I would contend that the Arabs invented the coffee break. The aspects that make sharing coffee with Palestinians unique – yes, it must be sharing – carry the cafe’s communalism away from the cafe. Other cultures may take coffee together, and they do, but in the case of Arab coffee, collectivism is built into the design of the drink’s ritual and preparation.
Water boils in a small metal pot with a long handle. Off the burner, a few heaping scoops of pungent ground coffee with cardamom go in, blackening the water after the first stir. Wasim’s mother prepares grounds especially for her son, sending him away with a full jar after he visits home. He’s proud to share from his stash.
A deep brown froth spins around on top of the pot, the more buoyant grounds circling the edges. This may sound like “cowboy coffee,” the make-do brew stomached by the archetypal rover of the American West who lacks the proper tools for anything smoother. False. Far more intentional, rarely any grounds in your mouth after a sip.
Back on the burner, the spoon slides in and out of the coffee, a panning-for-caffeinated-gold motion that breaks and re-breaks the foamy film until a gap forms and holds: black, open water in the coffee ocean. Off the burner again, the pot lid goes on and it needs to rest as the grounds settle to the bottom.
Drinking Arabic coffee is a group ritual, rather than an individual one. The size of the endearingly-diminutive servings relative to any reasonable batch of coffee makes this non-negotiable by default. While the appropriate variety of pot resembles a long-handled version of the stainless steel pitcher used by baristas to steam milk, the cups are petite – petite enough that a person can’t really involve more than their thumb and forefinger in any lifting-cup-to-mouth operation.
Young Arabs in Haifa are as proud of their drink as any Italian or Frenchman, provided we stereotype a little. Their approach here, however, is far more inclusive; this coffee culture shuns arrogance as much as it does cream. It is egalitarian caffeine consumption, a buzz by the people, for the people and thoroughly welcoming of immigrants and visitors. From each, according to his coffee-brewing wherewithal, to each, according to his caffeine and cardomom needs. This last assessment might be influenced by my communist apartment-mates.
Wasim collects enough shot glass-sized cups for everyone sitting out on the balcón and carries them out – white ceramic thimbles for giants. Anyone who wants sugar has to fetch it themselves but no one does. Wasim pours from the pot with one hand while keeping the lid on with the other, serving everyone. One needs a remarkably good excuse to avoid being served coffee. The adamant insistence required in turning down the offer leaves a person feeling pigheaded to boot.
Any significant work meeting or quality conversation presupposes a pot of Arabic coffee. Helping the new foreigner in the office to prepare coffee for the group is not a chore but a desirable role. Even during Ramadan, when many are fasting, the Palestinians at a work meeting in Ramallah still drink cup after cup and insist that I do too. I can consequently report that the restrooms of the PLO headquarters are indeed well-kept and cleanly.
No to-go thermoses. Iced Arabic coffee is difficult to picture. A mug, once a reassuring comfort, feels obtuse and brutish. The Arabic coffee-drinking world may be one market where single-serving Keurigs are simply non-viable.