Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sabaya Cafe

Sabaya Cafe

Location: Princes Taghreed Street, Amman, Jordan

Opened: November 2003

Closed: When a male journalist tried to visit the Sabaya Cafe in July 2005, he reported that "the pioneering cafe had long since shuttered its doors."

When Jordan's first coffee shop for women-only opened in the fall of 2003, the news went viral; it even got picked up by CNN. But we'll pick up an earlier version of the story, one from Middle East Online:

Sabaya café: For Jordanian women only!

Sabaya is Jordan's first women-only coffee shop which aims to offer atmosphere away from curious onlookers.

By Fatima el-Issawi - AMMAN

It is ladies' night every night at Sabaya cafe, Jordan's first women-only coffee shop which aims to offer them a place of their own, in this conservative society, to eat and drink and listen to music.

The brainchild of a woman, Hanin Majali, the 'Sabaya' (Girls) opened last week at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims traditionally enjoy going out in the evening after breaking the daytime fast.

"It is very important for women to be able to sit in a cafe without being bothered by curious onlookers," Majali, 33, said.

"In coffee shops that cater for men and women, the women must be always on their guard, they can't laugh out loud. Their every moves are scrutinised," she said.

Coffee shops in Arab Muslim countries usually bear a sign that says they are open for "families only" although many of their clients are young men, she explained.

"The presence of these men forces some of the more traditional families to stay away," she added.

Sweifiyeh pedestrian mall - Amman, Jordan
Not so at the Sabaya cafe, which hangs a sign on its front door that says clearly that men are not welcome inside while women can come in unaccompanied.

The coffee shop is located in Sweifiyeh, a booming commercial neighborhood in upscale west Amman rife with trendy clothing shops, fast-food restaurants, gaming centers and even a Thai massage parlor.

A team of seven young waitresses serves the budding clientele of Sabaya who have learned of it through word of mouth.

Non-alcoholic beverages, sweets and light meals are served until the wee small hours but many prefer to smoke the narguileh, or water pipe, as they chat, trade gossip, joke and talk about life in general in a relaxed atmosphere.

"The most important thing for me is that they feel at home and my dream is that Sabaya will become a meeting point for women from all walks of life," said Majali.

In order to make her realm complete, the owner searched high and low for a female musician to entertain her clients but when all that failed she settle for... a blind music man.

"Some of the women like to get up and dance and like the freedom to do it without men around," Majali said.

In fact the only men that work for Sabaya are the cooks in the kitchen upstairs, who have strict instructions not to show their faces in the coffee shop.

In fact, unlike most establishments that have restrooms for men and women, Sabaya only has a "ladies' room" and the cooks must go to another place around the corner when they need to.

For Juliana Deek, Sabaya is an ideal getaway for women who are often left at home while their husbands go out on the town.

"Men usually prefer to go out on their own, without their wives. Now we can do the same," said Deek, a 40-year-old housewife and mother of two.

"I feel very free here. I can sit on my own, order a narguileh, and know that no one will bother me. That is not possible in a mixed coffee shop," she said as she took a puff from her water pipe.

A few young boys stand outside the cafe and try to peer through the yellow-curtained windows but a valet in uniform turns them away.

"Coming here is a good change," said Nancy, a 28-year-old woman in trendy western clothes who declined to give her last name.

"I usually go out with my friends to coffee shops or restaurants that cater for men and women but we don't always need to be accompanied by men so this here is a good opportunity," she said.

Sabaya has also proved popular among veiled Muslim women like Rafika, 35.

"Here I am free to smoke the narguileh and talk as I please without any of the constraints of a mixed cafe," she said.

But when male journalist Stephen Knipp tried to visit the Sabaya Cafe some sixteen months later, he found that "the pioneering cafe had long since shuttered its doors." Knipp argues that the Sabaya Cafe had closed down because it failed to meet an actual market need. Jordanian women, he insists, are so liberated that "none had felt the need or even the interest to visit the segregated Sabaya." And how does he know this? Because Jordanian women live longer than men, and because they have the right to vote, travel abroad, marry whomever they please, and dress as they like--even in "brand-name blue jeans and trendy T-shirts." Oh, and did we mention that the women of the royal family are for equal rights? Because they are! Okay, there are those pesky "honour killings." But the Jordanian authorities take those very, very seriously. And besides, the media is "willfully exposing and shaming the perpetrators"!

I am so relieved to hear that! Meanwhile, I'd take Knipp's argument more seriously if he had quoted even one Jordanian woman by name. But I suppose that wasn't necessary, since Knipp assures us that he had personally questioned "scores of Jordanian women, from flight attendants to senior government figures." Guess we'll have to take your word on that, dude.

Meanwhile, I found one patron review online. And that apparently translates as "Out of this world."

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