Cafe thoughts…Some anecdotes

Coffee shops are ubiquitous here in Saudi Arabia, much like they are in the rest of the Middle East and there are usually at least a dozen or so different coffee shops in the larger malls. One really big mall near to where I live has an entire 3rd floor devoted to everything food related and  has coffee shop, after coffee shop. Many of the coffeeshops are also attached to pastry/desert shops. Like Cinnabun and Seattle’s Best are together. So, one popular event to any mall outing is going to one of the coffee shops, grabbing a snack and relaxing in their sitting area.

Some of the coffee shops here are ones I frequented in the US while others are either European or Middle Eastern such as Costa Coffee and Dr. Coffee. Personally, I prefer Starbucks. I know some Muslims are against Starbucks for their “alleged”  support of Israel. But thats not true and is one of many myths which circulate on the web about the company.  In fact the Starbucks here makes a huge effort to dispel that myth.

Anyway, political soundbytes  apart. The reason why I prefer Starbucks is they are the ONLY place who can make my coffee how I like it!

Yah, seriously…really I’m not picky (erm, okay, maybe I am. teehee) but I love Iced caffe Americanos and I want a nice strong one with a deep, rich taste and strong smell and a wee cup of milk on the side (although in the US I’d just pop milk in over at the milk/sugar/stirer counter). You’d think, easy right? Ah not so! Almost every other coffee shop Ive gone to has given me extreme drama over my coffee choices.

Either the coffee tastes horrible, or the coffee is a strange concoction of Nescafe and weak Coffee Maker coffe (yah serious!) or they dont offer Iced coffees and/or when they do it’s some big, crazy iced coffee desert concoction, the list goes on and on.

(Recently I waited in a coffee shop line for 10min to get a “cappucino” and was dismayed to find out it was Nescafe, weak coffee and Long-Life milk! Yah, the “Barista” mixed up the weird concoction and then put it under a foamer. To say it tasted disgusting isnt the half of it! Waste of 7 riyals!)

So milk…Most people take some amount of milk in their coffee (unless of course it’s like Espresso or Turkish Coffee), and in the US every coffee shop usually has several thermoses of milk and soy milk sitting out for patrons to use.

Not here! The whole milk thing in thermoses doest exist here, nor do those little packs of creamer or anything like that! When I first arrived I was very perturbed about it as I am *very* picky about how much milk I want in my coffee! Anytime I’d tell the Barista behind which ever coffee counter I was at…give me a little bit of milk  in a cup please. They would get all coffee commando and put it in my coffee directly and therefore would  never give me enough or would balk at giving me any milk at all!   Starbucks is the only place that doesn’t give me problems when I ask for a small espresso cup full of milk to put in my coffee!

So you may ask…why don’t they keep milk out? Well you’d be surprised to learn it’s primarily due to Thermos theft! By women!!!

I don’t know about on the mens side, but in the womens side of any coffee shop Ive been too, they do not keep milk out! Once I asked the Barista at Starbucks…why dont you guys keep milk out?

I got two reasons; One is high rate of thermos Theft and two, kids would constantly be playing with the thermoses and dropping them! There are similar problems with the little treats coffee shops normally keep out by the register…they disappear often!

Its unfortunate but some women use the all black abaya, niqab and shaylah as a way to shoplift! This is also why shop clerks glue themselves to you when you go into a clothing/accessories shop as those small items disappear as well! The rate of shoplifting here is really, really high!

So, really…can you blame them? I guess those Coffee shop thermoses are just too nice to pass up, huh. And heck, even if the Barista does notice some ladies making off with the thermoses and register goodies…how can he track them down? They will blend right in. And if the Barista isnt Saudi and those women are Saudi he’ll be the one in trouble.

So thats why they don’t keep milk thermoses out! I suggested they chain them to the counter, like what the US Postal service does with it’s pens and he said, nah, Starbucks doesnt want to do that.

Other coffee shop aspects is that like everywhere else here. Coffee shops must have separate womens and mens sections! Some coffee shops have very plush, fully enclosed and very private womens only areas with huge cushy sofas, thick curtains and they are just so inviting and generally you can sit in there and even take off you abaya and headscarf and socialize While others are fairly open with only 1-2 seating areas which are fully screened and some allow husbands or brothers to come in with their female relatives. Although  generally families that want to socialize together at a Cafe do so on the mens side or take their items and go elsewhere. Ive only ever seen “Western” men with their wives and kids sitting in the womens side of a Cafe. I think no self-respecting Saudi or Middle Eastern husband/brother would dare step foot in such womans only territory. Plus, women will complain if to many men are in the womans side of a Cafe.

