Can a simple coffee bean evoke strong emotions? Seated in the welcoming majlis of the Sharjah Heritage Museum, and listening to Khalid Al Mulla, one would think so. Founder of the Dubai Coffee Museum, Khalid traces the history of coffee in the Arabian Gulf with an unmistakable passion in his voice, and the stories that he narrates and the history he encapsulates is certainly way much more intoxicating than the first sip of your morning cuppa.

Just as you begin to wonder what it is about a coffee bean that could make him so emotional, so excited, he begins to unravel the importance of coffee as an intrinsic link to a way of life that connects the heritage of his country’s past with the present, and details how it evolved to become a part of the hospitality, traditions and customs of the people in the UAE and the wider Arab region.

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It is to better understand these cultural and heritage values attached to coffee in Arab culture and its associated elaborate traditions and rituals accompanying its preparation and serving that bring us to the Sharjah Heritage Museum where an exhibition titled Coffee in the Arabian Gulf, organised by the Sharjah Museums Authority, will run until December 2.

[Sharjah's gateway to Islamic culture and art]

Through a collection of objects from the Dubai Coffee Museum, including different types of dallah or coffee pots, roasting and serving utensils, as well as several historical photographs, this exhibition seeks to tell the story of coffee’s relevance to the cultures of the UAE and the Gulf countries.

Coffee is integral to Arabic hospitality, says Khalid. ‘It symbolises the spirit of generosity and hospitality that is so ingrained in the Emirati way of life. Even when your pockets are empty, serving coffee and dates to guests is a norm in our society. We believe that even if you put up an extravagant feast, welcoming and honouring guests is not complete until they are served coffee,’ says Khalid.

Here, at the exhibition, it is the dallah which is the star of the show. ‘We see this every day in our daily lives, but how many people recognise its importance in our society?’ he asks. ‘Today, you find it in 5-star hotels and Arabic tents, airline lounges and government offices, and even on roundabouts to showcase how the country likes to welcome its guests.’

The exhibition on coffee at the Sharjah Heritage Museum offers a glimpse into the history and tradition of the brew in not just the UAE but the entire region
Anas Thacharpadikkal

Since it represents such an important aspect of Emirati culture, the Arabian dallah was also chosen to feature on the most commonly used denomination of the UAE currency – Dh1 coin, thereby becoming the only country to do so, he adds.  

The idea for the exhibition, he adds, ‘came about in collaboration with Sharjah Museums Authority when we decided to talk about the position attributed to the Arabian dallah in our society, and through it, to showcase the history of coffee in the region and the elaborate rituals associated with making and serving coffee.’

To trace the history of the much-loved morning brew, Khalid takes us albeit virtually to the lush forests on the Ethiopian plateau to narrate the intriguing tale of goat herder Kaldi who first discovered the potential of the coffee bean circa 700 CE when he noticed his goats become frisky and energetic after eating coffee berries.

It is believed that Kaldi reported his findings to a monk who made a drink with it that helped him stay awake all night as he prayed.

As word began to spread about the energising berries, coffee soon made its way north, across the Red Sea and into Yemen, marking its entry into Arabian soil.

‘It was from the Arabian Peninsula that coffee embarked on a remarkable journey that would see it eventually reach the farthest corners of the globe,’ explains Khalid. ‘Yemeni port, Mocha, soon became synonymous with coffee as shipments of coffee arrived from this port city.’

Mocha, in Yemen, is also where the sweet-flavoured bean from the plant species called Coffee arabica originally grew; ‘but today, we know “mocha” primarily as the chocolate-flavoured coffee popular on menus in coffee shops, and few realise how much of the coffee we consume today dates to a historic Arab tradition’.

The different parts of a dallah
Anas Thacharpadikkal

It was the thousands of pilgrims converging at Mecca each year that took coffee to their homelands including the UAE, he adds. ‘Incidentally, the first coffeehouses also sprouted in Mecca before spreading throughout the Arab world. Thus, the Arabs in the Gulf embraced coffee at least a hundred years before it entered Europe via Turkey.’

It was only fitting therefore that in 2015, Arabic coffee was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, underscoring the cultural importance of this beverage. Unesco ascribed the origins of coffee or ‘gahwa’, as it is popularly known in the Emirati Arabic dialect, to UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman among other countries.

To emphasise how the Emiratis have made an art out of processing, tasting and enjoying coffee, Khalid draws our attention to the long-spouted dallah with its sinuous handle and dome-shaped lid with a finial, and which plays a central role in coffee serving rituals even today.

‘Al Dallah is the name given to the pot in which Arabic coffee is prepared,’ he explains. ‘The name originates from dalaal, meaning “pamper” since the traditional craftsmen paid great attention to its design and shape, and this was a must-have item in every household. Many of these feature rich ornamentation; some were engraved with geometric patterns or stylised floral depictions. Often, names of the rulers of the region were also marked while craftsmen put their stamp on each dallah with their signatures. Therefore, just by looking at the design, we can tell where it originates from.’

