It is like Khamr, wine ... It is like Eshq, love ... It is like Sehr, black magic. It is like Zahab, like gold. Coffee has been described as many things ... Arabic poets have praised and complained of coffee’s seductive aroma, hypnotic taste, and its unrelenting possessive hold over its drinkers for hundreds of years.
O Coffee! Thou dost dispel all cares, thou art the object of desire to the scholar.
This is the beverage of the friends of God; it gives health to those in its service who strive after wisdom.
Prepared from the simple shell of the berry, it has the odor of musk and the color of ink.
The intelligent man who empties these cups of foaming coffee, he alone knows truth.
May God deprive of this drink the foolish man who condemns it with incurable obstinacy.
Coffee is our gold. Wherever it is served, one enjoys the society of the noblest and most generous men.
O drink! As harmless as pure milk, which differs from it only in its blackness.
— In Praise of Coffee, an Arabic poem from 1511
Coffee’s legacy in Arabia is said to have begun around 1450 AD. It slowly evolved into a tradition and a symbol of hospitality and chivalry. The host serves the brown brew at the beginning of a visit, then repeatedly offers it until the guests politely signal they have had their fill by holding out their cup, rocking it from side to side. From how it is made to how it is poured and drank, there is a set of rituals attached to Arabic coffee that are carefully observed by most coffee drinkers.
But long before the beverage was imbibed by students and professionals to stay awake, the beverage known as qahwa, a term formerly applied to wine, became popular among the Sufi muslims who boil up the grounded beans and drink the brew to stay awake during their nightly mediation and prayers. It was not uncommon for Europeans to name Arabic coffee as “the wine of Islam.”
Coffee drinking reached as far as Mecca. According to Jaziri, an early Arab historian, “it was drunk in the Sacred Mosque itself, so that there was scarcely a dhikr or mawlid where coffee was not present.” And here in the UAE, coffee became such an important part of Emirati culture that it is said that during WWII, when there was a world wide shortage of food and drinks, including coffee, the Bedouins residing here would crush and grind dates before boiling them into a brown-coffee-like drink to be served in traditional coffee cups.
It was unthinkable not to offer some kind of coffee-like drink to a guest. One way to illustrate just how strongly rooted coffee drinking is in a culture is through its poems and sayings. Like this line recited by an elderly Emirati woman who insisted on pouring freshly brewed coffee to a group of female guests who had dropped by for a visit to her majlis:
Even if my precious coffee would cost me over 20 rupees, I would buy it.
It was later explained to me that the regular price of coffee before the unification of the Emirates on 2 December 1971 was 2 to 3 Indian rupees for 4 kilos (100 rupees was valued at about 44 Dirhams).
Over time, coffee became more than just a drink. Turkish coffee is read like horoscopes; one’s future foretold in its lines and streaks after it has been drank. Coffee is a test of courtship and upbringing; families put a potential bride through a test of making Arabic coffee under the scrutinizing eyes of a future mother-in-law. How the potential bride serves coffee can determine her marriageability. Artists, poets, writers, and singers have drawn, painted, photographed and composed pieces about this dark brew, with new addicts born every generation.
But how did our love affair with coffee begin?
It all started with a goat. Or, rather, a group of dancing goats who first discovered coffee beans in Africa. Felix Mwongela Ndiku happens to believe in this story, having been born and raised on a coffee farm in Kenya—with goats. “Yes, I believe in the legends about coffee. I believe that sometime in the 9th century, an Ethiopian goat herder by the name of Kaldi noticed his goats acting hyper and excited. He followed them and noticed them eating these red berries, which he ate and felt as excited and good as his goats,” says Felix.
The legend continues with Kaldi taking the fruits to a holy man. The man disapproved of the berries as a drug and threw them into the fire, where the berries then released that pleasant aroma with which we are all familiar. The roasted coffee beans were then ground up and boiled in hot water, creating the world's first cup of coffee and the world’s second most traded commodity, after oil.
“There is something magical about coffee,” insists Felix.
With coffee continuously winning the title of world’s “most drank” beverage, perhaps there is something magical about the beans. For Felix, there is no doubt. Coffee is magic. The 34-year-old from a small village in Machakos has been working in the coffee industry for as long as he remembers.
