September 17, 2023

Coffee as a Historical and Cultural Ambassador

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How the drink earned its place in Arab hearts and consciousness

Coffee has always been the talk of poets, an enricher of friendly gatherings and a mood enhancer for creatives. So what does coffee offer to creative people, students and scholars? Thinking about the multi-sensory experience that drinking it affords, I sometimes find myself asking a question reminiscent of Balzac, the prolific French novelist and playwright rumoured to have enjoyed up to 50 cups a day: “Has coffee roasted my intestines?”

To the Arabs, coffee is a symbol of generosity. Associated with guests and entertaining, it was integrated into many of life’s key moments, such as courting, marriage ceremonies and funerals, until it became a vital social component in urban and rural areas alike. The drink rose to fame because of its association with many intellectuals, writers and thinkers, and it became an icon due to its cultural heritage. In the Gulf countries, and in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in particular, it was associated with customs and traditions of its own, as well as becoming linked to guests.

There were special rituals when preparing coffee in the desert, where it is said that the hosts used to roast beans for each visitor. In some areas, they had a stone pot, called Al-Najr, that they used for grinding, as well as a copper pot, called dallah, for bringing the liquid to the boil. When the drink was ready, they would grind cardamom and sometimes saffron to add to it. Then the host served the coffee to the guest, holding the dallah with his left hand and the cup with his right, and pouring the coffee carefully so as not to fill the cup. This was because filling the cup was considered improper and an insult to the guest; some tribes even interpreted a full cup as indicating a heart full of hatred, implying that a guest was not welcome.

Arab coffee cups have multiple names that have traditionally had different meanings depending on the occasion. These include the cup of hayf, the cup of kayf and the cup of the sword. All of these carried indications that allowed the host to understand the guest’s needs and intentions.

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