Arabic coffee: A heritage fled and settled with Syrians in displacement camps

A young man wearing the traditional Arabic costume sits near Arabian copper tinned Dallah coffee pots that are used for making Arabic coffee inside a tent in Mashhad Rouhin, northern Idlib region - May 25, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Abdulkarim al-Thalji)

A young man wearing the traditional Arabic costume sits near Arabian copper tinned Dallah coffee pots that are used for making Arabic coffee inside a tent in Mashhad Rouhin, northern Idlib region - May 25, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Abdulkarim al-Thalji)

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Enab Baladi – Abdulkarim al-Thalji

It is not possible to pass by the al-Nasr camp for the displaced in the Harbanoush area, north of Idlib, without smelling the aroma of Arabic coffee emanating from a large embroidered tent advancing the camp, with the al-Mehbaj (Traditional Arabic coffee grinder made of wood) sound that pleases the ears, as the roasted coffee beans are ground with it as if it were a Bedouin symphony.

What catches the eye inside the tent is the fire stove, in the middle of which are Arabian tinned copper Dallah coffee pots, cups, and carefully embroidered Arabic mattresses, and the aroma of (bitter) Arabic coffee fills the entire camp.

Such equipment has always been preserved by the people of the Syrian tribes and clans, despite the frequent waves of displacement to northwestern Syria.

They maintain the habit of serving Arabic coffee to guests, despite the conditions of displacement, difficult life, and deteriorating economic conditions.

From inside the large tent in al-Nasr camp, Hayyan al-Atour, 35, stands behind the stove to prepare coffee for the guests, after renewing it mixed with ground cardamom grains with al-Mehbaj, welcoming the arrival of a new guest, after which the men of the camp gather in the al-Madhafa (guest place) to welcome him.

The difficult conditions did not prevent al-Atour, of the al-Masharifah tribe, one of the al-Mawali clans, from preserving the customs and traditions on which he was brought up from the era of his fathers and grandfathers, according to what he told Enab Baladi.

Al-Atour adds that this heritage is rooted in the hearts of young and old members of his clan, and despite their difficult living conditions, they serve Arabic coffee on a daily basis, hold banquets at weddings and sorrows, and meet in his father’s tent every day, to exchange conversations in the evenings.

The conditions of war, displacement, and deteriorating living and economic conditions imposed themselves on the Syrians over the course of a decade, especially the residents of northwestern Syria, who were displaced from the various Syrian governorates, where approximately 1.9 million people live in the region’s camps, of whom the Syrian clans constitute a large part.

Arabic coffee has its own symbolism

Arabic coffee has always been associated with the Arab person in his travels. He carries it with the supplies of his house, offers it to the guest as a kind of hospitality, and it is always ready and made whenever the quantity runs out.

One of the notables of the al-Fadhl tribe, Mamdouh al-Issa, 50, told Enab Baladi that coffee is of great importance and symbolism to the people of the Syrian tribes and clans, for in it “problems are solved, and it is one of the gates of generosity for the Arabs.”

On the other hand, Zakariya Shams al-Din, 34, a member of the Bani Jamil tribe, who was displaced from southern Aleppo to the Sarmada area north of Idlib, considers it to be one of the authentic Arab customs rooted in history and inseparable from his being.

Shams al-Din told Enab Baladi that Arabic coffee is a taste, not a drink. It is a symbol of Arab generosity, relief to the needy, and meeting people’s needs.

Many problems, such as murder, theft, or group quarrels, are solved by using a cup of coffee to resolve the dispute or to accept a request from the host.

He added that every cup has a story, which differs from one Arab region to another, but the Syrian and Arab tribes agree on essential matters related to Arabic coffee, its symbolism, and the way it is prepared and presented to the guest.

Arabic coffee is the official drink of the Syrian tribes and clans who live in the countryside of the Syrian governorates, in addition to the desert areas. Despite the development of life and the introduction of hot and cold drinks, the carefully prepared Arabic coffee still maintains its position.

Customs and traditions

In addition to the symbolism and importance of Arabic coffee, it was accompanied by customs and traditions and sung by poets. It was the talk of the Bedouin man in his councils, as it is an indispensable popular heritage, and is present on all occasions, presented to the guest despite all circumstances.

Nawwaf al-Shuwaytia, 60, one of the notables of the Shammar tribe, said that Arabic coffee has its many rituals and customs, and although it differs from one country to another, they are similar in basics.

Among them is that when the guest comes, the coffee must be renewed to make him feel safe, and this is accompanied by a cheerful face from the host to express good reception.

Al-Shuwaytia added to Enab Baladi that the person who specializes in serving coffee must drink the first cup to confirm that the coffee is ready and that it is free from any defect (such as being cold, old, or containing harmful substances, which have a negative message).

The provision of coffee has rules that cannot be bypassed, according to al-Shuwaytia, Arabic coffee is linked to things that only those familiar with coffee and its meanings can explain.

Coffee must be served first to the man of the highest rank, who enjoys a prestigious position in the councils from the great people, or a great scholar, or a man of prestige and a place of respect and appreciation of the people, then the coffee servant completes pouring the coffee from him until it is finished to the left, and then back to the right in order to serve all attendees.

