Cairo Coffee Houses

Sitting in crowded outdoor coffee houses, drinking mint tea and partaking of the occasional shisha, talking for hours while time stands still – this is the Cairo coffee house. People watching, politic talking, reminiscing and bonding, the evenings during our recent trip stretched long into the night. Occasionally Backgammon emerged and two of the family played while the rest of us looked on.

It was as though time was nonexistent. We left when our eyes began to get heavy with happy exhaustion. The camaraderie and sense of belonging gave a comfort that many never get to experience and we didn’t want it to end.

There is much the east can teach the west about community and belonging through these coffee houses. In the west coffee shops are often about  providing tables and computer space to individuals rather than catering to groups of people. In the west there is a hurried atmosphere – you need to order quickly, your debit card at the ready so that in a flash you can pay and get out of line, scrambling to find a seat in the process. You have dozens of choices – triple shot, double shot; latte, espresso; hazelnut, vanilla; large, venti; medium, grande; small, tall – it can be physically exhausting if you don’t know how to speak coffee. Although I love going for coffee in the United States, endless time I do not have and community I do not feel.

In a University of California Berkeley study a few years ago it was identified that three quarters of the world operates on a family and friend system of support; the remaining quarter operates on an institutional system of support. It is not surprising that the United States falls into the latter category. There are many things that institutions can do for us, but they can’t provide the human connection for which we are hardwired. Family and friends give us this human connection and there is no place better to develop this connection than the Cairo Coffee House.

Cairo coffee houses with their steaming hot tea,the bright green leaves of fresh mint peaking out of the cup, or ahwa masbut, heaps of coarse white sugar on the side to be sweetened to your liking (diabetes? who cares!) are poured into glass cups that show the beautiful colors of the beverage choices. There are plenty of refills and the warmth goes through body straight to soul.

It’s a false illusion to be sure, but when one relaxes in the wonder of Cairo coffee houses it’s easy to feel that the Middle East is at peace.

Chai at Fishawy's in the Khan el Khalili Bazaar

Coffee: Black as Hell, Strong as Death, Sweet as Love

It’s Monday morning and as I head to my grey cubicle in a building that houses several hundred state government employees, I am aware that I need the drink that tops all others, coffee.

Waiting in line at a coffee shop, my vacation from last week feels like it was months ago, the sun and sand of a beautiful beach merely an image on my camera and my memory. As I wait, my mind drifts off to the Turkish Proverb painted across the top of a wall at a coffee shop in Rockport, Massachusetts. The proverb reads:

“Coffee should be Black as Hell; Strong as Death; and Sweet as Love.”

It was written in artistic script at the Bean and Leaf Cafe at Bearskin neck and I immediately knew I would love this café, complete with ocean views from every angle in the small seating area at the back of the shop.

Just as Americans sometimes think they are the inventors of Christianity, they also sometimes err in believing that they were the inventors of coffee and the great idea of the coffee shop. While the likes of Starbucks and Seattle Coffee did have a great deal to do with today’s obsession with the drink, it may interest readers to know that coffee was alive and well in the Middle East as far back as the sixteenth century.

Chapter 9 of A New Introduction to Islam  takes us back to that century where coffee and coffee shops were newly introduced from Yemen and coffee was “all the rage*”. The author, Dr. Daniel Brown states

“Coffee houses punctuated the urban landscape of Middle Eastern cities like oases, as they still do”

In a section called “The Coffee Debate”  he goes on to say “Arabic accounts of the earliest uses of coffee agree that the first to drink the brew were late fifteenth-century Yemeni Sufis, Muslim mystics, who found the effects of caffeine enlivening to their late night devotional exercises“.  The author cleverly lures the non-scholar into the chapter via coffee and moves on to discuss Islamic Law. Evidently the widespread use and popularity of the drink were enough to cause alarm and debate among scholars on whether it was permissible and prudent to indulge in coffee, but that is a post that I do not have the knowledge or authority to write! My interest on this Monday morning is in the fact that centuries later in the year 2011 Americans subject themselves daily to long lines, desperate for that early morning ritual to enliven their senses and shoot some badly needed motivation, disguised as a caffeine drink, into their bodies and minds.

So as I move through the line and get my drink of choice, I join millions who have gone before and will probably come after me in getting the drink that has inspired scholars to debate, mystics to meditate, and government employees to survive budget cuts and bureaucracy – the drink that is known in the Turkish Proverb as Black as Hell, Strong as Death, and Sweet as Love.

A happy Monday and if you are a coffee drinker, enjoy, knowing that you will never be alone in your need for this centuries old drink.

*Bloggers Note: All excerpts come from Chapter 9, Islamic Law, in A New Introduction to Islam. The author also cites “Coffee and Coffee Houses” by Ralph Hattox.

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