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.
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
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.