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Coffee: Arabia’s Gift to the World

posted on: Sep 9, 2015

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

The vast majority of people in the Middle East and in the Western world are stimulated by coffee – many addicted to its very name. The alarm clock for many, the beverage to perk up the drowsy or to refresh one for the daily grind of the day, coffee, for its billions of fans is a must. Its aromatic scent and smooth or strong and bold flavor has become part and parcel of the morning schedule, the mid-day break, or for night owls, the drink to keep them up.

On the other hand, a few complain that coffee keeps them awake and makes them hyper. However, whether lovers or detesters, not many can do without his or her cup of coffee. In almost every country of the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, the coffee break has become a near ritual in the business world. Rarely does one dream of pausing, at least once in the day, to not enjoy a cup of this stimulating drink.

The brew, besides its unique aroma and rich mallow taste, has a mystical aura. It is associated with the exotic East – a legacy of the sons of the Arabian desert and their romantic land.

One theory has it that coffee originated in a part of Ethiopia called Kaffa where, today, the plant still grows wild. Yet, many believe that the coffee plant was first grown in the highlands of the Yemen. The name itself, derived from the Arabic qahwa (coffee or wine) in almost every language of the world, lends credence to the Yemeni theory.

Records indicate that coffee was first cultivated around 600 A.D. in South Arabia. A number of historians indicate that long before it was used as a beverage, the beans were crushed and mixed with fat to produce a simple food.

The first mention of coffee as a beverage was made around 900 A.D. in the writings of the Arab medieval scholar Al-Razi (Rhazes), referring to it as bunchum and medically as ‘a good drink for those with hot nature yet decreases the libido’. Avicenna, an Arab physician/philosopher, about 1000 A.D., introduced coffee as a medicinal tonic. From the penmanship of this scholar and others, it is believed that during the period between 800 and 900 A.D. the Arabs learned to crush and boil the coffee beans to make a hot drink.

Folklore relates that a young Yemeni shepherd named Khaldi, observing his goats joyfully prancing up and down after eating the leaves of the wild coffee trees, resolved to discover the secret for his goats’ frolic. Upon chewing the leaves, he found them unpalatable. However, after he boiled them in water, he found that, indeed, his goats had reason to leap up and down in joy. Khaldi imparted the secret of this new drink to his friends. Soon, others found that the beans rather than the leaves made a refreshing drink, and thus, it is believed, coffee making, as we know it, was born.

At first, its use met some resistance from a number of conservative Muslim religious leaders who claimed it was an intoxicating drink and therefore banned by the Qur’an. However, this opposition did not deter its wide-scale consumption. Coffee houses sprang up in all parts of the Arabian Peninsula then spread out to the adjoining lands. During the 14th and 15th centuries these places of relaxation became more numerous than mosques. Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Mecca each had hundreds of coffee houses patronized by all strata of society.

In the 16th century, Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire of which most of the Arab lands were a part, became the headquarters of the coffee drinking world. Everyone from peasant to sultan enjoyed his or her cup of coffee.

A few decades after its introduction into this metropolis, it was thought of as a necessity of life. A husband’s wedding vows included a promise to keep his wife well-supplied with coffee. Failure to uphold this promise was a legitimate ground for divorce. In addition, it was widely believed that coffee acted as an aphrodisiac and, hence, was much in demand by aging lovers.

Coffee houses flourished and became very socially successful, affecting the attendance at mosques. This annoyed the authorities, inducing Sultan Murad V to order the closing of these leisure houses. However, the drink had become extremely popular, making it expedient for his heir to have them reopened. In the ensuing years, coffee came to be identified as the drink of the Turks and Arabs. Hence it became known as ‘the national drink of Islam’.

