This is the story of coffee. I am not the storyteller, but like you, I am one of the audience.
I sit in a claustrophobic meeting room with a square desk, four chairs and what feels like an oxygen supply for three alternately breathing souls. But far from gasping for air, I am mesmerised. I feel nothing but the thick, husky voice unravelling tales of coffee in a language I am struggling to learn, Arabic.
‘Al gahwa endna nehen, mish bas sharab, al gahwa nehen, eh-tiyaj.’ Coffee for us, it is not just a drink, coffee for us is a ___. I do not know the meaning of eh-thehaaj but it doesn’t matter. Ghaya Khalfan Al Daheri’s voice and her eyes are powerfully expressive; she reminds me of my maternal grandmother, who still manages to send chills down my spine with her dramatic stories of possessed people, shrieking cats and terrible omens through her childhood in India.
Ghaya, or more appropriately, Madame Ghaya, hails from a family of storytellers, the Daheri family from the ancient oasis city of Al Ain. She graduated with a degree in anthropology from the University of Sussex in Brighton and currently researches historical documents at the Zayed Central Library in Al Ain. She can easily switch to English, but I have urged her to narrate in Arabic. Because words can be translated, but poetry expressed in the language that the poet dreams in, cannot.
Just two hours before, I had worn an English-to-Arabic translation headset to understand Madam Ghaya’s responses during a coffee panel at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. She approached the stage in an ornate pink and silver embroidered jallebiya, a deliberate wardrobe choice that she proudly showcased to the audience as the traditional outfit worn during an Arabic coffee ceremony. Such was her energy and passion that she couldn’t sit when she spoke; she had to stand as she recounted her sensory experience of coffee as a young Emirati girl. She reminisced about the flames of fire dancing on the ‘dallah,’ the coffee pot, as her grandmother would brew coffee. She evoked the music of rhythmic pounding, as the roasted coffee beans are crushed in a mortar and pestle. She revived the aroma of gahwa, the coffee that she was forbidden to drink as a child lest her teeth turned black.
Madam Ghaya impressed that coffee of the Arabs is symbolic of hospitality and generosity. No matter how extravagant the feast, ‘your hospitality will mean nothing without coffee.’ She described how the pounding of the coffee was an audible invitation to people nearby. Anyone could join the majlis, ‘you don’t need to be rich, you don’t need to know the name of your host.’
We learned of an exalted – and near extinct – version of gahwa that used to be made with roasted and ground coffee, cardamom, saffron, rosebuds, nutmeg, cloves and ‘oud’ wood. It was the drink that beckoned the distinct aromas of these seven perfumed elements, not one too boisterous, nor one too bashful, but all in blended balance. Even as the translator hurriedly pieced together Madam Ghaya’s story of ‘finjaan masbo’a,’ the most luxurious cup of coffee brewed with these seven ingredients, I sensed that English was failing as a language to convey the value of this drink. It was the drink of kings leading empires, of warriors entering battle, of knights on the backs of horses. I wonder if the translator realised this too; how clumsy of a sieve English turned out to be for a coffee storyteller whose voice was best heard unfiltered. Even the Arabic word ‘gahwa,’ a baritone ‘gah’ exhaling into a wistful ‘ahwa,’ leaves the translated ‘coffee’ sounding rather bland.
English was failing then, as it is again now, with my feeble attempt to convey Madam Ghaya’s compelling coffee stories. My favourite was her tale of bedouins and missionaries, which began when coffee sailed from its birthplace, Ethiopia, across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula. The devoted pilgrims of Makkah would sip small cups of this dark brew to stay awake through the night, steeped in unfaltering worship. Gahwa travelled with the Bedouins through the Peninsula, where they encountered Italian missionaries who had travelled from Venice through Palestine into Arabia.
Those were times when guests were welcomed as God’s blessings, regardless of the guests’ religion or race, and regardless of the host’s wealth or lack thereof. For the first two days, the Bedouins offered their unsweetened black brew to an unappreciative audience; the missionaries found the drink bitter. On the third day, a Bedouin placed a vessel of fresh camel milk near the fire. He diluted the gahwa with this white frothy liquid, pouring it into larger cups that the missionaries sipped with glee. The Bedouins had successfully converted the missionaries to coffee.
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The generous Bedouins gifted every last coffee bean from their meagre supply to their Italian guests. Their leather pouch of beans and the technique of a milky brew travelled with the missionaries back to Europe, where they eventually reached the cup of the Pope by the 17th century. Upon asking after the name of this agreeable drink, the Pope received a simple answer: ‘coffee with milk.’ He demanded a more distinctive title, prompting those around him to christen the drink after the religious order through which the brew passed hands from Arabia to the Vatican. Madam Ghaya emphasises the name of the religious order, “Capuchin”, and pauses for effect so that the audience can draw the obvious conclusion. Italy, it seems, must credit the invention of the cappuccino back to the Bedouins of Arabia.
The stories I have read elsewhere behind Cappuccino have no mention of the Bedouins, but then the stories are in English and the writers from the West. An Italian audience member in the panel piped up to add credit to the story, the Capuchins are still around today! Whether you believe Madam Ghaya’s account or not, you cannot help but be transported by her expressions and her gestures as she takes you on the journey from Arabia to the Vatican. According to her father, her love for coffee took root even before her birth, when her parents’ marriage was cemented over a cup of gahwa exchanged between her grandfathers.
And so great is that love, she has written a book dedicated to the subject. It is entirely in Arabic.
As I struggle to understand the text in Madam Ghaya’s book, I can see verses of gahwa poetry peppered through the pages. Even the ordinary prose has a cadence, even more discernible to me because without their meanings, I can only focus on how the words sound as I recite them. I have embarked on a painstaking word-by-word translation with a dictionary, an effort that is not just exhausting, but that robs the prose of its elegance. This might be the final push for me to learn Arabic, starting with the word that struck me in that suffocating room: Eh-tiyaj, or necessity.
Coffee for us, it is not just a drink, coffee for us is a necessity.