Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 30.05.2009:
The name coffee is derived from the Arabic Kahweh, pronounced Kahveh by the Turks. It originally meant wine or other intoxicating liquors.
The origin of coffee-drinking is connected with various legends.
One runs like this:
Coffee in the night
Fleeing from persecution, towards the end of the third century, a party of monks from Egypt found refuge in the Ethiopian highlands, where they settled and supported themselves by agriculture and the care of flocks. One shepherd came came to the prior one night with the strange tale that the sheep and the goats would not go to rest in their fold. They were lively to such a degree that he feared that they had been bewitched. In spite of prayers, this state of things continued for days, until at last the prior himself decided to herd the animals. Leading them out to the fields, he observed what plants they ate, and thus discovered that their sleeplessness was the effect of the leaves of a certain shrub. He himself chewed on some buds of the same plant, and he found out that he was easily able to keep awake during the long night services which his form of religion prescribed. So was coffee discovered.
There are many Arab customs on the subject of coffee. The coffeemaker has to follow precise prescriptions, and also the offering of a cup implies various customs.
Thus, to offer a full cup is considered a studied insult, and so also is the offer of a third cup. The saying is: “The first cup for the guest, the second for enjoyment, and the third for the sword.”
The third cup
During a famine in the early part of the 19th century a Bedouin sheikh left his encampment somewhere in the Gaza district and went down to Egypt with men and camels to buy corn. Night came after he had crossed the frontier. About midnight, seeing a light in the distance, the sheikh thought that some village must be nearby. He left his men and camels where they were and went out to explore the area. The light came from a house the door of which was ajar. As he smelt coffee berries roasting, he concluded it was a guesthouse, and boldly entered. But he was mistaken. The only persons in the lighted room were an unveiled woman and a Mamluk, her husband. The woman screamed and hid her face at the sight of a man in the doorway, but her husband reprimanded her and asked the stranger what he wanted. The sheikh replied that he had tought the place was a guest-house but, since he was mistaken, would go away again. The Mamluk, however, insisted on his remaining, and gave him a cup of coffee. When he had drunk this, his host offered him a second cup, which he accepted. A third cup he declined, although pressed to take it. Finding his insisting requests useless, the Mamluk drew his sword and threatened to kill the Bedouin unless he took a third cup. The man still refused, saying that he preferred being killed. “Why?” asked his grim host. “Because,” answered the sheikh, “the first cup is for the guest, the second for enjoyment, and the third for the sword. Though, indeed, I am a warrior, like you, yet at present I am unarmed, seeing that I am here on business connected with peace and not with war.”
“Well,” answered the Mamluk, who put away his weapon, “your answer shows that you are a true man. I took you for a thief and robber, but I see that I was mistaken. Remain under my roof as my guest.” The sheikh accepted the invitation, and when he told his host the purpose of his visit to Egypt, the latter, who had a great deal of corn for sale, did business with him, and for several years supplied him and his tribe with grain.
Adapted from: J.E. Hanauer, Folklore of the Holy Land. The Sheldon Press, 1907
Coffee can also play a role in traditional customs of Al-Athwa, making a truce to prevent revenge. Here is a story about this custom:
Once upon a time during the first Intifada a car accident happened near the crossroads Bethlehem-Hebron-Beit Jala. The driver was a Christian young man from Bethlehem. The child who was knocked down and killed was a Moslem from Abu Dis village near Jerusalem. The Arab custom on such occasions is to send some dignitaries who know the tribal traditional laws (Al ‘Urf) well and know how to make a truce (Al Athwa) so as to avoid any revenge or bloodshed instigated by the family of the victim.
So some elderly men of Bethlehem area went to Jerusalem. There they met the old people of the victim. The Bethlehem spokesman and his companions started to make apologies for what happened and requested a truce on behalf of the Bethlehem people. The spokesman who represented the family of the child stood up and told them that he would not make any truce unless the driver who caused the fatal accident would appear in front of all the people.
The Bethlehem notables became worried and could not understand the motive behind the highly unusual demand. After consultations, the spokesman of the Bethlehemites stood up and, hesitatingly, accepted the demand, asking for guarantees to secure the safety of the driver. The Jerusalem spokesman stood up and said: “After God, the sole guaranteer of all, I am the one who can secure his life. No one will touch him or inflict any harm on him. However, please bring him here in front of all.”
Then a group of elderly people went back to Bethlehem and brought the driver. All people on both sides were worried and afraid. The old spokesman ordered for coffee to be served. Now according to tradition, coffee is served only after the truce has been agreed upon. Some people who were ignorant about the custom drank the coffee, but most wanted to wait until the announcement came.
The old man noticed that many of the Bethlehem people did not drink their coffee. He stood up, and insisted that everybody should drink it. After they did so, he said: “God had given us this child and God has taken him. We are all sorry. This young driver did not intend to kill him. May God forgive him and forgive us all. Go back, you people of Bethlehem. This is life and we are all people of the same God of the same country. We neither want Athwa nor any compensation. May God pardon you and have mercy on our son and all the dead…”
Tale told by Fuad Giacaman, Bethlehem, July 1999.