Arabic Literature and the Politics of Coffee: 3 Books

Although coffee was around much earlier, the first writing we have about it is from the fifteenth century:

By the sixteenth, when it was spreading across the region and then the world, it becomes a popular trope. In “Popular poetry in the post-classical period,1150–1850,”  Margaret Larkin describes how, in some cases, a “coffee poem” could take the place of a wine song:

The newly emphasized taste for drinking coffee is reflected in a muwashshah by Muhammad al-Bakri (d. 994/1585), in which he encourages the practice in terms borrowed from the traditional khamriyya. ‘Pass around the coffee in a splendid glass’, he urges, for it solves the problem of ‘what [right] understanding has prohibited’. The beverage is described as being the preferred drink of Sufis, implying that it has similar ecstasy-producing effects. The piece is even complete with a censor whose presumed disapproval of coffee is dismissed as ignorant chatter. The muwashshah. ends with a pun on the wordrah, meaning both ‘he departed’, in reference to the censor, and ‘wine’ – a parting shot that signals the parody of the entire poem. It is easy to imagine a gathering of friends in a coffeehouse enjoying this spontaneous pastiche of the traditional wine song with Sufi overtones.

1) Another sixteenth century text, ‘Umdat al safwa fi fill al-qahwa (Argument in Favor of the Legitimate Use of Coffee), came from the pen of Abd Al-Qadir al-Jaziri, in apparent response to the religious debate over coffee’s legality. Although influential in French translation, it did not carry a similar weight in English. Still, translations of portions of it can be found in Ralph Hattox’s Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East.

From a somewhat later time, Saad Abdullah Sowayan writes about the echoes between nabati poetry, traditional to the Gulr, and coffee-making. From his Nabati Poetry: The Oral Poetry of Arabia:

2) Radwa Ashour’s Siraaj, translated by Barbara Romaine, is set later, in the late nineteenth century off the Yemeni coast, but coffee, forbidden by the (fictional) despot, also plays a central role.

3) Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. Coffee here is central to the ritual of a valuable life, and is continued come what may:

Gently place one spoonful of the ground coffee, electrified with the aroma of cardamom, on the rippling surface of the hot water, then stir slowly, first clockwise, then up and down. Add the second spoonful and stir up and down, then counterclock­wise. Now add the third.

Between spoonfuls, take the pot away from the fire and bring it back. For the final touch, dip the spoon in the melting powder, fill and raise it a little over the pot, then let it drop back. Repeat this several times until the water boils again and a small mass of the blond coffee remains on the surface, rippling and ready to sink. Don’t let it sink.

Turn off the heat, and pay no heed to the rockets. Take the coffee to the narrow corridor and pour it lovingly and with a sure hand into a little white cup: dark-colored cups spoil the freedom of the coffee. Observe the paths of the steam and the tent of rising aroma. Now light your first cigarette, made for this cup of cof­fee, the cigarette with the flavor of existence itself, unequaled by the taste of any other except that which follows love, as the woman smokes away the last sweat and the fading voice.

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The Taste of Coffee in Gaza Gazan author Hedaya Shamun, in translation by Shaimaa Debees, writes her reflections on the thirteenth day of “Operation Protective Edge”: