Long ago, Arab cafes transformed into forums for political debate, after politics in Arab countries became monopolized by the ruling regimes. Yet, with the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the cafes lost some of their political meaning for a while, then recovered it as the spring faltered.
Yesterday’s [March 16] discussion in Al-Bustan Cafe in central Cairo was about the current week’s fuzzy events. Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not yet officially announced his candidacy to run for president, and the Syrian crisis is still going without any signs of a breakthrough in the negotiations. The Iranian nuclear file is waiting for its fate to be decided in the summer. And regarding the crisis in the Crimean Peninsula, the referendum about joining Russia will not be the end of the matter. If the “yes” vote wins, the ball will move to Putin’s court. Will he ratify the referendum and start an open confrontation with the West? Or will he hold back? According to sources in Al-Bustan Cafe, Putin will most likely hold back. So the current week is unlikely to witness a decisive resolution for local, regional and international crises.
Coffee, between the Arabs and Turkey
Coffee drinking is a part of the habits and traditions of Arabs and other peoples. In many countries, coffee is the favorite daily drink. Coffee is linked to nationalism in the Mediterranean basin. Anyone who has traveled to Greece, for example, knows that asking for “Turkish coffee” from a hotel or restaurant waiter would result in a lengthy discussion clarifying that its proper name is “Greek coffee.” Similarly, if I dared, as an Egyptian, to ask for “Turkish coffee” in Lebanon, I would face stares of admonition because it’s called “Arabic coffee.”
Coffee came to the region from Africa in the early 16th century — first to Yemen and then to Mecca, Cairo, Syria, and then, in the mid-16th century, to Turkey. Although some religious men in the Ottoman court disapproved of drinking coffee, the first cafe in Istanbul opened in 1554. Then-Sultan Murad III banned coffee at the end of the 16th century.
Coffee remained banned by the Ottoman Empire until the 1839 regulatory law, which has regulated coffee in Turkey until today. There are different ways to prepare coffee throughout the world. In the West, people drink a large cup of coffee with breakfast, and some drink another large cup in the afternoon.
Arabic coffee differs from European and American coffee in terms of taste, cup volume and method of preparation. The method of roasting coffee beans differs between Arabic and Western coffee. Even between Arab countries, there are different ways to prepare coffee. In Egypt, for example, coffee is prepared the “Turkish way,” with the presence of a layer of foam and in a small cup. The foam is a sign that the coffee was prepared the right way. On certain social occasions, such as an engagement or a bereavement, the coffee must have a layer of foam, which Egyptians call the “face,” and one cannot savor coffee that has “no face.”
But the Lebanese prefer to drink coffee that is boiled once and has no face, and they drink it in larger quantity than the Egyptians. The Egyptians also love tea, but that’s another story.
I have always enjoyed roaming the Arabic coffee shops in Cairo and examining the differences between the types of coffee beans, from light and dark coffee, and coffee mixed with spices, and black coffee (coffee powder with no spices).
In famous Lebanese coffee shops, all the world’s coffees meet: Brazilian, Colombian, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Indonesian and others. And you can find coffee with special blends — not just the blend of a particular country, but blends concocted by people, such as the “al-Hajj Yusuf blend” and “Umm Ahmad blend,” and so on.
Coffee in the Gulf
Gulf Arabs are also creative in the way they prepare coffee. Their coffee differs from that in Egypt and Lebanon in terms of bitterness and the type of cups the coffee is served in. I asked a Gulf friend about what coffee he likes to buy. He took a deep breath, as if he was recollecting sweet memories, and said, “If you want to buy Arabic coffee that tastes good, ask for ‘wild colored coffee.'”
I memorized that name for many years. And when I visited the Gulf I decided not to miss the chance to buy Arabic coffee. As soon as you enter a shop in a Gulf capital, you are struck by the smell of roasted coffee beans. Your nose tries to distinguish between Lebanese, Egyptian, Turkish and Gulf coffee.
When you enter the shop, you recognize the shop owner as Thai. He asks you in broken Arabic what you want. You say the phrase that you've had memorized for many years: “wild colored coffee.” Then he expertly weighs a kilo of light colored coffee beans from Yemen (in fact, Mocha coffee is named after the Yemeni port of Mocha). You notice that Gulf coffee beans are mildly roasted compared to coffee beans in Egypt and Lebanon. But the main difference is in the additions: the seller adds green cardamom, cinnamon sticks and saffron filaments, then he grinds them into a powder, which he puts in a bag. You pay for the coffee and you leave happy with what you got.
Arabic coffee as a global product
After drinking coffee in the Arab Gulf, you snack on dates to ease the bitter taste. You reflect on the coffee cup that you bought with the coffee. It is white, with a gold strip at its lip, and has a traditional Arab style. You turn over the coffee cup and notice an inscription in English: made in China. You try to look for the origins of the coffee components and you find the following: cardamom comes from South India and Sri Lanka, and is now grown in Guatemala, Vietnam and Tanzania. The cinnamon comes mainly from China, where it was found 3,000 years ago, before Vasco da Gama shipped it from Sri Lanka to Europe in the 15th century. To produce a kilo of saffron, one needs about 80,000 to 150,000 plants grown on 1,000 square meters [0.25 acres]. An agricultural worker would spend an entire day to harvest what would produce only 60 grams [0.1 pounds]. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. It is grown in Iran, Spain, Italy, Turkey and Greece.
Regarding the price that you pay for the coffee, just a very small part of it will go to the owners of the coffee fields in those remote countries and even less will go to those who spend their days growing the coffee in harsh working conditions. Most of the money goes to the importer, the retailer, international shippers and import taxes. Then you can think about your government’s priorities in how it spends those revenues according to its social and political biases. You hold the coffee cup in hand and your memory goes many years back, recalling the first time you realized the essential difference between price and value in a practical, globalized and modern example.