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A few things to keep in mind when sipping on Arabic coffee

Jerusalem24 – Nadeen Alshaer – From coffee booths and stands on the corners of streets to coffee shops and cafes… the smell of Arabic and brewed coffee will hit your senses when passing through cities and houses in Palestine.

You cannot miss the smell of cardamom in the Arabic coffee boiling on fire in a tiny stand on the corner of Al-Manara roundabout and the well-known stand next to the Palestinian Prime Minister’s office Al-Masyoun, or the smell of the hot, bitter brew coming from one of the city’s local coffee shops – or, increasingly, its franchised cafes.

A street vendor prepares coffee at his stall near the Prime Minister’s office in Ramallah. [Credit: Khalil Drabee/Jerusalem24]

Palestine likes it saadah

Arabic coffee is deep-rooted within Middle Eastern culture and tradition, and the styles of serving it vary in the region and according to the drinkers’ preference.

Most Arab countries add cardamom, the little-known secret to its taste, while some use different spices for a unique taste and smell which will be familiar to its regular drinkers. It can also be served plain (saadah) or with sugar.

A combination of coffee, cards, and shisha is the ultimate Arabic combination in coffee shops all over the Arab world.

In Palestine, the preferred setup is strong coffee with no sugar at all and endless games of tarneeb.

Palestinian men play cards while sipping coffee and smoking shisha at a cafe in Ramallah. [Credit: stefhoffer]

Arab hospitality

Arabic coffee is one of the manifestations of generosity of the well-known Arab hospitality, which is normally served on different social occasions, whether a festive gathering such as a wedding, or a jalsah to solve a dispute between families.

On such occasions, it is traditionally served with fresh and dried fruits, dates, and nuts.

In Palestine, on more formal or somber occasions such as the three-day azza after a loved one’s passing, or for Eid when large numbers of relatives and guests are expected to pass through the house, a lighter version of the coffee (more finely ground, and strained before serving) sits in a large thermos, awaiting the next guest in order to be served piping hot into the small, elaborate fanajeen (cups) reserved for special occasions.

A couple of idioms

When speaking about the pleasure of sipping Arabic coffee: “The first is for my head, the second is for my valor, and the third is for my hardship” – meaning the first awakens the mind, the second increases one’s strength and courage, and the third will remove any headaches. The term is usually used in the Gulf region.

In the Levant, Bedouins tend to drink their cups of coffee in a specific and named order. “The first is the guest’s cup, the second is the pleasure cup, and the third is the sword’s cup.” The first cup is meant as a welcoming cup; and the second is to tell whether a drinker is a “coffee person”; and the third – the sword – indicates that the guest is now a good friend and companion to the hosts.

Qahwa (Arabic for coffee) made from green coffee beans and cardamom, served in traditional cups with nuts and dates. [Source: Archana’s Kitchen]

Do you know how to drink your coffee?

Many quirks and rules govern the pouring, serving, and drinking of coffee. Some of these can vary from village to village, while others will be familiar to Arabs from Jerusalem to Riyadh.

For example, when asking for a woman’s hand at a host’s, not drinking your coffee after it’s served means you have a request. The host is then expected to inquire about the nature of the request; if the host subsequently asks the drinker to finish their coffee, it is a sign the request was accepted.

Here are some other rules and traditions that, while increasingly lost to the younger generations, can still be observed across the Levant and Gulf.

Age before beauty
In casual settings and gatherings, the eldest in age is served the first finjan, and gets to take their pick from all the fanajeen presented on the serving tray (usually the one with the most wajah, the frothy “face” of the coffee). However, in special settings, like solving a dispute, the head of the tribe or family is served the first finjan, with the remaining guests then served in order from right to left.

Shake it like you mean it
Shaking the finjan is a sign of saying that you do not want any more; pending this signal, the host will stay standing, waiting to add more coffee to your cup.

Rule of thirds
The amount of Arabic coffee served in the traditional, decorated finjan shouldn’t exceed a third of it, which is known as hishmah in Arabic. Being served a half cup can be understood as a sign of not being welcome.

Knock it but don’t break it
Knocking a finjan together with the dalah (the coffee pot, which works as a thermos to keep the coffee hot) is a gesture that indicates the coffee is about to be poured.

Don’t get mixed up
The pourer has to hold the dalah in his left hand, and the finjan in his right.

And remember to sit up straight
As a guest, before you are served coffee (always in your right hand), fixing your posture is a must.

A street vendor in Ramallah pours freshly-brewed coffee into a carton cup for a customer. [Credit: Khalil Drabee/Jerusalem24]
Arabic coffee is an intangible cultural heritage of Arab states as designated by UNESCO.

NB: There was some level of disagreement at Jerusalem24’s studios over the best way to prepare the coffee (although we all agreed with Chef Abu Julia that it should not be used to make Tiruamisu). As a result of these internal disagreements, it was decided to keep the secret to making the perfect coffee for another article, another day.

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