09/25/07 - coffee

In today's excerpt - another Arab invention, coffee:

"The custom of drinking coffee seems to have first become popular in Yemen in the mid-fifteenth century. While coffee berries may have been chewed for their invigorating effects before this date, the practice of making them into a drink seems to be a Yemeni innovation, often attributed to Muhammad al-Dhabhani, a scholar and member of the mystical Sufi order of Islam, who died around 1470. By this time, coffee ... had undoubtedly been adopted by Sufis, who used it to ward off sleep during nocturnal religious ceremonies in which participants reached out to God through repetitive chanting and swaying. ...

"Coffee shook off its original religious associations and became a social drink, sold by the cup on the street, in the market square, and then in dedicated coffeehouses. It was embraced as a legal alternative to alcohol by many Muslims. Coffeehouses, unlike the illicit taverns that sold alcohol, were places where respectable people could afford to be seen. But coffee's legal status was ambiguous. Some Muslim scholars objected that it was intoxicating, and therefore subject to the same prohibition as wine and other alcoholic drinks, which the prophet Muhammad had prohibited. ... [A ban against coffee was therefore enacted by a local governor Kha'ir Beg and] was proclaimed throughout Mecca, coffee was seized and burned in the streets, and coffee vendors and some of their customers were beaten as punishment. Within a few months, however, higher authorities in Cairo overturned Kha'ir Beg's ruling, and coffee was soon being openly consumed again ... [since] coffee clearly failed to produce any [intoxicating] effects in the drinker ... [and] in fact it did quite the opposite. ...

"By the early seventeenth century, visiting Europeans were commenting on the widespread popularity of coffeehouses in the Arab world, and their role as meeting places and sources of news. ... They were also popular venues for chess and backgammon, which were regarded as morally dubious. ... George Sandys, an English traveler who visited Egypt and Palestine in 1610, observed that 'although they be destitute of Taverns, yet they have their Coffa-houses which something resemble them. There they sit chatting most of the day; and sippe of a drink called Coffa in little China dishes, as hot as they can suffer it; blacke as soote and tasting not much unlike it.' "


Tom Standage


A History of the World in Six Glasses


Random House


Copyright 2005 by Tom Standage


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