Ask Ali: Why Emiratis value coffee and gold so highly

The tradition of welcoming guests with coffee is considered a must for official gatherings.

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Dear Ali: I heard that coffee was very expensive back in the day, yet everyone says that it’s a must for welcoming guests on a daily basis. Isn’t that strange? JA, Al Ain

Dear JA: Coffee didn’t exist in this land. It was found in Yemen, and from there it was brought to the rest of the world. Coffee was first brought to the Gulf region less than a thousand years ago. It was mainly brought by people who were on their way for their Haj pilgrimage.

Yes, it’s true that coffee was expensive. One gram of coffee was more expensive than a gram of gold. So why would we spend so much to welcome our guests? There’s no other answer or reason than honouring a guest. It was very important for Arab tribes living in this region. Because it’s expensive, by serving it to our guests, it shows how generous we are to our guests. Back in the day, the only place you would find coffee was with the main tribe leaders and sheikhs, because they were able to afford it and it’s where all guests would go first.

If you have tasted Arabic coffee, you might notice that it’s not that dark like Turkish coffee. And we do not add any sugar, but its taste is not so bitter like when other coffee is served black. The secret of Arabic coffee brewing is to use medium-roasted coffee beans – they have a greenish colour. The beans are boiled for some time until there’s a clear taste. If a host could afford to buy saffron and cardamom, then it would be added to the coffee, to give it an even better taste. The tradition of welcoming guests with coffee remains in local houses even now, and is considered a must for official gatherings.

Dear Ali: I read somewhere that Emirati women are the most “golden” women in the world, which means that traditionally they own lots of gold. Is that true? TY, Madinat Zayed

Dear TY: Gold was one of the most precious and valuable jewellery accessories for women of this region for thousands of years – and still is. People even made gold bridles for horses that you can still see in historical museums in Sharjah.

Gold was associated with magnificence and pride of the people who owned it. In Islam, gold as embellishment wasn’t allowed for men – only women had the right to wear it.

One of the interesting pieces of gold jewellery for women in this region is the tassa (which translates to “saucer”), a head cover with long strips that have hundreds of gold coin-shaped pieces attached. This garment is found only here. A girl would wear it on her head during different festivals and Eid celebrations, and a bride could also wear it on her traditional wedding henna night.

Even today, we value gold and buy it for our women as much as we can. Gold markets in the UAE have a lot of variety, and you still can find that exclusive tassa jewellery piece as well.

In case you’re wondering, “gold” in Arabic is thahab.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit www.ask-ali.com to ask him a question.

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