Driving down the quiet neighbourhoods of Jumeriah Beach Road in Dubai, you’ll notice quite a few speciality coffee shops. Speciality coffee has become popular around the city, with countless speciality cafes providing high-quality beans from around the world to coffee-loving Arabs. Coffee experts call this the ‘third-wave’: the first being the wide availability of instant coffee, the second being the rise of cafe-culture, and the third being the consumption of high-quality coffee as a craft beverage. These waves are often synonymous with the gentrified neighbourhoods of European cities and are often reported as ‘new’ to our region. But if you dig heavily into the history of coffee, you’ll realise that much of how we consume coffee today is steeped in historic Arab custom.
I recently headed to the Coffee Museum in Dubai’s Al Fahidi Historical District in hopes of better understanding the region’s role in the history of coffee. What’s striking about the museum, other than the beautiful coffee-related antiques from across the world, is the simple fact that it exists. The museum was founded by Emirati coffee connoisseur and businessman Khalid Al Mulla in hopes of ‘connecting the past of coffee to its present’. Khalid believes that a museum for coffee should be based in the region to reinforce the idea that how we consume coffee today is very much related to the Arab world. Khalid is also a coffee distributor who has been selling green, fair-trade and organic coffee in the region since 1994. Khalid’s activities are a true testament to the strong linkage between today’s coffee culture and Arab heritage.
Even the most amateur of coffee drinkers knows that coffee grows in tropical climates. Coffee beans mainly grow in countries with median temperatures like Brazil, Colombia, Rwanda and so on. The largest consumers of coffee in the world are Western nations, particularly Finland, Germany, and the United States. However, none of these countries consider coffee to be a symbol of national heritage or a part of indigenous culture. In the UAE, for example, the dallah (Arabic for coffee pot) is seen on the back of the one-dirham coin. The dallah is often displayed in airports or malls across GCC countries indicating a sense of cultural pride. But where did coffee come from? And how did we come to consume it the way we do today? And, more fundamentally, what connects coffee-loving Arabs to the farmers of coffee plantations in Colombia? In the next sections, we unpack these questions and examine the influence of Arab culture on where we are today.
A brief history of coffee
The Arab world’s love affair with coffee began in the 13th century. Legend has it that coffee berries were first discovered in Ethiopia by a shepherd who stopped to examine a coffee bush after noticing his livestock were overly animated. The hyper reaction of the livestock is what lead Kaldi, the shepherd in the legend, to discover the energising effect of coffee berries. Although this legend is contested in various histories, the fact still remains that coffee beans originated in East Africa and were brought to the Arab world by Yemeni merchants. Drinking coffee in liquid form was invented by Sufis in Yemen as they believed it helped them on long pilgrimages to Mecca and to worship late into the night. Coffee quickly spread across the Arab region and became a staple in the majlis – the equivalent of a living room- of Bedouin tribes.
Cafe culture and the Arab World: How the ‘second-wave’ of coffee originated in the Middle East
Coffee experts claim that the ‘second-wave’ of coffee is the proliferation of coffeehouses and the growth across the world of coffee shops as public spaces. But, if you think about it, coffeehouses are simply a modern day majlis. Most anthropologists agree that the allure of coffeehouses lies in the element of social interaction. American anthropologist Catherine M. Tucker from the University of Indiana claims that ‘historically, coffeehouses gained fame as places for intellectual discussions, political debates, and free social expression … they appeal to the human desire for social interaction and connection to others, even if one plans to be alone’.
The historic Arab majlis has always been associated with social gatherings, a place to relax but also to share ideas, exchange opinions and discuss social issues. In addition to that, the majlis was also characterised by its qahawati — a trustworthy, good character who pours coffee for guests and important visitors. Some argue that the qahawati is our modern day barista. More importantly than that, the majlis was a part of Bedouin culture that was simulated by Levantine and Ottoman societies. In the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire opened the world’s first coffeehouse in what is known as Istanbul today. Levantine Arabs and Turks created coffeehouses that were forums for discussion, playing backgammon and drinking coffee. The Middle East had coffeehouses well over a hundred years before they first appeared in Europe. The first European coffeehouse was in the United Kingdom and was named ‘The Great Turk Coffeehouse’— a testament to the influence of Ottoman and Arab culture on European capitals of the time. European coffeehouses became places for social gathering and political debate, much like their Arab counterparts.
Interestingly, although coffeehouses have been a part of European culture for a while, they are a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States. The New York Times recently released an archived article from 1964 calling for more coffeehouses to be established around the city. The article stated that there were only 30 cafes in Manhattan at the time and compared it to Rome where coffeehouses were abundant. America’s first proper coffeehouse was established in Seattle in the late 1980s, the now famous coffee chain Starbucks. Despite the United States being one of the world’s largest consumers of coffee in contemporary history, its introduction to cafe culture is relatively new.
Speciality coffee and Arab culture: The ‘third-wave’ never left the Middle East
Coffee experts explain that the third-wave of coffee is the appreciation of high-quality beans and the purchasing of coffee based on its origins and artisanal methods of production. The concept of the ‘third-wave’ is interchangeable with ‘the rise of speciality coffee’, an idea that countless resources point out is a ‘current trend’ in the region. The Khaleej Times indicates that by 2020, the GCC will make up 50% of the global coffee market. These indicators imply that the region has adopted these trends to mimic Western lifestyles. Although it might be true that the GCC is increasingly consuming coffee, to what extent is consuming coffee as an artisanal product new to the region?
Arabs have always appreciated coffee as an artisanal product. Arab Bedouins experimented with different methods of coffee making as well as trying different recipes. It is well known that Gulf Arabs add cardamom, cinnamon and saffron in their coffee, but that Levantine Arabs drink it plain, black and frothy. The region’s coffee recipes are as diverse as the dialects spoken, and this has been the case for hundreds of years.
Additionally, the origins of the beans have always been important to Arab coffee drinkers. From Yemen to Syria, methods of coffee preparation are discussed amongst households, and serving coffee to guests has always been considered a sign of generosity. Today, qahwa (Arabic for coffee) is considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the GCC by UNESCO, symbolising generosity. Serving high-quality coffee is a duty and a bad cup of coffee served is considered shameful or eib. Many people call the current trend in speciality coffee the ‘third-wave’ but it seems the third-wave never left the Arab world. Coffee experts forget that these ‘trends’ in coffee drinking might apply to many parts of the world, but that they are ultimately indigenous to Arab culture.
Not only was drinking coffee founded in the Middle East but the concept of relating coffee to social interaction was also founded here. The word ‘qahwa‘ is the original source of the derivatives ‘coffee’ and ‘cafe’. Today the majlis, the dallah and qahwa are all considered part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the GCC countries. The majlis is an important part of our history that brings communities together around a cup of coffee — similarly to the concept of coffeehouses we see today. Additionally, the current trend of consuming coffee as an artisanal product has always been a part of Arab culture away from the commercial basis in which it is popularly consumed. There is Arab history in every cup of coffee.
Darah Ghanem is a journalist based in Dubai.