Course MD901 Summer 2010

Integrating Mediated Communication Systems
within the social communities seated at Ahwas "Coffee Shops" in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar

Keywords: Communication systems - Mediated communication - Social interaction - Network - seating - Al Darb El Ahmar

At the west of Al Azhar Park, the south of the Khan Al Khalili and Islamic Cairo and at the north east of the Citadel lays the neighborhood of Al Darb Al Ahmar. According to history, back in time when the city of Cairo was a walled city and started to get crowded with its inhabitants, people started to build up houses and districts outside and around this wall. Al Darb Al Ahmar was one of these “extra built neighborhoods” which was a very successful area in the 14th and 15th centuries (Around the World in 80 Clicks, 1999-2011). Al Darb Al Ahmar district is a live unite social community, everyone is connected to everyone else; everyone and everything is connected to each other. As much as it resembles the whole Cairo city from the large mixture and variety in different buildings’ style and architecture for example on can find a highly historical, old building laying between an urban, extra-built building and a very stylish one not to mention that the area is filled with monuments – the district is considered one of the special historical and sophisticated neighborhoods. Furthermore Al Darb AL Ahmar is well known for the huge amount of workshops, citizens of the district and even outsiders come to work in these workshops. The people of Al Darb Al Ahmar were very friendly throughout the research yet some would become very suspicious about what the whole study is about and of course some would get distressed, offended when being photographed.

The word ‘Ahwa’ is the literal meaning of coffee in Egypt. Moreover the word Ahwa in Egypt is used to define a specific type of coffee shops. These coffee shops are one of Egypt’s well known icons, they are considered as small social communities where people interact and communicate. Basically ‘Al Ahwa’ is an open-air coffee shop where men tend to chill during the day or at night. Only basic local drinks like tea, coffee, and anise are served in Ahwas. This type of coffee shops is mostly dominated with men, women are rarely found in any Ahwas. On the contrary, in Al Darb Al Ahmar women can be found in Ahwas.

In the narrow streets of Al Darb Al Ahmar Seating places were observed to be mostly located outdoors. Coffee shops' chairs are lined up against the streets’ walls, as well as people sitting in front of their workshops or outside of their houses.

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Examples of Ahwas' chairs lined up along the streets of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar

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People sitting in coffee shops or outside their workshops or houses

Recording sounds at one of the coffee shops in Al-Darb al-Ahmar:
We sat at a coffee shop in Al-Darb al-Ahmar to observe and listen to the surrounding sounds in the area. In a couple of minutes, the following video illustrates all the possible sounds which we came across while sitting.

Project Concept: ‘The Tele-chapeau’
The aim of this project was to create social interactions through mediated communication changing the habitual static communication between the people gathering at Al Darb Al Ahmar coffee shops. The idea was about having two seats installed in two distinct Ahwas, whenever a person sits on one of these specific seats he/she gets "connected" within this communication system to the other seat in the other Ahwa and vice versa. Therefore, the two of them would be able to hear and communicate within the system. According to the plan, this system should have functioned to be randomly and manually shifting from one person/seat to another. thus, from one conversation to another. Therefore, knowing how would the mediated communication installation systems affect the traditional static communication between people at the Ahwas sited at the narrow streets of Al Darb Al Ahmar.

1- Illustration describing the Concept
2- Top View of the installation in a narrow street of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar

The idea came to design the ‘Tele-chapeau’, which was an umbrella-like product to be added to Ahwa chairs, which will interact together, speakers and microphones were embedded in the umbrella.

Designing the 'Tele-chapeau'

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Initiating the idea - first basic concept for idea

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Final Outcome

Intervention Development (Methodology)
Since this project was targeting Ahwas in Al Darb Al Ahmar and the people gathering there, observations of several coffee shops took place. Additionally, informal interviews were conducted with some ‘Ahwa owners’ and people who gathered at their Ahwas. Through some questions and answers by the people a glimpse about the behavior of the target group in this study in relation to Ahwas was obtained. According to this examination and research the following points were found: 

The majority of the visitors of any coffee shops are men, age ranges between late twenties and early sixties. 

People tend to sit at “their” Ahwas – since each coffee shop has its own costumers-. 

