The Space & Staff of Andala | A Cambridge Café

Positioned just behind a beautiful Baptist church at the main crossroads of Central Square in Cambridge, just off of River Street and illuminated by striking sunsets, lies Andala: ‘the nightingale,’ in Arabic, a reference to the ‘song of the nightingale.’

To the west, a large window overlooking River Street glows in pink and purple light. To the north, a view of passerby from a gorgeous bay window flooded with natural light. There is a closed in porch area with sliding glass doors. People join in small circles in the patio area to smoke hooka just outside the front door and on two sides of this large home turned into a fantastic café space, a meeting grounds the Arabic-speaking community tells us “feels like home.” They serve tea, coffee, juice, deserts, baked goods, and now have a food menu that we hope to begin experimenting and reviewing (for now, we will just share our appreciation of the space). High ceilings give the impression of a palace turned quaint teahouse and informal restaurant. Students work and talk, exceedingly friendly staff move between two floors speaking in and between multiple languages (Arabic, English, Italian, Spanish), a linguistic setting reminiscent of the Whole Foods several miles down River Street street that we reviewed a few weeks ago. It is the café experience that we have been looking for in a city dominated by Starbucks, impersonal coffee shops, often with strange smells, narrow corridors, and non-conversant laptop-focused clientele donning the earphone look.

Decorating the walls of Andala are beautiful verses from the Koran, protective poetic phrases in Arabic calligraphy, a mantel with vases, loons, and plates with ornate scriptures. Downstairs, a home environment that feels like a living room fully separated from the busy square and outside world, instruments are hung, drums are nestled next to seating arranged in squares where people gather in larger groups to study and converse. On a Saturday evening, it is an alcohol free haven in an area that seems to only have pubs and bar-clubs. A group of three local students from Saudi Arabia take turns as impromptu DJs, playing the likes of Om Kalthoum, and moving to the expansive sound of light lounge electronica, a blend of the traditional with calm drum and bass. An older gentlemen surfs the net and a radio broadcast in Arabic suddenly cuts through the space. The owner approaches him to listen to the story while his child, not more than seven years old, continues (yes) discussing topics such as the use of animals in times of war, education policies, and his take on local politics. In another corner, a group discusses ethics and the legal system.

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Perhaps most delightful of all, the endlessly positive young fellow named Armando who works the register and the floor as a hybrid cashier waiter, along with his sister Valentina. They greet customers as if they are stepping into the family home. The siblings have an interesting story, a kind of inverted tale compared to many of the Italian Americans from the area. The siblings’ father (an Italian American Brooklynite) and their mother (an Irish American Booklyn native) met in New York City and moved to Rome. They headed from Rome to Milwaukee, back to Rome, then to Naples (a Sirocco cultural cradle, port city of cultural crossings rebuilt by the Spanish with Arabesque and Mozarabe architectural patterns, lights on street corners paying homage to ancestral figures). From Naples, Armando and Valentina headed to the birth-country of their parents, only 180 miles north of Brooklyn, to study English and connect to the language they heard growing up (though always responding in Italian and Napolitano when their parents spoke in English). When we returned to write this review, Armando recognized us instantly: “the fresh mint tea,” he exclaimed, “the one we lost in translation downstairs” (it was our fault, he just accepted the blame). But the comment reminded us of Salman Rushdie’s famous statement:

“The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across.’ Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.” (Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991)

So perhaps you lose yourself walking along Magazine Street and River Street, the winding section of the city knows as Cambridgeport, and land in Andala, the Song of the Nightingale; a song of the ‘soul’ as some translate the meaning of the bird. And perhaps in this café where people so freely move between varieties of Arabic – from Morocco to Palestine to Kuwait – a kind of community of Rushdie’s “translated” men and women emerges.

For us, Andala is also a piece of 5-Colleges culture in Cambridge. We will do a longer review of the coffee, tea, and food in a future post and include in our new Yelp Review Page.

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