Cultural Observation Posts

by Dr Jehad Al-Omari



I am a people person and my favourite hobby, especially when travelling, is to observe people and their behaviour sitting somewhere strategically in a coffee shop, preferably offering quality coffee. So, imagine my distress over the past pandemic year at not being able to indulge this pleasure.


Cafés where you can observe people are not easy to come by, even in normal times. They should be reasonably crowded with customers. Outdoor cafés are ideal for the opportunity they give of observing both fellow customers and passers-by. It is an acquired skill to develop the tools and techniques to sit patiently for hours reading newspapers or a book and silently observing people interacting. I don’t care much for listening in to conversations. Anyway, in foreign countries I may not understand the language. Best just to observe how people greet one another, shake hands or kiss, talk or argue amongst themselves, express happiness or anger, ignore one another or otherwise engage in intimate conversations or exchange rumours, laughing, joking, ruminating or otherwise relaxing in the company of friends or loved ones. No wonder that I gravitated into cross-cultural training which at the heart of it is all about human behaviour and interaction. Cafés are excellent cultural observation posts. During my time in cosmopolitan London coffee shops were where I researched and wrote much of my cross-cultural course material.


Coming from the Arab world means that I am a born coffee lover. After all, coffee is generally regarded as having originated in Yemen. Some in Ethiopia however beg to differ, saying that the Yemenis may have developed it but the first coffee was grown on their side of the Red Sea. Mocha coffee refers specifically to the port of Mokha in Yemen from where it was first exported to the rest of the world.


It is said that at one point Yemen forbade the export of coffee plants but in the end determined coffee lovers managed to smuggle them out to the rest of the world. There are no specific dates that one can rely on for the discovery of the delights of roasted coffee but historical records from the Abbasid era (750 – 1258 CE) and from the time of the Crusades suggest that it was not known in the region until the 13th century. Two of the recent books I read on Constantinople (now Istanbul) agree that roasted coffee was first brought to that city in the early 16th century by two traders from Aleppo. They made fortunes from their coffee houses in this thriving and cosmopolitan city. In those early days of coffee there was a fierce debate whether or not it should be allowed on religious grounds. There were a few times when it was forbidden on the orders of the Ottoman Sultan only to be allowed again until it finally became a fixed ritual of life in the city during which its leading intellectuals would meet to discuss the state of the empire. Other historical records show that the same debate was held in Makkah (Mecca), Islam’s holiest city.


Sadly, Yemen is no longer home to good quality coffee. This has nothing to do with competition from around the world or the current civil war but rather that the cultivation of Qat (or Khat) has resulted in a decline in the popularity of coffee. Qat is a green leafy bush. Its leaves are picked and rolled into a small ball which is placed on the side of the mouth, providing a drug-like effect. It is now a social ritual where several people will gather to join in a Qat session. I have never tried it even though at one stage it was available in the UK in Yemeni stores but my friends who have lived and worked in Yemen sing its praises for the feeling of euphoria it gives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) classified Qat in 1980 as a drug of abuse that can produce psychological dependence, although the WHO does not consider Qat to be a serious problem.


Within the Arab world there are two types of coffee that are traditionally consumed. There is the one we call Bedouin coffee or Bitter coffee (Qahwa Murrah). This is a brewed coffee with no sugar, normally consumed in very small amounts in handless cups many times throughout the day and night. The coffee is normally mixed with small amounts of cardamom and in some countries, saffron. It is served from a coffee pot known as dallah.

The other type of coffee is called Turkish Coffee even though it was the Arabs who introduced coffee to the Turks! The name primarily refers to the way it is made: it is boiled briefly, consumed with or without sugar and with or without cardamom but definitely without saffron. Like Bedouin coffee there are many rituals associated with this coffee, the most famous of which is when a man wants to propose to a woman in an arranged marriage. The potential bride will make and serve the Turkish coffee, giving the groom an opportunity to see her in person and, allegedly, test her cooking skills.


Getting back to coffee shops, I remember being in Italy one Christmas in the mid-nineties. Late one Sunday morning I went into a café at a corner of the Piazza del Popolo in the heart of Rome. I had the most expensive espresso I have ever drunk. I don’t know if it was the location, the quality of the coffee or just that I was yet another gullible tourist, but it was definitely worth it. I sat for almost two hours watching Italian families going about their normal Sunday ritual, hurrying into the churches, dragging their children and grandchildren behind them. I had heard of Italian Mamas but never seen them for real with all their pomp, glamour and grandeur. Fat and beautifully made-up Italian Mamas with ornate hats going to Church is a sight not to be missed if you ever find yourself in Rome on a Sunday. And so are the well-dressed Italian policemen showing off their colourful cloaks, presumably also going to Sunday service.