Al-Shuwaytia added that for Arab tribes, tea serving should start from right to left in each sitting. Also, the banquet (slaughtering a sheep) has its own “opening text or phrase.” It must say and state that this banquet is for the sake of a main guest before the guests begin eating.

A tent in the IDP al-Nasr camp in the Harbanoush area, north of Idlib - May 25, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Abdulkarim al-Thalji)

A tent in the IDP al-Nasr camp in the Harbanoush area, north of Idlib – May 25, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Abdulkarim al-Thalji)

Stories of Arab coffee cups

The Arabs gave importance to every detail of coffee and its presentation, and it was associated with important events in their lives until it became like a custom that applies to everyone and is known by the young before the old.

Each cup has a story, says Mamdouh Abu Ibrahim, one of the notables of the al-Fadhl tribe, who told Enab Baladi that there are four cups: “al-Haif, al-Dhif (The guest), al-Kaif, and a-Saif( Sword).”

The cup of “al-Haif” is drunk by the coffee maker, the Qahwaji, usually a boy or a young man in age or “the owner of the guest house or the host after preparing the coffee to notify the guest of safety and that the coffee is free from defects or poison.

The second is the “guest” cup, and it is the first one that is served to the guest. If the guest asks for a second cup, then it is called “al-Kaif,” which means Arabic coffee, which means he liked the taste of coffee and enjoyed it.

If the guest asks for the third cup, then it is called the “sword,” and here he is alerted by the host that it is the third cup that he drinks, which symbolizes a great matter, which is that the guest is ready to fight alongside him if he fights or is attacked.

The coffee maker has characteristics on the basis of which he is chosen, according to Zakaria Shams al-Din, a member of the Bani Jamil tribe, who said, “In the past, the Arabs used to choose a coffee maker who neither heard nor spoke, because the conversations that took place in the council were not supposed to be memorized as a matter of honesty.

“The coffee maker repeats the pouring until the guest shakes his cup in a sign of sufficiency,” adding that whoever pours the coffee must serve it standing, holding the Arabian tinned copper Dallah coffee pot from the left and serving the cup with the right, and tapping on the cup to make a sound alerting the guest that he will serve him coffee.

One of the customs associated with cups is that a guest with a need comes to the host if he is one of the senior people, and the guest puts his cup on the ground, requesting to relieve himself, and the host says, “Drink. Your need is met with God’s help, or Cheer up, whatever you bring, you will go with it,” referring to fulfilling his request within the possible.

In battles between tribes, too, it is said that whoever drinks the cup of the “contender” they mention the name of the intractable opponent to the tribe in order to send a brave man to meet him.

Arabian tinned copper Dallah coffee pots inside a tent in the al-Nasr camp in the Harbanoush area, north of Idlib - May 25, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Abdulkarim al-Thalji)

Arabian tinned copper Dallah coffee pots inside a tent in the al-Nasr camp in the Harbanoush area, north of Idlib – May 25, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Abdulkarim al-Thalji)

How to prepare

Arabic coffee cooked with cardamom has a special method of preparation that takes several hours and requires experience and know-how.

Haitham al-Ahmad, 31, from the village of al-Karamah, west of Idlib, told Enab Baladi how to prepare Arabic coffee, saying that he buys green Colombian coffee beans from the market, roasts it on the fire, using a large spoon with a long stick.

Al-Ahmad continues to stir the coffee beans until they become blonde in color, to be cooled in a pot made of wood and then placed in the al-Mehbaj (Traditional Arabic coffee grinder made of wood). Then put ground coffee beans on the fire for several hours until it boils.

After it boils, it is filtered and placed in a pot, and ground cardamom seeds are added to it and put again on fire until it is ready to be served to the guests.

Meanwhile, Ahmed Abdulaziz, an IDP from Hama countryside to the Sarmada region, strives to take care of preparing Arabic coffee in a Bedouin atmosphere permeated by the exchange of conversations, poems, and playing the rebab (string instrument), which has a special place among the bedouins.

Coffee has accompanying tools, which are: “the Manqal, tinned copper Dallah coffee pots, the Mehmas (roaster), the Mebrada, the Mehbaj, the cook and the cups.”

There are several types of copper Dallah coffee pots like al-Raslaniya, al-Baghdadia, al-Qurashiya, a-Homsiya, al-Hijaziya, and al-Assaf.”

Arabic coffee was known to the Arabs in ancient times as a result of their contact with the Ethiopian Empire (Abyssinia) through the merchants of Yemen, as it entered the Arab countries and was discovered later in Yemen.

Arabica coffee is considered the most popular in the world, as it constitutes approximately 60% of the coffee in the world, and Arabica coffee is distinguished by its rich flavor and low acid taste.

There is southern coffee, which is called Sha’liya or Shaqra, which is light yellowish in color and is found in Saudi Arabia areas like Najd, Hijaz, and most of the Gulf countries. And the northern (black) coffee, which is found in the Levant countries, and there is Turkish coffee, but it is not restricted to the customs and traditions of Arabic coffee.

 

 

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