And the best part about coffee, Felix smiles before declaring, is that it was born in Africa. “It all started in Africa, and then slowly it made its way to Yemen and then to the rest of the Arab world, and then from there to Europe and beyond.”
Felix says that even the Arabic word for coffee, qahwa, is the same as the Swahili version, Kahawa. The origin of the word itself goes back to a place in Ethiopia, the Kingdom of Kaffa (1390-1879). Kaffa’s coffee plants were called bun, evolving to the Arabic word “bunn” (coffee beans).
“There are many webs of connections through coffee. It is a journey of cultures and people,” he says.
Back on Felix’s humble coffee farm, spanning four acres, he handpicked the bright red berries, dried them, peeled them down to their green bean, and then either sent them off to be roasted or would roast them himself with his mother and 95-year-old grandmother. That was their daily routine. “We are a coffee family. Coffee runs in our blood.”
But despite great efforts by two generations of his family, their coffee farm is struggling like most coffee farmers in Kenya. “The coffee societies and coffee co-operations are run by big men in the government, and so most of the farmers like my family can’t live on what they get back. So they grow other crops like corn and beans to live on.”
Because of their fair trade status, Kenyan farmers receive a minimum of five US cents per kilogram on top of the ongoing price for their coffee. The fair trade movement started over the past ten years; while there is no standardized definition and set of rules, the movement overall aims to give a reasonable price to the farmers who were being exploited with low wages.
But despite all the international efforts, Felix’s farm is not doing well. It produces only about 120 kilograms of coffee beans per year, mainly due to low rainfalls and lack of government support.
“A lot of heart and struggle goes into making your cup of coffee,” says Felix.
It was this passion for the independent farmers that led Felix to his current job after working for various coffee shops in the UAE over the past seven years. Tucked in one of alleys of in Dubai’s Al Quoz 1 industrial area, is RAW Coffee Company, a unique boutique roastery supplying cafes, restaurants, businesses and households here in the UAE with locally roasted, organic and ethically traded fresh Arabica coffee. It was established in 2007 to bring freshly roasted specialty coffee from over 20 countries like Ethiopia, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and even Kenya to a cup in the UAE. Felix likes the charitable nature of RAW. RAW gives back to small independent farmers like his old grandmother through fundraising events for the farmers and several fair trade-related deals.
To find out more about RAW coffee shop: http://rawcoffeecompany.com
“I also get to taste coffee beans from around the world,” says Felix, who is always smiling and ready to match the coffee with its drinkers by making recommendations based on expressed preferences. As he stands over a series of glass bottles containing coffee beans from around the world, it looks like Felix is working at the United Nations of coffee.
We can’t grow coffee in the UAE. We tried, but the coffee berries died,” he says. Two coffee trees greet visitors at the front door of RAW cafe, giving coffee lovers the chance to see where their favorite beverage is born and how it looks.
Like most Arabs today, the Arabic coffee carries many nationalities. There is nothing Arabic about the Arabic coffee, with the beans at its heart imported from around the world. But Arabic coffee was made from beans once. Up until the 17th century, Arabic coffee was largely made from Yemeni coffee beans, and the legendary Mokha port (Mocha) was once the main coffee exporting site for the region. The Yemeni port’s name became a synonym for the high-quality coffee of the species Coffea Arabica.
“There is a legend about how coffee made it to Yemen. Some birds migrated out of Africa to Yemen, and in their waste, they left behind some coffee beans and that is how the fruit was born in Yemen,” says Felix.
While there are still some coffee beans arriving from Yemen, and they can be bought here, Arabic coffee in the UAE is often made from Sri Lankan coffee beans. The Sri Lankan beans cost approximately 30 Dhs per kilo. Some opt for using coffee beans from Kenya for Arabic coffee; the Kenyan beans are more expensive at 48 Dhs per kilo.
But for Felix, his favorite coffee is not from Kenya but from Guatemala. “Flavors are quite intense, with an almondy, smoky chocolatey citrusy taste. I love it.”
Within seconds of mentioning Guatemalan coffee, Felix goes off to make himself a fresh cup. “I don’t feel like myself without coffee. I need a dosage everyday.” He pauses before adding: “Several times throughout the day.”