Near the end of the 16th century, the utilization of coffee spread from Turkey to the remainder of Europe. With its initial introduction into Europe, Christian religious leaders condemned the product and some rulers had it had it banned. For years the Christian church denounced coffee as ‘the hellish black brew’ and propounded that it was a ‘Satanic threat to the soul’. J. David and K. Schapira in their work The Book of Coffee
and Tea, write:

“When the drink reached Rome, fanatic priests attacked it with such virulence that it was almost forbidden to the Christian world. The priests maintained that coffee was the drink of the devil. Since Moslems were forbidden the use of wine – a drink sanctified by Christ and used in Holy Communion – Satan, leader of the infidels, had invented coffee as a substitute. Were Christians to drink this hellish brew, the priests reasoned, they would risk eternal damnation”.

Soon thereafter, however opposition to this Arabian beverage was stifled by Pope Clement Vlll. According to B. Watson in The Mediterranean Cookbook, Pope Clement tasted this new drink sweetened with honey and liked it so much that he declared: “This Satan’s drink is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall baptize it and make it Christian.”

The 17th and l8th centuries were the golden age of the European coffee houses that sprang up in every city of Europe and were frequented by all levels of society. They were especially favored as meeting places by poets and other literary men where, over a cup of coffee, the affairs of the moment were discussed. Men of letters became so addicted to a mug of this brew that it became known as ‘the drink of intellectuals’.

In the Americas, it was only in the 18th century that coffee became a common drink. Subsequently, it overtook tea to become the national drink of North America. Today, the U.S.A. consumes more coffee than any other country in the world.

For hundreds of years the Arabs had a monopoly on the production of coffee. Until the end of the 17th century, Yemen was the origin of the world’s supply of coffee beans. Almost all this coffee was exported from the city of Mocha in that country. So much of the raw beans as exported from this port that Mocha became another word for coffee. Yet, in spite of this monopolization, in the ensuing centuries, the Yemeni cultivation and export of coffee dwindled until, today, only about 7 to 10 thousand tons are exported from that country. Nevertheless, Yemeni Mocha coffee is still considered to be the finest in the world. Rich, heavy bodied, smooth, fragrant and delicate in flavor, it has no equal.

At the end of the 17th century, Dutch coffee spies stole a few plants from the Yemen and introduced coffee growing to Java in the East Indies. In a few years coffee cultivated in that part of the world overtook the production of Arabia. Like the Arabs before them, the Dutch tried to keep a controlling hand on its cultivation, but to no avail.

A French naval officer stole a small coffee tree then transported it to the French colony of Martinique where he began a coffee plantation. This same tree was to be responsible for the greatest expansion of the coffee plant. From Martinique its cultivation spread to the remainder of the West Indies and Central and South America where, in the succeeding years, coffee became one of the leading crops.

Today, coffee is grown in at least 70 countries of the world. Brazil being the world’s largest producer. Vietnam is second in production and export followed by Colombia and Indonesia and then other numerous countries in South and Central America, Africa and Asia.

There are from 40 to 80 species of coffee trees grown throughout the world, but only some eight species widely distributed. The most universal is coffee Arabica, the top type of coffee in the world, followed by Robusta – grown extensively in Africa. Other species, to a large extent, are local types and are not very widespread. Taking all this data into account, it is estimated that there are some 10 billion coffee trees in the world.

The evergreen coffee tree, grows best at tropical altitudes from 610 to 915 m (2,000 to 3,000 ft), and thrives in temperatures from l8° to 24° C (65° to 75° F). To produce its maximum, the tree needs from 102 to 178 cm (40 to 70 in) of rain per year.

Coffee saplings are grown in nurseries from seed then transplanted to prepared fields. The sapling has one main stem and grows to a tree from 1.8 to 12 m (6 to 40 ft) in height. However, it is usually pruned and kept around 3.7 m (12 ft) high. The leaves, which are oval and waxy, grow in pairs from 7.6 to 15 cm (3 to 6 in) long and 2.5 to 7.6 cm (1 to 3 in) wide.

When the plant is some three years old, small fragrant flowers, in clusters, are produced. The berries that follow are oblong and ripen from green to golden brown, then red or crimson. Each berry, called a cherry, contains two seeds that are the coffee beans.

A coffee tree matures in 10 years and has a life span from 15 to 30 years. Each plant bears about 1 kg (2 lb) of coffee a year – an acre producing close to 454 kg (1000 lb). The berries are picked individually by hand or mechanically harvested.

After harvesting, the cherries are prepared by either the ‘dry’ or ‘wash’ process that removes the pulp from around the seed. When the pulp is removed the greyish-green seeds or beans are thoroughly dried in the sun or by artificial means. They are then sorted and bagged for sale to coffee manufacturers.

The roasting of coffee beans is a large thriving industry in almost every country of the world. This preparation gives the coffee its aroma and flavor. Roasting the beans to medium color preserves the delicacy of the aroma while roasting to dark increases the strength of the brew. In almost every case, various types of beans are blended to produce the desired combination of aroma, flavor and richness. To keep these elements, after the coffee is ground it must be utilized as soon as possible or stored in air-tight containers.

Although the joys of coffee have spread to the four corners of the world, it is in its original homeland that it preserves its mystical hold. For many centuries coffee and Arabia have been inseparable. In The Coffee Lover’s Handbook, edited by D. Sturmanis, it is stated that the Arabs use so much coffee that the English-speaking world once called it ‘the wine of Araby’.

Today, in the eastern Arab lands, as it has been for centuries, coffee remains of great importance in the lives of the people. It is a social beverage offered to guests in homes and to customers by shopkeepers. It is also part of Arab social ritual and culture. When a guest arrives, it must be brewed especially for the occasion – never reheated. Coffee is a symbol of welcome, hospitality and friendship; and for a guest to refuse a cup of coffee is to greatly insult the host.

A Bedouin will usually invite any stranger, who happens to pass by, in for a cup of coffee. The generosity of a person is related to this hospitality. “He makes coffee day and night” is an old Bedouin saying describing such a generous person.

In the rural areas where coffee serves as the basis of social culture, an elaborate coffee ritual has evolved. It rivals the Japanese tea ceremony in its intricacies, beauty of utensils and decorative arrangement. The host, sitting beside his charcoal-burning fire¬place, amid colorful rugs, tapestries, cushions and silver inlaid copper coffee appliances, begins the ceremony by exchanging greetings with his guests.

He follows this by invoking the favor of God then begins to roast the beans in a long handled iron ladle, in the Arabian Peninsula, called mihmas, over the charcoal fire. While roasting the beans, he pursues a lively conversation with his guests. When the coffee is roasted to the host’s taste, with pestle and mortar and a rhythmic musical beat, he pulverizes the freshly roasted beans into fine powder.

The pulverized coffee is then allowed to cool for a few minutes, an act which tends to retain the aroma and flavor, while the host boils water in a large coffee pot and, at the same time, burns a little incense. The coffee, hot water and cardamom seeds are then placed in a smaller pot and, when brewed, are transferred into a brass serving pot, called dallah, – the most significantly seen utensil in the Arab world.

Arab coffee is always at its best when made a few cups at a time and served piping hot. The serving cups are small and offered less than half full – a few sips of this strong brewed coffee will suffice. To fill the cup is to suggest to a guest that it is time to leave. The small china cups in which the coffee is served, usually without handles, are part of a coffee set. They fit into brass cups and are placed on a brass-serving tray around the steaming coffee pot.

The host always first sips a few drops himself, then personally hands out the cups to the guests, serving the eldest or most important person in the room first. The host, then, continues to pour a little coffee for each person until a guest shakes his cup that indicates he has had enough. After three servings, it is not polite to take more. Should a guest not shake his cup after the third drink he will have broken a cardinal rule of Arab hospitality.

The Arabs, per capita, probably drink more coffee than any other people on earth. On the other hand, the U.S.A. accounts for half the world’s coffee imports, and coffee is the national drink of both Canada and the U.S.A. At almost every twist and corner in the streets of major cities, coffeehouse chains and others have freshly brewed coffee available for anyone and nearly at any time.

