It all started with a cup of coffee.
I had ordered some good old Tim Horton’s coffee, one of the few recognizable Canadian brands out there, and then realized I didn’t have the right change. Or, rather, the right currency on me.
I had just come back from Saudi Arabia and forgot to remove the Saudi Riyals and put the UAE Dirhams back into my wallet. As I held the Saudi money in my hand, I noticed the different images and words printed on it. I realized how I took it for granted and never actually paid much attention to the details on the various currencies that regularly visit my wallet.
That experience is how I came up with the idea of researching the stories and the history of currencies, what images they have and why, what names were once printed or minted, and the impact of ancient and recent trade routes and politics on a single coin or piece of paper.
I am starting the series on currency with Emirati money, and the more I dig, the more stories and threads are born out of the research. To begin, I sat with collectors of currency and with artists that have had a hand in actually designing currency. Their stories and how they view their country’s currency will be the first part of the money series.
Going back to coffee, I ended up exchanging some Saudi Riyals with a Saudi man who happened to be standing behind me in line for the few Emirati Dirhams I needed to pay for my coffee. Coincidence?
As I sipped Tim’s coffee, I made a mental note of its taste and how it measures up to other coffees I have drank recently. It is one of the few coffees out there that still succeeds in keeping me up. I then wondered what kind of coffee beans were used, and what makes some coffees better than others. What actually goes into making the perfect cup?
Whenever I travel, I make it a traveling tradition to try that city’s best coffee. When I went across Europe, across Canada as well as the US, I made sure that I stopped for coffee somewhere, and made a note of its taste and texture.
To this day, nothing beats a cup of coffee I drank at a restored castle in St. Goar, Germany. It was a bit of heaven squeezed into a glass cup. I lost my heart to that cup.
This brings me into the other series I am working on: coffee. Whether inside of a wallet or a cup, there is a story to be found in the most banal of items and places.
I was lucky that I bumped into Felix, who is from Kenya and comes from a long line of coffee farm owners. He happens to be working in a coffee shop in Dubai.
“I have coffee running in my veins instead of blood,” he said… A personal bittersweet crossroads of cultures through coffee best describes Felix’s story.
One struggle I had with telling this first coffee story was finding the right “jumping goats” that are part of the narrative. The only goats photo I have is from Lebanon; while very cute, they probably look nothing like Kenyan goats and likely never tasted a coffee bean in their life.
For both types of stories, I also truly enjoyed going through old maps at the Dr. Sultan Al Qasimi Centre of Gulf Studies, Sharjah. It was my first stop in my journey in understanding the ancient trade routes that crossed the area known today as the UAE.
I want to share two of my favorite maps, one that highlights the different emirates in Arabic (dating 1830) and the 1760 map the shows the Mokha port (Mocha) which 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. I thought that it would be interesting to show from where the word Mocha originated.
I feel old maps are under-appreciated, and I hope that through this project there will be a new rekindled interest in them and the stories behind the places and changes in the names attributed to them.