For women only: Coffee, billiards and cards in Gaza cafe
GAZA CITY - For visitors and at first glance, Al-Jalaa is just like any other cafe in Gaza City, which is full of cafes and restaurants, usually the preserve of men.
This cafe has nothing in particular to distinguish it when empty of customers: the familiar fragrant smell of coffee fills the air, some playing cards are on the tables from the previous night, and billiard balls are scattered on the felt table in the middle of the room.
But once it receives its first customers at around 8am, Al-Jalaa – named after the street, Gaza’s longest, on which it is situated - transpires to be the only women’s cafe in Gaza.
Last February, friends Heba Fayez, Yasmeen Ali and her sister Doaa decided to start their own business and open a cafe for women.
“As women in Gaza, we have always needed a special place where women can spend their time, just like men. But we had never thought that we might be the creators of this place,” Doaa Ali, 25, says.
The three friends, who work as teachers at the Al-Jalaa social club’s kindergarten, mentioned their idea to the club’s directors and convinced them to let them open their cafe.
“Al-Jalaa club has a kindergarten - where we work - a gym, and a cafe for men. We noticed that the cafe is always empty from 8am to 4pm, as men’s time at the gym starts at 5pm,” Doaa says.
So the women asked the club’s directors if they could use the cafe as a women-only space while it was empty, Doaa, who has a BA in accountancy, explains.
The young women’s goal was to both have a profitable project and one with its own unique style. They also wanted to help the local community, and especially women, by introducing the first project of its kind.
Although the place was already a cafe for men and it was fully equipped, the young women wanted to add their own touches.
“We immediately started to work on it by giving it a feminine touch,” she explained. “I was responsible for decorating the cafe and embellishing the walls. My sister Yasmine, who likes cooking, suggested our menu. On top of that, our friends helped clean it up and arrange the place.”
'Where are the parents of these girls?'
One of the most interesting features of the Al-Jalaa cafe is that it allows women to openly practise their hobbies and learn new ones. The freedom of this new space has attracted a lot of women of different ages to try things they have never experienced before, such as billiards, playing cards and dominoes.
“It was a dream. We moved step by step until we achieved our goal,” Fayez, 33, says. “We wanted to have a place that gives women the full space to play cards, pool and dominoes. They can also work together here or just chat.”
However some were not happy with the opening of a cafe for women where cards and games were played.
According to Fayez, they were “violently attacked” on social media for just “enjoying their free time”. Some people sent religious fatwas prohibiting women from playing pool or cards. Other people sent comments such as “Is this in Gaza? Is it a cafe or a nightclub?” and “Where are the parents of those girls?”
Although they expected this kind of feedback, Fayez and her friends were shocked by how people judged them.
“Men come to the same place and do the same activities we do, after we leave at 4pm. Why is it allowed for them and prohibited for us?”
Fayez, who has an MA in geography, says they fully understand that the concept of a women-only space, where customers play billiards and dominoes, is new to Gaza.
But, she adds, she asked a local mufti for his advice, and he confirmed that playing such games is not prohibited.
Billiards – not just for men
The determined friends held onto their dream and say they were not negatively affected by the criticism. They also stress their families’ role in encouraging and advising them, in addition to protecting them from any possible problems.
“Our families inspire us and make us feel safe, especially after the criticism we received. They understand and appreciate the decision we took and its positive impact on us and on society,” Fayez says.
More women started to come to the cafe to play billiards and to simply enjoy spending time together.
The success of their project has encouraged the three friends to start thinking of their next step.
“Women were curious to try billiards, which they used to consider a game for men. So we are now preparing a course at the cafe to teach women how to play billiards. We will bring in a professional billiard player to teach our customers,” she adds.
Fayez says they have been very satisfied with their achievements with their cafe so far and feel confident of continued success – many of their customers are friends and relatives. It has also been hugely beneficial to have a gym and a kindergarten in the same building, she adds.
Some women pop into the cafe before or after working out at the gym – which has women-only hours – and mothers come by after dropping off their children at the nursery.
A place to grieve
The cafe menu is very simple. They offer snacks and cheese sandwiches in addition to hot and soft drinks. However, every Thursday they offer different lunch meals and sandwiches because it’s “families' day,” according to Samar al-Rayes, 52, one of the customers.
For some customers, the cafe has offered a lot more than simply a place to learn new hobbies.
Rayes says the women-only space has helped her in the grieving process.
“I lost my son and his wife in the sea. They were trying to migrate to Europe. After that, I’d been living in despair,” she says.
“But when I started to come to this cafe with my friends, I felt better, especially when doing new things such as playing billiards,” Rayes says, while sitting with her friends.
“It’s a warm place,” she adds, “where women from different generations meet. University students, single and married women share the same space,” she adds.
For Heba al-Gherbawi, 26, another customer, the cafe is a calm place where she enjoys relaxing. The newly engaged young woman describes how her fiancé is more comfortable when she is at the Al-Jalaa cafe, as it is just for women.
“I feel free here. I play cards and billiards with my friends. I also don’t like hookah, which is usually smoked in men’s cafes, so I’m glad it isn’t available here,” she says.
The ambitious women have recently decided to open a cultural corner at their cafe. They have brought books in to start a small library, and have organised meetings for women to discuss literary issues.
“We want to encourage women to read and share their writings between them. I think that one day we will have a book written by our customers describing their experiences in Gaza and in our cafe in particular,” Doaa says.
But the three young women are also trying to exercise caution when it comes to marketing their cafe, so as to avoid any misconceptions or negative responses. They also have to consider the wishes of the Al-Jalaa club owners.
“We need to be careful in order to protect our project and to succeed in the face of difficulties,” Doaa adds.
The women are excited about the future and watching their project continue to improve.
‘It’s our first experience in having a personal project and working in a cafe. We are very happy that we have taken this step,” Fayez says.
“Despite the difficulties we face, we look forward to the future of this space, and we like to imagine how it will progress, year after year, full of women doing what they like to do, regardless of social misconceptions and circumstances."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.