In the morning, people usually have a drink before heading off to work or during their break time and accordingly they sit on their own for a short period of time. While in the evening (starting from 7 to 10 pm) the majority of workers usually gather at the coffee shops in groups after work for longer periods of time (2 to 3 hours) Around 10pm, Ahwas are mostly full. At weekends (Saturday night), people stay up at the Ahwa till dawn. 

Nearly all Ahwas are open 24 hours per day. 

Although the people in Al Darb El Ahmar seem to know each other, yet they tend to communicate or have conversations only within their peer groups. 

Playing cards, tawla – which is a well-known oriental strategy game -, or dominos and watching football matches are the main activities done at the Ahwa. 

Despite the fact that some coffee shops have chairs indoors, people still prefer to sit at the ones located outdoors across the streets. 

Choosing the specific site
Given that the aim was to connect between two places in order to create this different type of social interactions between the people gathering at the Ahwas, The chosen site had to be composed of two distinct Ahwas located in narrow and rather silent streets of Al Darb Al Ahmar where different peer groups gather and communicate. The characteristics of the Ahwas were supporting the project’s concept since the majority of these Ahwas were rather small, situated in narrow streets with chairs lined up against the walls. On the contrary, regular Ahwas are usually wider, louder, crowded and seats are placed around tables. Suitable timing for the intervention had to be found, the timing where usually customers gather. Nevertheless, finding the suitable site was not the only obstacle found but mainly having the Ahwa owners agreeing about the whole idea and offering their place for testing the installation.

Prototyping and Project Analysis
Testing prototype at the GUC
Before implementing the installation at the specific site in Al Darb Al Ahmar, setting up a ‘trial’ installation at the GUC had to take place. The connection at the GUC happened outdoors; using two ‘Tele-chapeaus’ between two areas where groups of people gather. There were natural obstacles faced such as rain therefore it had to be rebuilt and tried for a second day until it was successfully set up and technically working. It was tested on friends and colleagues. 

The implementation at the university pointed out some essential points such as: Get extensions to prolong wires for the microphones. Set microphones in direction of the person sitting. 

Implementation in Al darb Al ahmar
As a final step, the intervention took place in Al Darb Al Ahmar at two well-known Ahwas where one was perpendicular on the other. Om Amal's Ahwa, -which had an ideal location since it was located between two other Ahwas- refused at first the idea of implementing at her coffee place as she felt suspicious and did not take the concept seriously. she then agreed when we asked for her permission once again while having our intervention equipment. 

Since one of our microphones got stolen right after installing one of the ‘tele-chapeaus’, An eye witness pointed out the thieves who were actually sitting at one of the mentioned Ahwas, adding that, they were the ones targeted people to test the implementation on. We were then told to haste in our process. Therefore, only two ‘tele-chapeaus’ i.e. one tele-communication was tested from both Ahwas. 


The Process

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Analysis and Results
The installation was tested on different age groups and mentalities. At first, the people who were assisting us technically tried it themselves. Two men who knew one other, each sat on one of the Ahwas, Eventually they ended up having a conversation and forgot it was being recorded, Such conversations that are considered inappropriate to be told in the presence of women. 

For example, one of them was asking his ‘male’ friend to “fetch” him a pretty woman to communicate with instead. He later used the installation as a way to hit on women, when he saw two ladies approaching, he told his friend on the other side of the Ahwa, “there are a ‘pair of jeans’ passing by me now, would you like to talk to one of them?” when they passed right in front of him, he asked them if they would like to come over and talk on the microphone. 

Later, an old man who was categorized in Al Darb Al Ahmar as ‘the old wise man’ came to sit at one of the Ahwas. When we explained what was the microphone for and that there are people sitting on the other side could hear him, he replied whether to talk about prior or former the revolution. He then chose to give a ‘short’ speech about the revolution. we assume the presence of microphone had an impact on his way of communicating which was a ‘one-way’ conversation as well. 

Afterwards, a beggar at the other side of the Ahwa started singing national songs when one of the Ahwa customers asked him if he would like to say something on the microphone. Teenage boys also had a high tendency to try communicating through the installation.

Old Concept