Where Books and Coffee Collide

A concept cafe in Sharjah offers a contemporary response to a nomadic tradition

AL RAWI IS THE DEFINITION of a concept store. A multifunctional blend of café, book store, event space and restaurant, it’s a beautifully designed, light-filled haven for creatives, laptop-laden freelancers and families on Sharjah’s busy Al Majaz Waterfront.

Al Rawi—it means the storyteller—was born of the idea to create a space where literature and good coffee collide. A contemporary response to a nomadic tradition.

Al Rawi is the brainchild of Bodour Al Qasimi, a champion of books and reading. At its helm is charismatic manager Zhora Qureshi, who is no stranger to catering. Qureshi is the creative force behind Zo’s Kitchen and Buttercup, a pop-up in the emirate’s Shanasiyah Souk. She and Sheikha Bodour were of one mind about exactly what was needed.

“Sheikha Bodour wanted a place where people could buy books and read books, but also an event space, a community hub,” says Qureshi. “We weren’t looking to create a library, we wanted a place where people could interact, pick up books, discuss books, in Arabic and English, attend launches and signings. In Sharjah there wasn’t a place that offered that.”

Set over two floors, Al Rawi offers floor-to-ceiling views over the Khalid Lagoon, the Al Majaz fountain, Noor Island and the Buhaira corniche. The concept, bold and pioneering, attracts a broad clientele.

In the mornings, Al Rawi attracts mothers on their way home from the school run, drawn to the artisan, single-origin coffee and home-made sweets, like the deconstructed pumpkin pie served with pumpkin-seed brittle, or the peanut butter parfait with kaffir-lime wafer and salted-chocolate sorbet.

In the daytime, it attracts the creative crowd working at blond wood tables, their laptops open, cappuccino and elderflower-cucumber spritzer alternating beside them. Nancy, a twenty-something Egyptian, was working hard to finish a presentation. Pointing to her earthenware cup, Nancy noted with some conviction that this was the best cappuccino in the emirate. I ordered. Ibtisam, our server with a warm and ready smile, delivered.

In the late afternoons and evenings, Al Rawi attracts couples, families and groups of young people, clustered at the tables on the upper and lower terraces as the sun sinks across the lagoon.

With the sun set, the crowd gives way to evening diners. The dinner menu is bold and fusion. Cantonese char siu beef, sticky and tender, was served with kimchi black rice, kohlrabi and nahm jim, a fragrant Thai dipping sauce. Sweet potato gnocchi came with asparagus, mushrooms, kale, hazelnuts and creamy pecorino.

The interior design is the work of Dubai-based studio Roar. Clean lines, open space and a natural palette, punctuated by bold-print tiles, table tops and stools, give it a calm and cool Scandinavian aesthetic. The design was inspired by books and playful literary references are all around. The woven handrails and space dividers recall the stitching in book spines. Open book shelves are in the centre of the floor allowing light and shade to dance around the space. —PD

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