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RITUALS AND AESTHETICS OF
SERVING ARABIAN COFFEE-1

Travelers to modern day Saudi Arabia cannot fail to notice the oversized icons of coffee pots, cups and mortars, symbols of Arab hospitality par excellence, that mark the entrance roads to most cities. Whoever visits the country quickly becomes aware that the passing around of coffee is one of the distinctive features of business gatherings and of social events. What goes on in these modern office buildings in Riyadh is a stylized version, tailored to the more hurried pace of the age of efficiency, of what once was, and in many places still is, a complicated ritual deeply rooted within the cultural tradition of Arabia.

The drinking of coffee started in Yemen and spread out of sufi circles who drank it to facilitate the performance of religious ceremonies and as a dispeller of sleep and aid to devotional exercises. It was introduced there from its Etheopian soil by a sufi saint who lived in the coastal town of Mukha (hence mocca). The saints name was ash-Shaadhili, and coffee in Arabia is still called ash-shaadhiliyyih, after him. It is also called barriyyah, i. e. beans brought by overland camel caravans from Yemen. Coffee beans exposed to the humidity and saltiness of the sea are considered of inferior quality. Coffee beans from Yemen are supposed to be the best and most expensive. A 50 kilos sack of Yemeni berries could fetch around US$ 500.00. In Yemen coffee is mostly brewed from the husks, but in Inner Arabia only the berries bunn are used.

Actually, the meaning of the Arabic word for coffee qahwah signifies sipping, and originally it referred to wine as it occurred in classical Arabic poetry. The word was transferred towards the end of the 14th century in Yemen to the beverage concocted from the berry of the coffee tree. Transference of the poetic name for wine to the new beverage was facilitated by the fact that special significance was given to wine in the poetical language of the sufi mystics.

Coffee made its appearance in Mecca towards the end of the 15th century. From there it started the colorful epic of its conquest of the world and the rest of Arabia. Intercourse with the holy cities and with Egypt brought coffee to Syria, Persia and Turkey. In Constantinople coffee first appeared in the reign of Sulayman I when in 1554 a man from Halab and another man from Damascus opened the first coffee-houses.

In the 16th century Islamic jurists, after some initial wrangling, decided in favor of the coffee. It was thought at first that the coffee house was prejudicial to the mosque and some declared the coffee houses even worse than the wine-room. In coffee houses men and women met to music and played chess and similar games for stake. Such disgraceful proceedings and other concomitant features contrary to religion such as the handing round the coffee on the manner of wine naturally aroused the indignation of some muftis.  The fact that current politics were discussed in the coffee houses, the governments acts criticized and intrigues woven, provided the principal cause for the authorities to intervene at times and close coffee houses.

Coffee quickly became a vital ingredient of social gatherings in Islamic countries where the drinking of alcohol is forbidden. Charles Doughty observed that in the Arabian Desert coffee and tobacco were comfortatives of the brain and vital spirits and stay off importune hunger.

In Arabia, serving of coffee constitutes the most important and ceremonious element of desert hospitality and the entertainment of and socializing with guests. A hospitable man is proud of his coffee pots that are scarred black from long years over the fire. Indeed, the serving of coffee is a ritual act fraught with symbolic significance and complex etiquettes. The symbolic and ritual significance of Arabic coffee is manifested by the way it is prepared and served, compared, for example, to Turkish or American coffee. While Arab women do all the cooking chores and preparation of food for guests, coffee making is the prerogative of men only. It used to be forbidden for women to come near coffee utensils or make coffee, let alone drink it.

The coffee beans are roasted over the glowing coals in a shallow iron pan with a long handle, mihmasah. This job requires a great deal of dexterity and adroitness. The pan should be turned over the coals and be kept away from the flame of the kindled wood. The beans must be roasted slowly and carefully lest they burn. When they have turned a reddish brown color and start to gleam and glisten as if in sweat, they are shaken out into a shallow pan made of woven palm fronds to let them cool off. The husks are blown off and the cold roasted beans are gathered in a mortar to be ground into powder. The mortar is pounded with measured strokes and regular musical rhythm, with an occasional rap on the rim of the mortar to give variety to the beat. Ringing strokes should be strong and loud. This is an open invitation to all who hear it to join the coffee assembly. 

The host empties the ground coffee into the first of the two pots used in this process. After a few minutes of boiling, that pot is drawn away from the glowing coals and left for a while to settle. Then the coffee is emptied into a second and smaller pot where fragrant spices are added to the coffee, the most important of which is crushed cardamom, which is a crucial ingredient and added in a generous amount. Cardamom is very expensive, therefore, a good yard stick for the hosts laudable readiness to risk bankruptcy for the sake of hospitality. Four more spices may be added. They are in descending order of importance: a few cloves and a pinch of saffron and a very tiny quantity of civet and amber which are added for their perfume.

When coffee is ready to be served to the guests, a few sprigs of palm fiber are placed in the beak of the pot in order to strain the coffee and prevent bits of the spices from being poured with the coffee. The host tastes a few drops then makes a nest of four or five small porcelain china cups in his right hand and holds the pot in his left hand and while raising it high to a level almost above his head pours a thin jet, delicate as silk concluded with a light rap from the beak of the pot on the edge of the cup, or, in the words of Alois Musil, a stream of coffee as delicate as a spiders thread. As soon as the bottom of the cup is covered, he hands it to the foremost guest. The cup must not be filled; to fill it up to a guest, as in the northern towns, were among the Bedouins as injury, and of such bitter meaning, this drink thou and depart as Charles Doughty puts it.

In a formal situation, courtesy allows one to have three cups before handing back the cup while shaking it from side to side from the fingertips with little, fast movements of the wrist as a sign that one has had enough. In love poetry the coffee china cups are frequently occur as a simile for the small, firm breasts of young maidens, while the coffee stains on the inside of the cups is compared with henna painted on the white shins and palms of the fair hands of a beautiful maiden.

When a host first perceives guests coming, he rushes to meet and welcome them. As soon as they take their seats, he rakes the heart and strikes a blazing fire to make coffee. Soon, the host begins to roast the coffee beans. Lightening of fire and pounding of mortar are the two most prominent icons of hospitality in the desert. They guide night travelers to the tents of hospitable hosts. The rhythmic pounding of the brass mortar is soothing music to the ears of the weary travelers who, having been traveling on the backs of their camel mounts in cold winter nights wearing very scanty clothes, gather round in the fire to warm their frozen limbs. After crossing the empty and dreary wastes the guests are delighted by the sight of the flickering blaze of the fire lighting up the darkness of the wilderness, and by the rhythmic cheerful pounding of the mortar and the rattling of the china cups, and the pleasant smell of the smoke of the burning tamarisk wood, and the roasting coffee beans and the crushed cardamom and the boiling coffee pots. All these delightful sensations give pleasure and relaxation to the weary desert travelers whose tongues are loosened by such refreshment and they begin to spin eloquent rhapsodies of tales and verses.

The host performs every step in this ritual coffee preparation ceremoniously and with the utmost dignity. With welcoming gestures and pleasantries, he tries to put his guests at ease and let them feel that they have done him the honor with their presence. He tries to fix for them a truly refreshing cup with a good taste, a cup that will banish fatigue and clear the head. They call coffee keif that substance that sets the mood right; and they call it mwannsih because it brings uns which means camaraderie and joy and it helps remove barriers between the host and guests.

 







  

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