Instant coffee, tailor-made for the busy and always-in-a-rush, is so popular that it has even hit the Arab world. Our 21st century has now enveloped the single cup coffee makers and their ready-to-use coffee pods for an instant easy-to-brew fresh cup of coffee. Decaffeinated, filtered, iced, percolated or just boiled with water, coffee has become one of the mainstays of life in Canada and the U.S.A. In Europe, South America and, ever-increasingly, in North America, café au lait, café con leche, expresso and cappuccino are popular drinks of relaxation.

Indeed, this brew is so much in demand that North America is considered ‘the land of the coffee break’. The qahwa of the Arabs has seduced almost every member of modern-day society.

Coffee is popularly known for its invigorating effects. It contains a fair amount of caffeine, a drug that acts as an energizer. Besides its stimulating actions on the nervous system research continues to show it as beneficial for heart disease, lowering the risk of liver disease, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s, dropsy, migraines, chronic asthma and barbiturate poisoning. This all, of course, while drinking coffee in moderation.
In some societies the brew is used to alleviate menstrual discomforts and coughs.

Others believe it to aid in healing eye infections and that it can ease lung congestion. This moderate stimulant induces reflection, heightens perception, relieves mental and physical fatigue and expands the blood vessels, thus allowing more blood to flow to the heart and brain. The people of the East knew these attributes long ago. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) once wrote: “They have in Turkey a drink called coffee. This drink comforteth the brain and heart, and helpeth digestion.”

Although coffee vies with tea as being the most favorite beverage throughout the world, its use as an ingredient in foods is also important. Coffee flavored chocolate bars, ice cream, cake icings, candy, liqueurs and baked goods are common in every country of the world. In addition, the oil from the bean is used extensively in making insecticides, lacquers, medicine, paints, shoe-polish and soaps. There is no better proof of the wide use of coffee than the words derived from the Arabic name of coffee found in the languages of the world. In English, over 60 words can be found in dictionaries that are rooted in the word ‘coffee’.

Yet, in spite of its wide dispersion throughout the world, it is still greatly appreciated in the eastern Arab lands. It is a gesture of hospitality served to guests, whether they be friends or strangers. In the past, it was almost impossible to imagine the Arab world without the enticing aroma of roasting coffee or the soothing ring of the pestle.

In its land of origin, bargaining is never done without a cup of coffee. At home or at the office, among the wealthy or poor, in the Bedouin tents, in the cafes of the smallest village or the big cities, an offered cup of coffee, diffusing its rich aroma, is an unfailing sign that the guest is honored. In the coffee houses, many spend much of their free time sitting and talking, or sipping their thick brew while playing a game of tawla (backgammon). Here, poets and literary men, as in the Europe of the past centuries, gather with adherents listening to their every word.

In the last half of the 20th century while visiting Damascus with a friend, I came to appreciate these literary circles of intellectuals. While sipping our coffee, we sat with the famous Iraqi poet Ahmad Safi al-Najafi and listened to his poetry. In a circle of some dozen men from all over the Arab world, we spent a stimulating evening. These few hours we whittled away made me appreciate the role of the Arab coffee houses, and, perhaps, the milieu of them, is what made coffee even more appealing and so popular.

In the Middle East, coffee is never taken with meals, only after or in-between. In some instances, when the meals are finished, some women spend happy hours reading their fortunes from the coffee sediments left in the cups. A brew for every occasion, coffee is served to the guest’s taste, but at weddings it is always served sweet and at funerals bitter.

According to our host at the Coffee Room in the Cham Palace Hotel, located amid the magnificent ruins of Palmyra in Syria, to the Arabs, coffee embodies three things: its rich aroma signifying the joy of meeting: its bitterness representing the sadness of departing; and its blackness revealing the dark eyes of the beloved. With synonyms such as these it is no wonder that this gift, which the Arabs gave the world, remains their most cherished brew.