There are cities that lend themselves to outdoor coffee shops and others that don’t or simply have not developed the infrastructure for it. The Champs Elysées is the stereotypical avenue for outdoor cafes but you do not see Parisian life unless you go deeper into the back streets. My favourite for cafés has to be Amsterdam. It is a good city to walk from one neighbourhood to another and in doing so finding yourself hopping from one café to the next. Go also to the historic city of Utrecht where you can spend an afternoon tasting their delightful coffees and sweets while observing Dutch students and professors go about their business, including visiting the specially marked marijuana shops. Copenhagen too, although the first time I was there was in the middle of winter it was like a ghost city. Walking around it for 3 days gave me few cross-cultural insights. However, when I was there next, in May, it was like visiting a completely different city. The social scene around the New Harbour with its restaurants and cafés was an entirely different experience and a great example of how the weather can have a great impact on our behaviour. I never thought the Danish had any sense of fun until that May visit.


In the Arab world the greatest city for café lovers must still be Beirut in Lebanon. It can be expensive but worth it for few days. Cairo comes second; its outdoor coffee shop culture is so ingrained in Cairene city life. I just love the way one can spend the whole day drifting from one restaurant to a café and back until well after midnight. Cairo is probably the only Arab city that I know that simply does not sleep. Damascus is perfect when it comes to great quality food and on a one-week holiday you can try two restaurants per day and never get bored with the cuisine but I avoid its cafes. Even before the civil war, the security grip in Damascus made you feel that when in a café you were the one being watched. Amman, where I live, does not have much of a coffee shop culture. There are few ancient cafés in Amman; the ambience is not there and they are male-dominated. Don’t get me wrong, you can get truly great coffee in Amman but that is not the only thing I am after. I like observing life in coffee shops and the ones in Amman do not let you do that.


When I was in the UK, there were two periods when I lived in Guildford. The first time was as a student until 1992 and the second one in 2001, having become suffocated by life in London. During the second period and on the days when I was not teaching, I got into the habit of drifting into town around 11.00 am. I would buy the day’s newspapers, including any copies of Arabic newspapers still available, and then spend a couple of hours in a busy coffee shop before meeting friends for lunch.


On 11 September, 2001, the day of the appalling attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, I returned from London to Guildford earlier than planned, having cancelled dinner with friends. The tension in the air was palpable. British friends rang to ask if I knew of any attacks on Arabs in London and if I wanted to come and stay with them.


The next day I was not sure whether I should go into town or give it a miss for fear of any reprisals against Arabs or Muslims. In the end, I decided to go into town as usual though I felt on edge. I went straight to the newsagent. There I discovered that they had not sold a single copy of the Arabic newspapers they normally supplied. I collected up all the Arab papers, paid for them and went into my favourite café. It was busy as usual. I threw my newspapers onto the only empty table. Once armed with my coffee, I sat reading them with all the scenes of devastation and carnage on their front pages, knowing that I was sticking out like a sore thumb. Soon a good-looking and smartly-dressed middle-aged woman approached me and asked if the chair opposite mine was taken. I told her she could have it and returned to my newspapers. After a short pause her Englishness came out in the question to which she clearly knew the answer or at least suspected it:

“Excuse me, what language is this?”

I replied as matter of factly that it was Arabic. You could almost immediately slice the ensuing silence in the café with a knife. The lady asked her next question just as delicately and politely:

“So what are they saying?”

I started translating the headlines as clearly as I could, knowing that everyone was listening although pretending they were not. As I went on reading out loud, I could feel the atmosphere easing and gradually getting back to normal. I thanked my God for sending me this angel of a lady and for being in the UK and not in a hostile place where they would have torn me to shreds. I saw her a few times in the café after that. We would nod and smile to each other but we never had a conversation again. I became a more recognized face in the café and felt welcomed. This is unusual for a foreigner like me. No matter how many times you go to a café or shop in the UK, you rarely get the warm greeting you normally get anywhere in the Arab world.


This brings me to my last café story. I lived in Wimbledon in London for many years. On my route to and from Wimbledon Common I used to stop at a classy café/restaurant. It was my treat after any walk for though it was very expensive the coffee and cakes were superb (brought especially from Cambridge no less). One day I was sitting there with my brother talking in Arabic when we were approached by an Arabic-speaking person who introduced himself as the new owner. Well, to tell the truth I was pleased. I still had not tried their Savoy-style lunch menu and thought with the new Arab owner I would get a good discount. However, on subsequent visits I noticed that the owner would chat to all his customers and even sit at the table with them. The British reserve and wish for privacy ran up against the enthusiasm and warmth of this Mediterranean Arab. I strongly advised him to stop badgering his guests but to no avail, until bit by bit he started losing his customers. The coffee shop eventually closed down. I have never forgiven him for that. What works in one place does not necessarily work in another. Why won’t people accept this truth?


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