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The craft of making the dallah or delal (plural), he adds, was passed down in families over the centuries.

There are many types of coffee pots and these are differentiated chiefly according to their region of manufacture or the family that handcrafted it, he says, as he leads us to the numerous delal on display at the exhibition.

‘The name of a dallah indicates where it was made except for Al-Qurashiya, which originates from Mecca, or by which family such as the renowned Raslan family in Syria,’ he explains. ‘The Al-Baghdadiya manufactured in Iraq is the oldest, most precious and the finest dallah generally found in the region.’

From brass Emirati delal dating to the 1950s to some of the first modern types of stainless steel Zamzamiya delal (thermos flasks) from Japan that began to replace the traditional ones as early as the late 1950s, the exhibits here trace the evolution of the dallah to its modern form and also highlight the differences in styles and crafting traditions of the various regions.

Traditionally made of brass and copper, even silver and 24-carat-gold dallah have been handcrafted for use on special occasions by the very wealthy.

There is also a collection of vintage copper dallah serving set from Hijaziyya, Saudi Arabia, two copper Ja’mena or flasks used for preparing coffee in Yemen and the south of Saudi Arabia, two different styles of Al Hasawiya delal from Saudi Arabia dating to the 1940s, and others from Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. 

A late 18th century southern Arabian coffee set occupies pride of place at the exhibition. This ceramic coffee serving set comprises of ja’mena and finjan (the tiny demitasse cups without handles) with a steel twah (coffee bean roasting pan) and mihmas (bean stirrer), nijar (stone pestle and wooden mortar) and mubarrid (wooden cooling tray).

‘In the UAE, coffee is not just a drink; it is what brings people together,’ asserts Khalid. ‘Especially, in the majlis tradition, it enabled conversations within a community, and at homes, families and neighbours bonded over coffee. That is why it was traditionally roasted, ground, and prepared in front of guests.’

Spices also play an important role in Arabic coffee, he adds. ‘The most common spice used is cardamom. Cloves, saffron and sometimes rosewater too are used in its preparation.’

Another highlight of the exhibition is the demonstration of how coffee is prepared and served, and visitors can not only familiarise themselves with the many tools that are used for this purpose, but also gain a better understanding of many of the customs  that still prevail today.

Late 18th century southern Arabian ceramic coffee set with clay coffee pots
Anas Thacharpadikkal

The serving of Arabic coffee is guided by elaborate etiquette, explains Khalid. ‘The dallah is always held in the left hand, with the thumb pointing to the top. In the right hand, the server holds the cups, usually a set of three stacked finjan. The most important or oldest guest is served first, or it begins with the person sitting on the right side of the majlis. Care should be taken not to skip anyone in between. The server remains standing throughout until every guest has had their fill.

‘Only a small dose of coffee is served, around a quarter of the cup, to ensure that the guest stays longer, and keeps drinking coffee,’ he adds. ‘It is the practice to keep refilling if the guest returns the cup. To say that you have had enough, you have to shake the cup lightly to the left and right.’

The origins of this practice, he explains, stems from an early practice when at the majlises of chieftains and leaders, where important political and other administrative matters were discussed, it was customary to employ deaf people to serve coffee so that they wouldn’t listen in on what was being spoken. ‘The shaking of cups was intended to signal to these deaf servers that the guest had enough coffee.’

Athough Arabia was once the gatekeeper for coffee and all beans had to be purchased from Yemen, Baba Budan, a Sufi saint from India, carried some fertile beans on his return from Mecca and began large scale coffee cultivation in the south of India where it is still grown today.

In the UAE, coffee is not just a drink, it is what brings people together, says Khalid
Anas Thacharpadikkal

Around the same time, in the latter half of the 17th century, the Dutch smuggled coffee plants from Yemen but the cold weather foiled their attempts to grow it in their country. They later cultivated it in their colony in Indonesia, leading to Java becoming another popular household term for coffee. By the 19th century, coffee was being shipped and consumed around the globe and today, after oil, coffee is the second most traded commodity on earth.

With speciality coffee houses and western coffee chains on the rise, does this bode the end for Arabic coffee? Not at all, says Khalid. ‘To celebrate the heritage of gahwa and as testament to how it continues to remain a central part of Arab culture, the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi is organising the first ever ‘Gahwa Championships’ in Abu Dhabi from December 9 to 11 where several categories will test contestants’ skills and knowledge in areas such as the heritage of gahwa, bean selection and roasting, and gahwa preparation and serving.

‘Coffee is so deeply tied in to the spirit of Arab and Emirati hospitality that it will continue to dominate and cast its spell in our lives in the years to come.’