As I sat drinking coffee in the historic Al-Qahwa al ‘Aliya (literally the high or hilltop café) of Sidi Bou Said, overlooking the city of Tunis below, my mind began to ponder. Around me, people came and went with their families and friends, some stopping to take photographs of the scene surrounding the bustling café. Coffee has always been a social drink; this was the case at the beginning, when in Yemen, centuries ago, the men of the village huddled around a campfire, heating a strange smelling beverage in the dark of the night; it was also the case in Ottoman times, when patrons frequented coffee houses, like the one in which I sat, drinking ‘the nectar of poets’.
Within the past 10 years, Starbucks and similar chains have gone global in providing their ‘to-go’ coffee services. People can buy their coffee on their phones and pick them up directly from the drive-thru window without ever having to converse with a single person. You can have virtually any coffee you like, from a café latte to a Turkish coffee, and everything in-between. It may sound great, but the coffee experience itself is diluted. Though more people are drinking coffee than ever before, the art of drinking coffee is dying.
I had to leave my home country of the US and journey halfway across the world to truly experience what drinking coffee is. Wandering around North Africa, regardless of where you may be, you will always find a café nearby. My summer visits to Tunisia always involved drinking coffee with the patrons of various cafés. Often, crowds of people would be tuned into a soccer game on the television, while others would sit and converse, at times, intensely, about politics and culture. Unlike the rest of North Africa, which tends to favour tea, in Tunisia, coffee reigns as the hot drink of choice, and drinking it is a social event.
Coffee was introduced to Tunisia around the 16th century, during Ottoman rule, as a product of Turkish culture (modern western coffee came later with French colonisation), and quickly embedded itself in Tunisian daily life. Today’s ‘traditional Tunisian coffee‘ takes its inspiration from the coffee of the Turks (the zézoua, Tunisian coffee pot, too, was modelled after the Turkish coffee pot). Where the coffee differs, is with the infusion of orange blossom water, an Andalusian tradition. It was also served alongside Jasmine flowers, Al Fel wal Yasmine, to provide an ‘atmospheric aroma’ while you drink (can you imagine going to Starbucks and being handed a double shot mocha with a hint of blossom water and a bowl of jasmine flowers for aroma? This is what we’re missing people!).
The introduction of coffee brought more than just a drink; along with it came generations of tradition and customs; one in particular, had a wider influence on Tunisian culture and society. The concept of a ‘coffee house’ came with the Turkish Bey rulers who brought the practices of their Ottoman ancestors along with their rule. By 1846, over half of the coffee houses in Tunis were Turkish owned. Coffee houses began to pop up everywhere, drastically changing the way in which people socialised, somewhat similar to the way in which communication changed with the emergence of social media in our day. The coffee houses were filled, not with ‘pumpkin-spiced latte’ enthusiasts, but with Students of Knowledge. Students of different disciplines, and some of different faiths, would study and converse, while savoring each drop of the noble drink until they could drink no more, then completing whatever task they had set out to do within the confines of the coffee house. It was a space where intellectuals and laymen could rub shoulders and learn from one another. Politicians too, were known to grace their premises, but the greatest contribution ‘coffee house culture’ brought to Tunis was through the poets.
‘Malouf Tunsi’, a genre of melodious poetry (think of a Sufi Qasida mixed with an Epic like the Ilyad or the Odyssey – super long, but beautifully and spiritually melodious at the same time), was cultivated in the coffee house environment. Poets from all over North Africa would compete in coffee houses to display their eloquence in speech and their love for the Divine and spiritual. These long poems were written with the purpose of praising the righteous ascetics, Prophets, and even Al Mustafa himself (peace be upon him). Malouf Tunsi is a product of coffee; had it not been for coffee and the environment it creates, one of the greatest legacies of North African culture would never have existed.
The Al-Qahwa al ‘Aliya in Sidi Bou Said, where I sat drinking my coffee (and where the inspiration for writing this article came), is one of the most notable ‘Malouf’ coffee houses still in operation. Located just outside the zawiya of Sidi Bou Said (one of the first murids of Imam Abu Hasan al Shadhili), Qahwa al ‘Aliya remains largely intact with hundreds of patrons every day. For Tunisians, the coffee house is sacrosanct, as is the coffee that emerges from it.
The way in which the coffee is served plays an important role too. Tunisian traditions and customs assert that an individual be seated while drinking. The idea of a ‘to-go’ coffee simply does not register. Coffee is a morning wird (litany), a spiritual practice. By sitting and drinking slowly, taking your time with each sip, you are not only satisfying your caffeine intake, but also disciplining your soul. With each sip, the drinker recites the name of Allah. They remind themselves of their Creator, with whom they find solace. In Yemen, special prayers were written specifically for coffee, to bless the drink, the makers of the drink, and the Creator of the dunya and its fruits.
There is a distinctly Tunisian morning coffee-ritual that takes place daily after Fajr (pre-sunrise) prayers, that I had the privilege of participating in. Worshippers emerge from the mosque in droves, only to enter the café next door, rather than the comfort of their warm beds. They open a newspaper, sit with a group of friends and nurture their communal relations through Turkish coffee and croissants. Sitting in that café early in the morning, I understood something. The drink itself does not matter per se, but the environment and intentions behind the gathering do.
This is perhaps where the biggest difference with the ‘coffee-chain culture’ back-home in the US can be felt. While hipster-coffee roasters are focused on drink temperatures and the ‘exotic’ places the coffee has come from, and others simply get theirs ‘to-go’ on the way to work, the importance of the socialising aspect of drinking coffee, the strengthening of communal ties, is lost.
In Tunisia, drinking coffee is taken seriously- it is a heritage and tradition that is passed from generation to generation. It is historically dignified, speaking on your tongue the language of its ancestors. Your heart must be open in order to understand. So sit, contemplate, remember your Creator, and gather your loved ones to enjoy the ‘nectar of the poets’. May God’s Light and Mercy grace our hearts to further love our traditions and connections to Him.