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Coffee Shop Owner

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 31.05.2006:

By Majda Batsh

Mulki Suleiman

Jessica Jacobs

Each Friday morning and afternoon, a number of old Palestinian men who have come for Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque gather at Haj Siyam’s coffee shop. Dressed in traditional robes and keffiyehs, they spend hours in the coffee shop near Atareen Market (the Old City spice market), drinking coffee, smoking argileh (water pipe) and exchanging news.

Years have gone by but the faces of the old men sitting in the coffee shop, in spring and in summer, seem to have remained unchanged. Indeed, Ghalib Siyam, 73, the owner of the coffee shop, takes pride in the history of the shop and the loyalty of his patrons and refuses to change any aspect of the coffee shop or add anything to the shop’s menu of coffee and argileh.

Stepping into Haj Siyam’s coffee shop is like stepping into the past, for the building, utensils and chairs have remained unchanged throughout most of the history of the shop. The coffee shop was built a hundred years ago by Ghalib’s grandfather. It is composed of two large rooms built in a Roman architectural style. The ceiling of one of the rooms is intricately decorated with carvings while the wooden doors of the shops date to the Ottoman period. The jars and pots for the coffee are made from copper and imported from Egypt. Ghalib’s father imported the argilehs from Syria in 1948. The wooden chairs, which are made from lemon wood, were also bought in 1948. Siyam says that their age and quality make them very valuable and he has to protect them from being stolen.

Siyam, who inherited the coffee shop from his father, Ahmad Siyam, says that he, his father and grandfather successfully ran the shop without any modern facilities. Until the introduction of electricity to the shop in 1980, the tea, coffee and argileh were heated with charcoals. Siyam added that until the recent installation of a water network in the neighborhood, all hot water for the coffee and tea had to be brought in a tank or in bottles from the wells of the Aqsa compound.

No changes

In spite of the increased municipal taxes and the many offers to buy his shop, Siyam refuses to make any changes to his shop or to sell his business. He explains, “My father inherited this shop from my grandfather who built the coffee shop and who died in 1914. I inherited the shop following my father’s death.” He adds proudly, “Since then, nothing has changed in the coffee shop.” Pausing, he adds defiantly, “and I don’t want anything to be changed. This is a traditional coffee shop with traditional customers. The oldest customer, who is 85 years old, comes from Ramallah every Friday before prayer starts. The only time some of my customers do not come is when there are curfews or closures in the area where they live.”

Another reason that Siyam refuses to alter his shop is that it is the last of the traditional coffee shops in Jerusalem. All others, like Za’atra, Al-Basiti, Al-Kasa and Abdul Wahab, have been closed.

Siyam says that the modern coffee shop has little in common with the coffee shop of the past. “Modern coffee shops have pool tables and video games.”

However, the long life of Haj Siyam’s coffee shop may soon come to an end. Mousa Siyam, the son of the owner, says, “I am not sure that I will keep the shop open when I inherit it from my father. It just doesn’t feed my family.”

A tradition of drinking and smoking

In Palestine, as in other Arab countries, coffee shops have traditionally been a vital part of community life. They have long been a gathering place for the men of the neighborhood who drink coffee and smoke argileh while discussing the state of the world, playing cards or listening to recitations of poetry or stories.

In the past, coffee shops were the traditional haunt of poets, politicians and political activists. During times of governmental suppression, coffee shops were often the only place where male poets and authors could publicize their works. The Arab literary movement thrived in the coffee shops of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Akka as well as in the coffee shops of Lebanon and Egypt. As time passed by, this vibrant element has vanished from all coffee shops except for certain coffee shops in Egypt.

A Palestinian coffee shop owner says that Palestinian coffee shops have always had the most diverse clientele in the Arab World. To provide an example, he describes the former clientele of his own coffee shop, saying, “The regular patrons of my coffee shop used to come from all social classes. There were businessmen, politicians, poets, writers and workers. Our customers ranged from students from nearby schools to husbands who needed a break from their wives. It was a cosmopolitan place with customers from all social classes.

“Coffee shops are no longer the cultural centers that they once were. These days, many coffee shops are packed with young men who skip school in order to come to smoke argileh. This ruins the behavior of young men before they even reach the age of 30. In Palestine, we need coffee shops that have the literary atmosphere that they had in the past. I believe that a revival of the more cultural atmosphere of the past would have a positive influence on the surrounding community.”

Ramadan nights

Issam Anany, a lawyer for the Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem, gives one example of such a possible revival. “When I was a young law student in Cairo, I used to frequent Al-Fishawi’s coffeehouse with my student friends. It was filled with writers, artists, and intellectuals, including the famous novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who sometimes used to write his books there. Tonight reminds me of those coffee shop days.”

The coffee shop that Issam Anany is reminiscing in is no ordinary cafe. It is a special Ramadan coffeehouse that has set up shop in the Palestinian National Theater (Al-Hakawati) for the Muslim holy month of fasting and feasting. Living up to its name, Al-Hakawati (the storyteller) is hosting artists versed in the ancient art of storytelling, together with musicians performing traditional Ramadan songs, breathing new life into the old tradition of celebrating Ramadan nights.

The story for the first night, an excerpt from the ancient tale ‘Abu Zeid Al-Hilali’, is told with great enthusiasm and skill by master storyteller Radi Shehadeh. The customers of the coffee shop enjoy sahlab (hot milk drink flavored with orchid root), coffee and argileh as the story of love, murder and the horse Asili unfolds.

Shehadeh’s contemporary version veers from a formal structure. “I put it in a broken language, a mixture of colloquial, Bedouin and classical Arabic,” says Shehadeh, after the animated performance, which involved much mask changing, tomato crushing and head chopping. “I took the central idea from the classical story, but I gave it a modern satirical edge.”

Shehadeh, one of the founders of the theater, has been performing here and abroad for the last 23 years. The injection of humor was deliberate. “Palestinians need to learn to enjoy themselves,” he says. “I don’t blame them; anybody who knows their situation knows why they can’t enjoy themselves. Every family has a story to tell.”

Anany can’t remember enjoying such a traditional evening since 1948. “It is really nice to hear people talk about things other than politics and negotiations. It brings people together.”

Badira Abbassi, 20, a secretarial student, is too young to remember that far back but says; “It is nice. It’s the first time since the beginning of the Intifada that there’s been something like this.”

Coffee shop patron Marwan Alghool puffed on his argileh. “The story is from the past, and when we sit together and remember those days, we are happy to be able to feel good,” he says. “And at this time, when everyone is thinking of the closure of the West Bank and Gaza during Ramadan, for one night, at least, we can forget our problems. Tomorrow, perhaps the good feeling will remain and we will face the day with a strong heart.”

The Jerusalem Times

17 February 1995

23 February 1996

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