This is the proper, traditional way to drink Arabic coffee

POUR OVER: Heritage Specialist Abdullah Khalfan Al Hamour explains the roots of coffee and how you're supposed to serve it.
POUR OVER: Heritage Specialist Abdullah Khalfan Al Hamour explains the roots of coffee and how you're supposed to serve it.

It was an Ethiopian goatherd, they say, who first discovered the effect of coffee beans - his animals were unusually lively. Since then, coffee - gahwa - has come a long way. And the tradition needs to be kept alive

By Ismail Sebugwaawo

Published: Thu 11 May 2017, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 27 Sep 2022, 10:07 AM

It's a lovely Arabic custom, sitting with friends and family in the evening, and over several tiny cups of steaming coffee poured from a dallah, discussing the day's events. It is a custom that has, for several centuries, enabled conversations within a community, with family and people from the neighbourhood. Traditionally, and even today, it's a sign of enduring Arabic hospitality, to invite people to come sit and chat, possibly munch on dates, and have a cup or two - no one's counting. That's the beauty of sitting in the majlis and sipping gahwa. It's kept Emiratis together.

This custom of coffee and chatter - gahwa and majlis - was the hot topic of discussion at the third Multaqa Zayed National Museum series organised by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority on Wednesday evening where Emirati heritage specialists gave a talk on the ancient rituals of majlis and gahwa.

CUP BEFORE THE DALLAH: Ali Salam Al Dhanhani, Museum Owner demonstrates the right way to prepare Arabic coffee (gahwa).- Photo by Ryan Lim/Khaleej Times

The discussion explored historical roots of gahwa preparation, serving and drinking, as well as its role in the majlis setting. Abdullah Khalfan Al Hamour, a heritage specialist and author threw some light on the origins of coffee. And spoke about how human beings discovered this stimulating beverage.

Did you know, for instance, that it was an Ethiopian goatherd who first discovered the effect of coffee beans? This was a long time ago. He tasted the beans and felt an energy boost, having got the notion in his head after observing his animals being unusually lively at the end of the day after they had grazed besides a bush that was laden with berries.

The tales were aplenty. Al Hamour spoke of how Sufis in Yemen and pilgrims to Mecca used to drink coffee to keep awake and worship late into the night when other people were asleep. Muslims returning from the Haj later brought coffee with them to what is now the UAE. "The Arabs in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula embraced the coffee product before it spread to other nations," said he. Since then, Emiratis have made an art out of preparing and enjoying coffee.

In 2015, the Unesco added majlis and gahwa to its list of Intangible Cultural History of Humanity, underscoring the importance of cultural traditions that need to be preserved. Unesco has ascribed the origins of gahwa to UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar.

"Serving gahwa or Arabic coffee is a very important aspect of hospitality in the Emirati and other Arab societies," said Al Hamour. "Gahwa is traditionally prepared in front of house guests on the stovetop in a pot called dallah and served in a petite, handle-less cup called finjaan.

Cardamom, cumin, cloves, saffron are also added to add another dimension to the already exquisite taste of fresh coffee. After preparing the coffee, it is served in small cups to the guests. The person serving the coffee to the guests or family members (muqahwi) must be a mature one, at least 15 years and above and not a child so he's able to speak well with the guests and not risk spilling coffee onto the clothes of guests as he serves them. "The muqahwi should hold the dallah in his left hand and about three small cups with no handle on the right," he said.

"He should serve the coffee starting from the person sitting on the right of the majlis and should not skip anyone. If there is a very important person in the majlis, like a Sheikh or a religious scholar, he should be served first. The muqahwi should then serve others starting with the person on his right." After drinking, the guest gently shakes the small cup to show the muqahwi that he's done. The muqahwi always remains standing until all guests have finished drinking the coffee. And it is prohibited to serve coffee while people are eating food.

"Gahwa has been a tradition from our grandfathers and fathers including the late Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE. We teach our children these customs," he said, to ensure the heritage is passed down to younger generations.

Speaking about the importance of the majlis, Ali Salam Al Dhanhani, heritage specialist and private museum owner said it plays an important role in the transmission of the UAE heritage."The majlis is as important now as it has ever been in UAE's history. It brings communities together. It's a place to exchange ideas and information. The majlis serves cultural, social, educational and even political purposes."

He explained that the Majlis area is usually large, comfortable and equipped with beverage-making facilities. "Elders with extensive local knowledge, sheikhs, scholars and family members gather in this place as a way of togetherness and from where they discuss various important issues," he said.

"As the elders in the family, we get time to sit in the majlis especially in the evening so the children can learn from us. Sitting in the majlis with our guests, and with young people shows them how to live. We have tried to keep such cultures and traditions and we want to see it moving to the next generations."

Ismail is a father of two girls, and a compulsive chaser of stories

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