How an Arabic Coffee Experience Changed My Approach to Life
I sit on the carpet with my feet tucked beneath me, leaning against the bolster for support. The warmth from the fire and the rhythmic sound of the pestle knocking against the side of the mihbash lull me into a trance-like state. Hussein breaks into song, adding melody to the beat of the grinding of the coffee beans.
I’m visiting the home of Hussein, a self-proclaimed V.I.B. or Very Important Bedouin. Earlier, outside his tent in Little Petra, we drank bottomless cups of sweet tea around the fire and enjoyed a decadent meal of zarb, fresh lamb baked for hours in an earthen oven until it is fall-off-the-bone tender. I listened intently as Hussein shared tales of the Bedouin’s intuitive connection to the world, such as knowing to rely on the donkey to lead you out of the desert should you get lost.
After dinner, we move inside the tent to conduct the most important business of the evening -- preparing and drinking coffee. Whenever the Bedouin receive a guest, they make coffee.
“The tea is a second option. We don’t care about the tea,” Hussein tells me, adding emphasis to the importance of coffee in their culture.
The Bedouin live by an open tent policy and you are welcome to stay as long as needed. “You can enter my tent at any time,” Hussein tells me. If there is nobody around, a guest could still come in and sleep. There are two parts to a Bedouin tent, the male part and the female part, and it’s important to know which is which. That’s why before ever approaching a tent, you should stand a stone’s throw away and announce yourself.
“If we wake up and find a guest present, we will be happy,” Hussein says. “Paradise without human beings would be nothing.”
While food is always a welcome treat, it is not as important as coffee. “If you make me food without smiling,” Husseins continues. “I will not eat. When you smile and welcome me, even if you give me a simple piece of bread, I will be very happy.”
Each night, the Bedouin make a fire, not only to warm themselves, but also as a sign. If somebody is walking in the mountains and lost his way, he will see there’s a fire and know someone is living there, a place to seek shelter.
As a rule, coffee is always made fresh for the guest. “We like to roast it, grind it, and share it immediately,” Hussein explains to me. “Because you are important to me, I will make it fresh. It takes a lot of process but I will be happy because I made it for my guest.”
Seating himself next to the fire, Hussein gathers his materials to start the first step in preparing Bedouin coffee -- roasting the beans. From a large, white burlap bag, he scoops out a bunch of green beans and pours them onto a big metal spoon. He begins to shake the spoon back and forth over the coals.
Coffee is not a crop produced in Jordan, so all the beans come from Yemen, the birthplace of coffee.
“Do you know the first one to discover coffee?” Hussein asks rhetorically as he continues to shake the beans back and forth. “The goat,” he continues.
“No really the goat. They eat the tree and they didn’t sleep,” he says, referring to the legend of Kaldi the goat herder who shared this news with the abbot at the local monastery. The abbot began to make a drink of the berries to stay awake through evening prayers and the rest is history.
Coffee is roasted to preference -- dark, medium, light, or somewhere in between. After about 5 minutes, Hussein decides our beans are ready as they take on a nice dark brown hue. He sets them aside to cool for a few minutes.
“With coffee, everything goes with feeling. I can feel how much coffee my guests will want and the quantity I need to roast for them. I will not waste it,” Hussein explains to me, again emphasizing the Bedouin’s reliance on intuition for all things in life.
“When I start to grind the coffee, the moment I stop, my coffee is ready. I will not grind it again. If we do this in my culture -- grinding coffee then stopping to check and grind it again -- they will kick me out from the tribe.
”Do everything with feeling,” he pleads. “You have to feel it. “
At this moment, I realize that more than coffee I was getting a lesson on how to go through life. Get out of your head, into your heart, and into the moment.
Hussein pours the beans into the mihbash -- the Arabic word for the large, hand carved pistachio wood coffee grinder that echoes like the sound of a galloping horse. This particular mihbash belonged to Hussein’s grandfather, passed down 80 years through the generations.
He places the pestle inside the mortar base and starts to grind in a rhythmic beat before breaking into song. Historically, the ritual of grinding beans included song as a way to indicate to neighbors it was time to discuss matters and share stories.
This goes on for a good ten minutes before he stops as abruptly as he started and declares the coffee grounds ready. He doesn’t check. He doesn’t need to. He can feel they are ready. Baratza’s got nothing on this V.I.B.
He pours out his coffee grinds and mutters to himself, “mumtaz” or excellent in Arabic. He grabs a handful of cardamom seeds that will meet the same fate as the coffee beans in the mihbash, its rhythmic beat echoing out across the sand once again. The cardamom is ground separately from the coffee beans so as not to destroy the flavor of both, to keep them fresh.
Once the cardamom is sufficiently ground, Hussein grabs the dallah, a special kettle made for the coffee ritual. The ground cardamom goes in first, then the coffee grinds, then water. He places it over the coals.
Bedouin or arabic coffee is about as far from the Italian cafe experience as you can get. It's not about the quick caffeine shot while standing at the bar, but about the ritual, the art form. It requires an enormous amount of patience.
There are rules on how to serve coffee in Bedouin culture. It is served in special cups, small glass vessels. Each vessel holds about three sips of coffee that should take you 10 to 15 seconds to drink. If you have 100 guests, you will not have 100 cups. You serve five or six at a time and then move on.
“We don’t care who is in the middle of the group. We are all human beings, which means we are all equal,” Hussein tells me.
That’s why the serving of the coffee simply starts from the right end and moves to the left. In some cases, such as the first person being from the same tribe, the host will jump to the second or third person, given permission to move on until the first guest is reached. Afterwards, he goes back to the start and begins to serve right to left.
The first cup of coffee poured is always for the host to taste the coffee and make sure it is good, or not poisoned in old times. By doing this, everyone feels relaxed and welcomed.
The guest is served three cups, no more. The first to welcome the guest, the second for the soul, and the third for the mind. “Cup number four does not exist in Arabic coffee,” Hussein tells me.
It’s also allowed for you to have just one cup. When the coffee is served to you, the host gives you the cup with his right hand and you take it with your right hand. The host will tap the cup with the kettle to let you know he is about to serve it. You take it and drink.
If you don’t want the second, or the third cup, you don’t have to say anything. Just hold up the cup (with your right hand) and give it a little shake. That means you are finished. After your third cup, you must shake it, even if you are craving ten more cups.
Hussein taps my glass and pours me a cup. It’s a translucent light brown color, not velvety thick like my usual double espresso order. He claims there is no caffeine in Arabic coffee as the cardamom has taken it away. With that, I agree to cup two to satisfy my soul and cup three to satisfy my mind before shaking it to show that I am finished.
“We say that with mountain and mountain they never meet, but human beings they do. I wish you a pleasant stay in my country.” With that the ritual ends and I wander outside for some fresh air. I won’t be able to sleep tonight, but not because of the caffeine, nor my usual monkey mind’s inability to rest.
For once I have shut off my mind, stopped thinking, and just sat. I feel the warm wind on my face and the sand beneath my feet as my gaze turns to the river of stars crossing the pure desert sky. At this moment, everything feels right.