Coffee, a symbol of social change in the Middle East

According to the Thousand and One Nights, the coffee bean was discovered in Abyssinia, but its commercialization began in the port of Moka in Yemen, and then spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the rest of the Middle East. By metonymy, the Turks ended up giving its name to the place where it is consumed. A look back at the history of a symbol that says a lot about the region's societies and cultures.

Coffee, a "turquerie" like no other

Among the exotic foods that have fascinated and seduced Europe, coffee (qahwa) occupies a  special place, so closely is it linked to Middle Eastern culture. Its consumption in the Arabian  Peninsula is attested as early as the 6th century, and its spread throughout the Muslim world  

was facilitated by the development of the pilgrimage to Mecca (the hadj), which brought  together populations, ideas and products. Its trade subsequently accompanied the gradual  expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Its consumption by all social classes made it "the" drink  par excellence, and its preparation by decoction (in the "Turkish" style) remains unchanged  to this day. With the addition of spices in Morocco, orange blossom in Algeria and Tunisia,  and cardamom in the Levant and Saudi Arabia, coffee retains, despite its variations, a special  aura: that of pleasure and conviviality, even if the authorities of the time viewed it with  great suspicion. Indeed, as alcohol was forbidden by Islam, coffee consumption was

encouraged. However, ulemas and doctors disputed whether coffee was a stimulant or a  medicine, giving rise to controversies that were often politically charged.

Street café in Istanbul, circa 1900 © Shutterstock / istanbulphotos

From social link to social place

In 1554, under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the first public place dedicated to its  consumption opened in Constantinople thanks to two merchants from Damascus. The  concept was all the rage, with the city's intellectual and economic elite, from poets to high ranking civil servants, flocking there. Art and politics were discussed, written about and  played for all to see. Moved to the street, it offers more modest populations the opportunity  to inaugurate and close a hard day's work with a steaming cup. Its fragrance inspires, its  aroma loosens tongues. A pretext for conversation, it is a social ritual practised beyond the  public sphere, since its ceremonial also extends to the private sphere. In fact, in ancient  Anatolia, it's even what the bride-to-be uses to gauge her suitor on the occasion of their  meeting: a sweet coffee if the promised one finds favor in her eyes, a salty one if he doesn't.  At the end of a quarrel, it's the way to resolve the conflict.

Café Fattoush in Haifa (Israel)

Coffee as a symbol of social change in the Middle East

While traditional establishments have not disappeared, some of them are experimenting  with new forms of sociability: mixed, young, family-oriented and open to the world thanks to  Internet access. In Tunis, for example, inclusivity is the watchword at the Liber'thé café, now  a mainstay of the capital's alternative cultural scene. Ditto for Haifa's Café Fattoush, a  symbol of coexistence and fraternity, which brings together Arab and Jewish cultures, a  metonym for Israel's largest mixed city. At the same time, Western-style coffee shops have  developed strongly in the Middle East, playing an important role in the local economy and  having a significant impact on imports. In the 2000s, the United Arab Emirates became the  first country to open up to foreign chains such as Starbucks, and to relax the non-mixed rule  in these spaces. Between tradition and modernity, preservation and openness, coffee is  without doubt one of the most significant symbols for understanding the Middle East and its  evolution. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why UNESCO included Turkish coffee in  2013 and Arabic coffee in 2015 on its list of Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Sources :

Le café turc, une boisson et des traditions | Le Courrier de l'UNESCO

Le café (

Liber’Thé, incubateur de citoyenneté à Tunis | Le Courrier de l'UNESCO