Whats strange though is some Saudi women have no qualms about popping off their Niqab infront of a Non-Saudi man yet if a Saudi man walks by they quickly flip it down! Go figure.

This womans cafe area is something I  REALLY about the cafes here! Its so nice to be able to relax in a secluded environment, my son can run around (if not too many other women are there) and I can drink my coffee and eat something in relative calm without worrying about skeezy dudes. While there are male baristas on the womans side, they generally stay behind the counter and go back and forth between the mens and womens sides and usually stay on the mens side unless there are customers on the womans side. (though, that can cause prob.lems as sometimes there are lines at both ends and it takes ages for a Barista to come over to the womans end)

During prayer times coffee shops close and lock their doors! So if it’s around salaat time and you want something you gotta rush in, grab it and either prepare to bunker down and sit in the place for 20-30min with the lights dimmed and basically alone or get it and rush out. Honestly this probably leads to a lot of theft too! The Baristas leave so your left to yourself in the cafe. Whats to stop someone from filling their purse with goodies? There aren’t any security cameras on the womans side for modesty reasons. *hmmm*…

Personally Im not a huge fan of how everything closes here…you know, what if your locked in and your child has to go to the bathroom? You have to leave the cafe to go to a restroom, but since the doors are locked…can’t do!

Another popular thing for cafe goers to do…particularly guys is to sit on the mens side and scope out the women who walk by. This is particularly evident in Mall coffee shops. Men will crowd all the tables on the edges o the cafe and check out the women as they walk by. You also see some girls will really dress up, put on a boatload or makeup and walk past the men over and over again, to get their attention. Personally this lack of hayah creeps me out, and I usually try to not walk too much in front of those cafes when they are crowded with guys checking out “the chicks”…eeks! Also, inside the womans side, there are usually huge windows which are mirrored on the outside but you can see from the inside out and occasions Ive sat by one of the windows and have seen  guys come up the glass and they wave and preen in front of the mirror. Knowing that behind it there are probably women… Those times I thank God they can’t actually see in, now imagine if it was a bunch of elderly Saudi women there? eeks!

LOL, crazy huh.

anyway, I guess I’ll end here. I just wanted to share a few cafe-related anecdotes.


So one comment Ive recieved sofar was from Angelica about coffee shops and restaurants being niqab-friendly.

Well, most malls will have a large eating area or several eating areas beside the fastfood places. And within that, normally there are 3 areas-1 for single men, 1 for families and 1 for women alone. Now, in1 mall nearby the family section is basically in a huge room away from the fast food places and families eat there. There is also a womans only area which is entirely closed in and has a female attendant. In other places there is a enclosed off eating area just for women, but people can still see in, if they try hard enough. Really, it varies. But generally everyplace here makes a lot of effort to give women totally closed off eating areas. In the family sections of restaurants there are usually booths with screens or curtains which go entirely around them.

This makes eating away from prying eyes really easy. But the thing is, is that not every woman who wears niqab here does so for religious reasons. Some just do it for reasons of tradition/family expectations or because if they dont, everyone in the neighboorhood will talk about them. So many women do infact eat in mixed company with their niqab flipped up. Ive seen many women in the family areas eating with their niqab up. Generally if the women in a family wear niqab for strict religious reasons they will go to the womans only area or sit in a more secluded area of the family area.

Honestly thou, this is a very nice feature of eating out there! You can relax in relative seclusion and not worry about guys seeing you eat or whatnot.


8 thoughts on “Cafe thoughts…Some anecdotes

  1. Either you’re picky or you’re not, LOL.
    I guess I don’t drink coffee much, because I don’t see people leaving milk out here, either. Creamers, yes, but not milk.

