Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- “Oh how delicious is the cup of coffee especially if one is in a good mood…” says the Bedouin poet Rakan Ibn Huthailyn in a famous poem where he sings the merits of coffee and alludes to the central role the magical beans occupy in Saudi social and public life.
Visitors to Saudi Arabia are greeted with an aromatic cup of coffee and the equally sharp smell of Oud, or incense, in the Kingdom’s airports. Many heads of states and royals from around the world have also enjoyed Arabic coffee whilst in Saudi Arabia , a symbol of hospitality and generosity.
Coffee is made from grinding beans belonging to one or more of 25 varieties. They include Arabian, American, African, Kenyan or Brazilian coffee beans.
Typically, Arabian coffee in Saudi Arabia is prepared by slightly roasting the beans by placing them in a pot and moving the pot over a fire with great care so as not to burn the beans. As soon as the beans change color, they should be removed from the fire and placed in a different pot to cool down, before being grounded, manually or in a machine. Afterwards, the crushed beans are placed in a dalah, made of iron or copper, and mixed with boiling water. While the coffee simmers over the fire, cardamom seeds should be grinded and placed in a second dalah, with the coffee beans mix added to it after it cools down. Finally, the pot containing both the cardamom and the coffee is placed on the fire until the water boils.
Ever since coffee established itself as the preferred drink in Arab societies, several rituals have been emerged regarding how best to serve it and enjoy it. The coffee must be presented in white little cups from a gold dalah. Refusing to drink at a social gathering is shameful, unless it is linked to the rejection of an offer, for example a marriage or reconciliation between tribes. The dalah has to be held in the left hand and the cups in the right. The coffee should be poured whist standing and served to the first guest on the right. Because coffee is drank hot, no more than a third of the glass should be filled and coffee should never be drank in vast amounts, like water.
In the first serving, known as al haif, the host drinks his cup to assure guests it is safe. It is then followed by two servings, al dayf (the guest in Arabic) and then al kayf (mood), which indicates merriment. The third and last serving, known as al sayf, refers to the solidarity pact that has been established between the guest and his hosts, following the coffee drinking. The guest now has to shake his cup to signal he has had enough. A discreet noise when the dalah touches the cup should alert the guest who, in turn, can shake his cup to cool the coffee.
Throughout the ages, coffee drinking in Saudi Arabia has been a ritual reserved for men. This explains why coffee preparation equipment is usually found in the men’s section of Bedouin tents.
Guests who are not served coffee have reason to feel humiliated and might never return to meet the hosts. Conversely, not serving coffee at a social gathering indicates a lack of generosity and is frowned upon.
Coffee plays an important role in Bedouin decision-making. According to tradition, a member of the tribe who seeks to request something from the leader would fill a cup of coffee and place it on the ground, without drinking it. He would then make his request in front of the tribal leader and await his reaction: if he agreed, he would drink the coffee.
Known as “the wine of the pious” because it provides the energy to worship, coffee is famous for its appetite suppressant effect and varies in color according to the area it is served in; in northern Saudi Arabia it is black, brown in the south and yellow in central regions.