Words from the Setting of a Cafe

A few nights ago, sometime late after dinner had been prepared and consumed, dishes washed and returned to their perches, I returned to the kitchen, to the stove, to heat water for some tea. As I turned the gas release nozzle to the left a rush of escaping gas began that hissing song, revealing a hidden gas leak. Reflexively I spun the nozzle closed. After several attempts to locate the leak, twisting pipes and checking knobs on the stove, the hiss continued with each return to the nozzle, rising or falling in pitch relative to my manipulations. Needless to say, the next morning’s now honored tradition of rising to a cup of coffee and reading the news would need a surrogate diversion.

After getting up the next day and dealing with some taks I headed into Place Bab Souika and one of its myriad cafes for a few espressos. It was around 2pm.

I wandered into the afternoon temperate Tunisian December sun; my eyes quickly adjusting to the change in light as I stepped out of the dreariness of the stairwell from my apartment into the alleyway. I walked for a few minutes of ambivalent yet fastidious negotiations, half interested and yet resolute for a cafe with that je ne sais quoi we sometimes feel we need even when we cannot pin descriptive words to define it. I was looking for a certain feeling, a certain emotional or material value of cafe to settle upon, somewhere quiet and vibrant, secluded but animated, somewhere rich in contradictions if possible. There are many cafes ringing Place Bab Souika. I settled on an outdoor creature with a red tarp and few patrons.

I sat down at a small table and brought out the book I was reading as I waited to order my coffee. The order was placed and I returned to Jilian Stallabrass’ Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art. Stallabrass was discussing the first Johannesburg Biennale of 1995, whose organizers attempted to reconnect South Africa with the cultural world after apartheid. He maligned the event for the exclusion of local artists who would have presented a troubled view to the outside world, noting one critic’s astonishment that the event had been boycotted by much of the black community. For those invited, domestic and international, a somewhat dubious picture of South Africa was glorified. In all, Stallabrass concluded that the biennale failed to produce the cultural exchange it had intended.

I couldn’t help but consider the transferability of these observations to the current situation in North Africa. In terms of understanding the meaning of the so called Arab Spring for those whose actions have shaped it and whose lives are being affected by it, outside the lens of media or political bias, opening the pages of Foreign Policy or The Guardian, can be akin to glancing upon the meticulously selected works that made the censor at the 1995 Johannesburg Biennale.

That being said, what do I know? Am I falling victim to some global Northerner’s egotism, a colonialist elitism that presumes to understand? Am I any better for criticizing the selected representations of others? No. But at least I can acknowledge that in crafting a representation in the terms of ratings, readership, or strategic value, depictions of life in other places for the foreign observer is often little better than the somewhat dubious image of South Africa offered up in 1995. With daydreams of a metaphysical ethnography, I decided to close my book and soak in the unfolding theater of space around me called the cafe.

From the perspective of an ethnographer a cafe in a foreign city, whether Beijing, Irkutsk, Budapest, or Tunis is itself a rich canvas of sensory stimulus, an amalgamation of sensory input capable of opening a conceptual window into the working of a given social space. The cafe can become a metaphor of culture and economy, of social custom and preference. It can dispel stereotypes such as to reveal that tea is more popular in Turkey than coffee, despite the strong connotative meaning behind ‘Turkish coffee,’ or that Russian youth tend to drink far less vodka than Westerners might joke, preferring tea or beer. The affluence of certain neighborhoods can be measured by the dress of cafe patrons or the price of drinks. Gender or racial customs can be better understood by observing cafe diversity. It can give impressions of employment figures or during the day particularly reveal what kinds of people work, as who spends all their time in cafes.

In this sense, it can offer a view into society, condensed but concentrated much like the small glasses of strong tea common at Turkish çay evi, tea houses. The cafe can also become itself a massive work of improvisation, a work of lived art sculpted and painted in the carbon of intertwining experiences, to be observed, appreciated, accepted, or contemplated.

Let us go now to images closer to reality but keep in mind this warning from Gaston Bachelard who writes in The Poetics of Space, “…often when we think we are describing we merely imagine (italics mine). We believe that we have achieved a description that is at once instructive and amusing (120).” Bachelard also noted that we can only meditate on the things in our own heads. So I turn now to describe, or imagine, the scenery of a cafe to implant it in my head and others, prepping it as a young Buddhist monk might prepare his cushion as he readies himself for meditation, as we might meditate on the social meaning of a cafe in an arbitrary Tunisian afternoon.

What follows is a textual presentation of a single cafe. My goal is to present as potentially objective a snapshot as might a series of photographs, to be, as Bachelard comments, at once instructive and amusing.

