After finding the right place, his engineering colleague wanted to gift him an interior design scheme in collaboration with one of the best designers. “I treasure that gift very much. Cafe owners usually spend thousands to get the perfect interior design. But another friend turned my thinking upside down after alerting me that people no longer read as much as before.

He asked me that when did I take a book with me to a cafe? He said most people nowadays prefer reading from their mobile phones or tablets,” Akbar recalled. After scrapping the reading cafe idea, he decided to design the place himself. “Before I hammered a nail in the walls, I showed my plan to three teenage cousins. They were bold enough to tell me that my taste was very old-fashioned and outdated! The girls were eager to assist. The following day, they arrived with lots of pictures, notes and suggestions. They said the sole reason they go to cafes is to take selfies, so every corner should be different in design from the other,” he said. Akbar used the targeted client group to design the perfect environment for them.

One college student encouraged me to visit a coffee shop called Mood. I asked him what made him go there. He replied, “Their great atmosphere and the beautiful decor.” Then he remembered at the end to mention that they have good coffee too. Coffee was his least concern, an afterthought. Not all coffee shops are designed to hang around – like coffee bars, where the main concept is to finish your drink quickly and leave to give room to other customers. Additionally, a new type of coffee shop is emerging in Kuwait – pop-up coffee booths. They change their locations every once in a while in harmony with the spirit of youths who seek new discoveries. A period in the mid-2000s brought the idea of coffee shops that mimicked the heritage of Kuwait, evoking nostalgia.

Soon, their popularity ebbed, faced with the urban style typhoon. The social culture of cafes has become the sum of dating scenes, happy moments between friends and graceful coincidences of Western movies and sitcoms that represent life in urban centers like London, Paris or New York. There are social cafes where you can spend long hours to chat. Also, art cafes are on the rise to support local artists who can’t afford to display their worksat distinguished platforms. In the same fashion, literary cafes are available for those who want to organize cultural forums and workshops.

More significant, but not widespread, are music cafes. Music is their mainstay for drawing customers. And through a personal experience, I can aver that they have succeeded in creating a social environment that encourages strangers to exchange conversations as human beings.

This is rare at a time when eyes are pinched to phone screens. The majority of patrons at these urban coffee shops are Kuwaitis. Conversely, music coffee shops were able to breach this barrier between expats and Kuwaitis. Riding the global wave of the flourishing cafe culture in Kuwait may negatively impact the popularity of the diwaniya, which has been dominating the society for more than 200 years as the nucleus of social communication, cohesion and solidarity between its spectrums. Who knows, perhaps one day the diwaniya could become something of the past!

Story and photographs by Athoob Al-Shuaibi


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