  2. wow this is very interesting. im wondering, you said some coffee shops allow families to go in together-so,when they go in do they head straight to a screened off section and the man goes to order? each table has its own screen? also, does a man typically have to go inside and ask first whether or not he can bring his family in?is it ever acceptable for a woman to expose her face for eating in public in front of men? does this same system apply to restaurants there as well-ive always wondered that, because of course in the US its all open and its hard for me to eat out in public because i wear niqab. me and my husband will usually request a corner table and i hold up my shayla on the left side of my head to screen my face as I eat, but it doesnt always work out if there is no corner seat,in that case i pick a non messy food that i can slip bites of underneath my niqab. i wish at least the halal restaurants here had screens around tables for families who prefer it.

  3. Interesting. I also hate walk in front of a coffee with all the men who look at you, grrrreeee! An other thing is that in western countries, women who wear Hijab or Niqab are very pious so people, even no-muslims, believe in us and never think we can steal something or do a bad thing like that but in Saudi Arabia you can’t believe in a woman because she wears Hijab or Niqab because everybody wear it, even the “not really muslims”… I’m really shocked about the fact that a woman in Niqab can do shoplift…. Oo

    • Aisha you are sooo right! here in the US, americans consider us hijabis and niqabis to be good girls who would never steal. its so amazing that a niqabi would steal! I think when you arent forced to wear it then you can truly appreciate the meaning of it and wear it with good religious intentions and not act unislamically while wearing niqab.

  4. LOL interesting. I think I would like shops being closed for prayer time. Here in the US it’s either rush to get home in time, find the nearest masjid, or coordinate your outings with prayer times(I try to do this, but doesn’t always
    work for Dr. appointments) Oh to hear the adhan called five times a day..what a blessing!

    I would think that they would pur the milk/cream on the counter when they give you your coffee, as needed, then just put it back after each person.

    • Zanjabil-I know right! it can be so hard to coordinate prayer times-especially since there isnt always a mosque available. thats why if i know im going to be out, i take my prayer rug with me so i can pray on time. ill just find some grass,a sidewalk or side of a building and pray there. there is no point in missing the prayer time just because you arent at a mosque or at home. hey, we have to improvise when we arent in an islamic country! =)

      oh how i wish i could also hear the adhan 5 times a day-im trying to convince my husband to move us to an islamic country!

    • See thats what I thought too…oh how fab, everything will close for salaat!
      But, c’est le vie, sometimes its actually not a good thing!

      In some places like malls or grocery stores its not too horrible, you can usually then nip off, do your salaat in the mall masjid (although when my son is with me, I dont as the ladies side gets crazy crowded, I wait till after the shops reopen and then pray) or if you cant pray, just wander around and look in windows.
      Now for malls…not bad. After all its a safe, insular environment. For grocery stores its not too bad either. Only bother is your locked in and cant leave…plus if you have a very short period of time in the mall or grocery store you need to coordinate things well.

      BUT< Outside the malls and stuff its downright a creep, scary time if your a female!
      If your in an area which caters to women like the ladies suq, then there will be a lot of women around waiting for the shops to reopen. BUT if your in an area which caters mostly to men or in which a lot of men, esp Indian/Pakistani/Filipino/Indonesian workers congregate its SCARY!
      Because they will mill around and stare down any poor women along, stuck outside a shop. really, its frightening. The way they look at you. They look like they’ll grab you and tear you apart in seconds! Doesnt matter how you dress! So in those cases…its REALLY scary and I try not to place myself into those situations but sometimes you cant avoid it, and forget finding a small alley or someplace to hide in, usually if a guy sees u standing there trying to blend into the wall, waiting for the salaat to finish, they will come into the alley and try to talk to you…assuming your a you know what!

      Def. dont recommend…thats why women tend to huddle together when they need to wait for a shop to reopen in those areas. Its the only safe thing to do.

      So yah while in theory its a good thing, in practice there can be some definite downsides!

  5. I love Starbucks too; the nearest one is a couple of miles away; surprisingly there are not many of them in London overall (there are loads clumped together in Central London but in the suburbs; they are not very common); there is a Costa in the supermarket near me they are a faux-Italian British chain lol but their coffee blend is just harsh; doesn’t matter how much milk they put in it just has this ‘harsh’ taste. But sorry I just love the dessert style iced-coffees; ok they ain’t authentic but they are the only reason I take time out to go to Starbucks. Back in Manchester there was this shopping centre and it had little bits based on main streets of different areas of the world, it was like a film set but with shops inside the buildings; the starbucks was in a new england style one….

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