The cafe

Here there are 15 tables with rickety black metal legs and formica wood laminate tops. The plastic corner of my table curls outward like a split end. Around the tables sit those white plastic chairs, the type you buy in bulk, the type that hasn’t changed in decades and can be found all across the globe. Above there is a bright red synthetic tarpaulin with 3 walls and transparent plastic windows. The ceiling of this synthetic yurt is slightly vaulted with pyramidal buttresses that make x shaped shadows in places on the walls.

At this moment three other tables are inhabited. A moustached man in a brown and black striped shirt and dark blue-almost-black jacket sits by himself. He is wearing blue socks inside his white shoes. He is slowly going bald. He strokes his chin with one wedding-ring-less hand and tightly grasps his cell phone in the other. His table is empty. He stares forward, lost in some unknown contemplation that doesn’t translate into the lines of text on his face which speak of some other concerns and memories of past times or expectations. Waiting for a call or killing time after finishing his drink, his story has no narrator and its only audience appears to be my covert glances as I jot notes in a little moleskine. Suddenly he gets up and leaves.

At the back of the tent of the cafe, around a table with a large glass bottle of Safia water, two empty glasses, and a third glass that bears the leaf of what once contained thé menthe, sit two heavyset men in their thirties. The larger of the two sits backward in his chair. His large belly inside a taupe shirt presses into the back slats of his white plastic chair creating an antiquated convicts’ pattern of black and white. He faces out, out of the cave of the cafe. His companion sits into the table, with one leg protruding to his left. As they sit their silent to each other they momentarily greet passing familiar faces with waves, winks, and other gestures, once or twice calling out a name or greeting until one comes up to join them.

In the middle of the stage three older men, one joins as I write the number three to challenge my narration, sit in animated conversation. All four men are slightly balding. Three wear charcoal suits. The chair with its back to me is draped with the raincoat of its inhabitant, who still wears his blazer. There is a cell phone on the table. Two glasses of water remain after the waiter dutifully removed the bottle. One man, the raconteur, leans deep into the middle of the table, almost falling over the opposite side. To accentuate occasional words he grasps his water glass and gently spins it in little circles on the surface of the table. The others are transfixed. On either side of the bald arroyo of his skull dark tufts of shoreline remain. He concludes his monologue and the others take their turns relating. I hear Facebook mentioned. A new arrival joins their table. He has a great round face, equally balding, dark receding eyes beneath thick eyebrows of timberwolf hair. He looks hardly interested in the conversation, sits reading a newspaper either hunting for some specific fact or merely passing time in the middle of the day.

Attention drifts to a new table, a new arrival. Salt and pepper hair sits down facing away from me, he sits down on the edge of his seat, just outside the cover of the red tarpaulin. When he sits down he removes his red framed spectacles. He is wearing a puffy ochre colored leather jacket and grey flat cap. We waves at the proprietor, answers his cell phone and gets up and left.

Across from the cafe there is a police station. People pass back and forth. A man pushes a stroller with a young girl inside. She is encased in twice her size poofy pink and dark red pants. Two women, one with a veil, escort their daughters around the corner and pass the cafe. The sound of a motorscooter is heard in the distance to momentarily drown out the din of conversations. A pot bellied man with black sweatsuit and bright red hat holds a pile of white papers under his arm as he rushes with the countenance of concern; a keychain dangling between his fingers, wrapped around the papers. As he rushes down the street I notice the park van that remains in his wake. It is old and blue. The rear passenger window is boarded up and it is missing the front passenger side paneling over the wheel well. The passenger side window is rolled down. A man in sandy brown corduroy and nearly matching jacket, thick salt and pepper moustache, Chechia, the traditional red Taqiyah or skull-cap of Tunisia, and white sneakers walks past at an extreme pace; he is casting his view around for something, aware of the cafe but less concerned about the young man trotting at his side.

Another man in his sixties, with shining brown shoes and wrinkled grey suit, slumping as he walks, wearing a somewhat faded Chechia, face wrinkled less from age than hardship perhaps, purposefully meanders through the outer aisle of the cafe’s tent. One arm is drooping with the weight of his shoeshine box. How often does he switch carrying arms throughout the day? He moves deliberately, furtively glancing at patron’s shoes, he enters quickly and leaves, never taking his eyes above ground.

