No matter how you like it, coffee has a hold over us

International coffee day takes place this week and Rym Ghazal reflects on the allure of the dark brew

The ritual pouring of bitter Arab coffee in Bahrain in November 1971. Horst Faas / AP Photo
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‘O Coffee! Thou dost dispel all cares, thou art the object of desire to the scholar,” begins the translation of the Arabic poem In Praise of Coffee, written in 1511.

There is no denying the world’s love affair with this dark brew. It has cast a spell over millions of drinkers with a fragrance that can be as mesmerising as musk. Precious like gold, it is cherished like a secret love.

And, according to legend, we owe it all to a goat. Or, rather, a group of dancing African goats. It is said that in the ninth century, an Ethiopian herder called Kaldi noticed his goats were agitated. He saw them eating special red berries, which he ate and soon felt as excited as his goats.

Kaldi took the fruit to a holy man. The man disliked the berries and threw them into the fire, where they released a pleasant aroma. The roasted coffee beans were then ground up and boiled, creating the world’s first cup of coffee.

Coffee lovers can celebrate their relationship with this drink through the first official #InternationalCoffeeDay which takes place on October 1. Dozens of cafes, associations and businesses will celebrate. This special occasion will also raise awareness of the plight of coffee growers and promote fair trade. Some cafes will be donating their profits to charity.

There is already an unofficial coffee day of sorts, on September 29, and so this week’s social media has been awash with trivia, special offers and quite exuberant declarations of love for coffee. Through this celebration, a new generation is discovering Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and his composition, Coffee Cantata, a short comic opera.

It is about a young woman named Aria who loves coffee so much that she will “turn into a shrivelled up roast goat” without it. Her father is against his daughter having any kind of caffeinated fun and threatens her: “If you don’t give up coffee for me, you won’t go to any wedding parties, or even go out for walks.”

A delightful piece and beautifully poetic. Aria captures the world’s love of coffee in these lines: “Ah! How sweet coffee tastes, more delicious than a thousand kisses, milder than muscatel wine. Coffee, I have to have coffee, and, if someone wants to pamper me, ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!”

But there is a happy ending. The two reconcile when the father agrees to give his daughter “permission to brew coffee” whenever she wants.

As for the Middle East, the relationship with coffee is more of family. Dating from 1450, it was in Yemen that the drink was first called gahwa and Mokha port was once the main coffee exporting site for the region. Coffee spread across the world via the Arabs and Turks.

It is a tradition in some homes that when a child gets permission to drink his or her first sip of Arabic coffee, it is like they are now “all grown up”.

More than just a pastime, the drink is a symbol of hospitality and chivalry.

No guest would ever leave an Arab home, or tent, without a cup of coffee. During the Second World War, when there was a global shortage of food and drinks, including coffee, the Bedouins residing here would crush and grind dates before boiling them into a brown-coffee-like drink to be served in traditional cups.

There are always new coffee shops opening up in the UAE, and there is even a coffee museum in Dubai. In it one discovers just how powerful the hold coffee has had on people, and continues to have around the world. For example, German soldiers in the Second World War carried an essential piece of equipment along with their weapons: a coffee grinder.

As a coffee lover myself, particularly of the organic type, I salute and thank the farmers who work hard behind the scenes to provide us with this magical drink that keeps us hooked and happy.

rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter:@Arabianmau