ASPECTS OF KUWAITI CULTURE
August 5, 2001
One of the first things that you will probably notice when you enter through the doorway of a Bedouin home is the aroma, ever so light and enticing, of the blond colored Arabic coffee. It will be most likely that this pungent perfume of fresh coffee is from either the beans being just ground, just brewed or just being served. It is so much a part of the day of the Bedouin that one lovely old Bedouin woman told me, "this coffee is my mother, and father", meaning she couldn't (and wouldn't want to) make it through the day without it! Mind you, this isn't the black-as-the-ace-of-spades coffee that most English and Americans are used to drinking to give them a kick-start in the morning. This is very light, usually yellowish or greenish yellow in color with only a lightly bitter, though pleasant flavor (although there are some tribes like the A'naza, for example, that drink it much darker and much more bitter).
This same lady, who is from the Ajmi tribe, and was in the vicinity of 85 years old, used to sit with me several times a week and tell me the tales of her youth. All the time while she was spinning her tales of yore, she would be going through her daily morning coffee ritual. First she would have her servant take the fresh greenish colored coffee beans and roast them lightly in an open pan that was special only for the coffee beans. When they were lightly roasted, becoming slightly darker, but not even brown, and their aroma would start to come out, they would be taken and ground until they were chunky fine. This is traditionally done with a mortar and pestle, although, many households now use an electric coffee grinder, or even purchase their coffee pre-ground from the shop. The ground coffee beans would then be placed in the della (the long nosed Arabian coffee pot, or some people now use another pot for brewing the coffee and then when it is ready they either put it in the della or put it in a thermos) along with a fair amount of cardamom, that has been either just opened or actually ground with the coffee beans. This blend is now put to the fire.
In the old days, and even now in many homes, especially in the winter, the coffee would be put on the hot coals of the doowwa (which is a low-to-the-ground, four legged, often intricately decorated brass grill-like contraption that is used for coffee and tea, and generally warming to those sitting around it). The coffee blend is brought to boiling and then let to brew on a low fire for some time, until around one third of the water has evaporated (or thereabouts). Then, if she were so inclined that day, my old Bedouin friend would take a few cloves (which are called mismaar in Kuwait) and throw them in the della, otherwise, she would lean over as if she were going to tell me a very important secret, and motion for me to look. She would then reach into her brass studded wooden chest, where, in one of the drawers, she had hidden her special stash of saffron! All this would be done with a flourish, as if this were a special thing that was just for me. She would then proceed to take one of the little handle-less coffee cups, called finjaan, and put a pinch of the saffron strands in the bottom of the finjaan, and pour over them the steaming hot blond coffee until the finjaan was just half full. She would then swirl it around and leave it to sit for a few seconds, and return the now red coffee into the della, where she would let it brew for several more minutes while swirling it all together every so often. She tested it several times throughout the process by pouring it into the finjaan in order to see if it had become the perfect color and aroma.
When she was finally satisfied that the coffee was fit to be tasted, she would put these plant fibers that she called leefah into the spout of the della (in order to prevent the coffee grounds from coming out into the finjaan) and holding the finjaan in her right hand, pouring with her left hand. (I never knew how important that was until one day I held the della in my right hand and the finjaan in my left, and was told the story of a young boy who did the same thing, and the old man who he was pouring for, was so insulted that he 'threw it in his face. I was shocked at that story at first, but then I realized that, of course! Muslims are supposed to only eat with their right hands and that includes holding the food, due to the fact that they use the left hand for washing oneself after using the bathroom!) She would hold the della high up in the air, far away from the finjaan and let a hot, steaming stream of coffee flow (without losing a single drop) into the tiny finjaan, filling it up to not more than one half full. This she would give to me, before pouring an identical one for herself, thereby saying to me Ighday, meaning take. Of course she was talking about the dates, something that no self-respecting Bedouin household would be without, ever. (Depending on the season, they would be either dry or fresh, but they always, always had to be there on the tray with the coffee). And so it would go, on several mornings of every week, for several months, Jaazy, the old Bedouin woman, who used to say that I was the daughter she never had, and myself, the American Bedouin Muburgaa (which means woman who wears the veil), would sit, drink coffee, eat dates, talk and laugh, and she would tell me her long, almost forgotten stories of when she were a young girl, and the hard life they used to lead, and we would watch TV renditions of Bedouin life, which she used to explain to me, with just as much gusto as if they were real. All the while holding my arm tightly, and leaning into me so I could hear her well without her needing to raise her voice.
If she only knew how much I cherished (and still do) those lazy mornings, and how much I appreciate her friendship and the deep personal and cultural value it has had to me, even now, years later. I think she does know, because her personality and friendship live on in every cup of Arabic coffee I drink, and that, by the way, is the only kind of coffee I drink!