As the old man with shoeshine kit exits another man enters and sits down. He is wearing brown shoes with grey socks. His slacks are grey. He has dark gelled hair. He holds his cell phone in his left hand, getting lost in its contents. He orders a café direct, a Tunisian variant of a latte, sips his drink and sets it down, touching the rim of the glass with his thumb as he slightly twists it. He places his cell phone on the table and then his keys. He removes a package of cigarettes from his pocket, slowly unwrapping the plastic wrapper and carelessly dropping it on the ground. Lost in thought he rounds the foil into a ball between his thumb and index finger and drops it once the orb is crafted. He takes out a cigarette and lights it as some Arabesque music comes loudly into focus from the cafe behind us. Occasionally a loud burst of conversation or laughter erupts from a distant, more lively cafe.

On the street next to the cafe a police officer greets a friend with the customary two cheek kiss, exchanges a few quick words before they part in opposite directions.

An older women of thick build wearing a leopard print hijab and sandy dress hobbles into view. She is walking laboriously with the assistance of a cane. A moment later, as the old women has made little progress across the expanse of pavement in front of the cafe a couple rounds the corner. A younger women, quite attractive, with flowing hair and a form fitting business suit, she is walking with purpose. A handsome man in business suit walks next to her, listening as she appears to lead both the conversation and the walk. The young woman is carrying a brown leather binder a shade or two darker than the old women’s dress. The young pair is out of the frame well before the older women has crossed across in front of the cafe. As she moves out of vision another motorcycle sound passes. I have a sudden feeling of deja vu.

At this point I feel that the scene will continue to describe, or imagine, itself without my assistance.

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

2 Responses to Words from the Setting of a Cafe

  1. Erdem says:

    I would like to read also the conclusion/interpretation you’d draw from your own field observations, whether what you claimed theoretically earlier could be reconstructed and deduced from those observations, without falling into stereotypes.
    (that said, I am not trying to criticize but rather see it as an example, how it might look like, since i have a similar problem right now about my own field obs about the ‘homosexual life – lives’ in Vienna.)

    Very lively descriptions though, I was for a moment in that scenery, seeing things from your point of view.

  2. I agree with what you are saying. It is often difficult to compile data, whether it is obtained through observation or interview-and in a slightly different context through archives, and analyze it systematically without becoming inadvertently given over to stereotypes or preconceived notions.

    There is a lot of discussion about ‘objectivity’ in the social sciences, part of the fetishism with the natural sciences perhaps. Personally, I believe that despite stated claims of objectivity the social scientist is still a participating subject within the phenomena he or she is observing. However, if treated carefully this may serve as an asset in at least relating to the phenomena rather than constructing abstract boundaries of objectivity or, worse, allowing the structures of power to set an ‘objective’ meaning. For more on this see David Graeber’s ‘Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.’

    This is part of the issue, dealing with the often flawed notion of objectivity. One way to steer clear of legitimizing existing power dynamics of definition is of course to engage the narratives and symbols of the subject parties to the phenomena under investigation. Where do they assign meaning and significance? What is a stereotype, though?

    We, as citizens of any nation, often have our own, self imposed and sacred stereotypes of ourselves. We call this national identity or cultural identity. They are sometimes based on flawed notions. I have heard many times from people in numerous countries that X behavior or custom is distinct to their culture or nation, only to be told the exact thing a few months later in another country. So what stereotypes are we concerned with when we attempt to hold ourselves back from generalizing stereotypes? There is also the postcolonial critique.

    The view from outside looking in, or the view of the Other is clearly influenced by the prejudice of a powerful position. These perspectives are what Engels might call Ideology, essentially the belief that perspective is truth. So when we try to shave away our own perspectives in favor of the perspective of the situation, the individual or place we may merely be shifting the flawed ideological ontology that doesn’t get us any closer to some more abstract ultimate truth. Does this mean there is no objective reality? Sure, why not. It is a matter of shared discourses and evolving conceptions of reality. But This isn’t really the point.

    I think a lot can be gleaned from observational data collection but it requires finesse and an awareness of the connotative meaning imbued in the scenery of observation. This doesn’t come easily of course. It requires a multifaceted approach. The colors of clothing people wear can mean things to others within their subculture, hidden messages that are lost to the uninformed observer. One way is just to note your observations. Do you see patterns? Do you see things that reoccur often? Do you see things that strike you as odd or oddly banal? Include these observations in future interviews. Ask people what symbols, colors, gesture mean. Sometimes they will mean nothing but other times they might be a subtle gateway into understanding a group.

    This is part of the way you allow theory to interact with observation. In methodological terms it is discussed as the grounded theory approach. Both empirical and theoretical data evolves slowly in tandem, each informing the other. There are a few decent books that offer ideas on how to conduct observational data collection but in the end it is about trial and error, and intuition. This is a good place to start.

    Ritchie and Lewis ‘Qualitative Research Practice: A Guide for Social Science Students and Researchers.’

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