He insists that one of the main delightful and “healthy” features of organic coffee is that one ends up not needing to add sugar. "It is already sweet. Flavors are strong and good. Good to diet on organic coffee.”
During the interview, Felix makes his coffee using a Mr. Clever coffee dripper, which works like the French Press and filter drip brew coffee maker. “Very smooth, citrusy, chocolatey, clean cup of coffee. Hmmmm,” he mumbles to himself.
While Felix enjoys his cup, a quick browse of the premises of RAW boutique reveals hundreds of coffee beans sacks stacked on top of each other. Each sack weighs around 60 to 70 kilos. All the coffee beans are handpicked, and each origin of beans is roasted separately. Each type has its own setting that brings out the best flavor and just the right acidity.
“The different nationalities of coffee beans have their own needs and specs, kinda like people,” explains Felix as he gives a tour of the place.
Each coffee bean has a different roasting profile. The beans meet at RAW and find their destiny changed in the 18 Kilogram Coffee Tool roaster. “Life is a melting pot of different nationalities, like this roastery… It is science and a bit of personal touch. Because of this machine, we can make a really good coffee cup.” After they are roasted, blended, and weighted, the beans are sealed inside of an air tight package.
Felix has a few tips he wants to share about coffee.
Tip 1: Don’t keep your coffee in the refrigerator. The coffee soaks up the humidity from the fridge, losing its flavours. Keep the beans at room temperature in an airtight container.
Tip 2: When you brew, don’t overheat the water. Boiling water will burn the flavor, so keep the water at 85 to 92 degrees Celsius.
Tip 3: Filter coffee makers are the best at bringing out the flavors, but do not drain the filters fully.
As someone who lives for and with coffee, Felix finds that lessons learned from coffee beans can almost be applied to every aspect of life.
“Coffee is like every other fruit with a certain acidity. A balanced espresso is both acidic and bitter. If it is only one or the other, then it is not a good espresso. Kinda like life. You need a bit of both to give it balanced flavor.”
When he is not working, Felix practices making coffee; he wants to become famous for his coffee. He regularly enters Barista coffee competitions in the hopes of winning first place. If he wins in the UAE he will go on to the world championships, where he wants to be known for making the world’s best coffee.
His love of coffee has rubbed off on his wife, or so he believes. Gloria, 30, works in a cafe and regularly serves coffee. But professionally she is a primary teacher. “My passion for coffee is from Felix because he loves coffee, so I have to love it,” she laughs.
The love story of this couple began in a coffee farm. “I saw her over a bunch of coffee trees, and I knew we were destined to be together,” says Felix. The couple has a son, Daniel Baraka (meaning blessing), who is 5 years old and living back in Kenya with the family.
Playing outside with his cousins and running between the coffee trees is how Daniel Baraka spends his days. “It is the best place to grow up, among greenery and love,” says Gloria. The couple plans to bring Daniel to the UAE when they can afford it. But until then, Daniel will be running about on the same farm that Felix once ran in.
The couple loves the UAE and believes that it is the land of opportunity, a type of roaster where people from around the world can come and live out their own personal flavours. “If they give me a passport, I would live here forever. I love the UAE,” says Felix. But, he adds:
“I need my good coffee. As long as I have my cup of coffee, I can conquer the world.”
TID BIT ABOUT ARABIC COFFEE:
After roasting and grinding the coffee beans, the grains are added to boiling water inside a large dallah (coffee pot) called a Khamra. The liquid is then poured into another coffee pot, taljeemah, a medium sized traditional pot, where cardamom seeds, and sometimes other spices like saffron, cinnamon, rose water, pepper, are added and stirred in to give it that special Arabian flavor. From this jug, the coffee is poured into a serving dallah, mezallah, where it is refined and filtered.
The mezallah must be held in the left hand, and the traditional coffee cup, fanayeel or fanajeen, must be distributed with the right.
The coffee is filled to less than half of the cup. Some say it is a sign of respect, as if telling the guest there is more to come, and so it is not filled up. Others say there is a practical reason, for the coffee to cool off and not spill as one sits on the floor. Most say it is to allow the drinker to have his or her “royal sip,” gentle small sips of coffee.
Photographs and text — Rym Tina Ghazal, unless credited otherwise