Introduction :The lockdown of cities and countries to slow down the Corona pandemic, have turned lives upside down and discontinued habits and customs long since acquired and embraced. The small things we used to take for granted are standing no more, and the reality of the universal fragility of the Human condition is once more evident. Take, for instance, one small habit you always loved and took for granted– going to a second-cup or Starbucks for a cup of coffee while reading news and emails on your laptop or your phone– this habit small as it was less than two months ago, is now unattainable. It makes one nervous for some time but then habits replace other habits and life continues. Making the coffee in your kitchen instead is not really as much fun as it is to have it in one of these vendors’ locations. The secret of this preference, as I am now discovering, is not the coffee itself but the strong Aroma that fills these commercial locations and which presses on emotional buttons in the back of my head making these locations homelier to take the drink in than in my residence place itself. The reason for this, I believe, is that the surrounding aroma somehow calls emotional images in my mind and draws me to a time I endear, a time when this aroma was part of my surroundings as I grew up, and this by its turn call in me the air of a room and its surroundings beyond, reeking with a loaded mixture of the coffee aroma and the smells of burnt Frankincense, Jawi and sandal, and other exotics, the little faces and the sparkling eyes listening to comments or maybe a story told by one suspending the others’ attention for ten minutes which fly as if they were two seconds, of breaking out in laughter and sinking in sorrow and tears.
I want, thus, to tell a story of coffee as I experienced it in my boyhood, the story of a circle of a women-gathering for a coffee-drinking celebration, held at rounds in different houses at different days of the week, where coffee rituals and its drinking takes the role of the axis around which the circle revolves, revealing fears, concerns, hopes and destinies.
It is the same which happened last time they had such a gathering and it is the same as the one before It. it is the same always, no difference except in the place where they call the round. It was a round, alright, although it was not a regular one, it may take three days between one and the next, a week or a month but it will take place anyway, like a inevitable event.
One after the other they all arrive at about the same time, mostly not long after four in the afternoon and will spend as much as two hours of gossiping, laughing, arguing in a parade of resourcefulness and eloquence. When the number of the attendee seems complete, the host starts blowing on her small mobile brazier (stove) using a small, about 10cm diameter circular fan made of leaves of the Dom tree known as Meshrefet. She puts her coffee beans in the small pan on the brazier for roasting over charcoal burning underneath on dancing red and blue flames. She keeps stirring the beans in the pan while the aroma keeps occupying the room’s space. When the green coffee on the pan turns to oily black color the lady pours the beans on the surface of the fire fan and extends her arm putting the smoking coffee beans under the nose of the one sitting next to her so that it inhales the rising smoke, the guest extends both her hands outward and then inward a number of times as if trying to smell and inhale it all by herself with no thread of the smoke escaping. It may redden her eyes and cause itches in throat, but that wouldn’t prevent her from releasing a solid and audible hoarse scream, expressing satisfaction of the Zar spirit housing her body. Then the host moves to the next guest, then to the one next, applying the same routine on all attendees. This is followed by the process of grinding of the roasted coffee: The lady pours the beans down a Hon (mortar), a metal (sometimes wooden) cylindrical cover, and start crushing the beans in the Hon. using a relatively heavy metal pestle until the whole coffee beans are pulverized into moderately sized grains. Minutes later she spreads the crushed grains on the fire-fan and rolls it swiftly and skillfully, while the beans are on it, to the form of a funnel to adapt and fit the mouth of the pot through which the ground coffee and water are poured into the pot for boiling. The pot, Jebena, is a spherical container made of burnt clay on top of which is a moderately long neck terminating in a slightly enlarged mouth through which the whole ground coffee is poured into followed by water and left to boil. When the coffee is ready to be served it is done so in a set of elegant looking thin ceramic cups called finjal, about 20cmm size in white color inside-out with fine green, red, golden and blue lines on the outside. Coffee is drunk only using only those cups. The coffee is then poured, after inserting a filter (leef), a fiber made from the Dom tree leaves, and distributed to the guests starting from the right relative to the host. There in the center, near the host is a censer (Mebekoria) shooting high clouds of smoke from the burning mixture of Frankincense, sandal-wood, and Jawi, all placed on top of the ember on the censer. The resulting exotic aroma is not only agreeable but also mood relaxing and may induce a sense of joy and light ecstasy.
There is also a plate (Mebli Qursi) with a circular foot, made from the leaves of the Dom tree leaves also and used to hold important paraphernalia of the coffee drinking process; I mean by that the local popcorn made of corn seeds from which a fistful is tossed and scattered on the floor by the hostess to please the spirits imagined filling the space of the room. There are special times, when it is affordable, that a small bottle of a famous perfume (Bint Al Sudan) loved by the Zar spirits housing some of these women’s bodies is thrown over the popcorn on the plate with a few candy-sweets in colorful wraps. Neither the perfume bottle is opened nor the candies consumed since these are saved for the big day of a Zar ceremony.
Before the coffee drinking starts one of the women, the one with the highest degree of audacity, normally the oldest of them all, raises her hands, join them together as if they were two opposing pages of a book and starts reciting prayers specific to that ceremony’s day of the week since each coffee ceremony-day is dedicated to one of the Sufi saints and the name of that Sufi is associated with a day of the week. For instance, the ceremony on Wednesday is dedicated to Sheikh Abdulkadir Al Jilani, a great Sufi of the Twelfth century, whose emulation is sought so much so that babies born on Wednesdays are, often, given the name Abdulkadir. Tuesday’s ceremony is dedicated to Sheikh Abdussalam, another Sufi sage who also finds many namesakes of babies born in Tuesdays; Friday is for Sheikh Muzammil and so on.
Al Fatiha and daughter prayer
Aunt Fatima takes it a duty to recite a small prayer starting by the Fatiha which probably no one of the ladies would do it better than her, and she finishes it with a final “daughter prayer”, if I may call it so, which she didn’t know the meaning[i] of except generally and vaguely:
Limen qal Jbaa
Berakat Ahl nnabaa
Sheikh ali shazeli
Sidi abdulkader al Jilani
Sultan al awlia
Imam al haqiqa
The conclusion of prayers marks the beginning of distributing of the brewed coffee to the attendees as the first of four rounds in each of which the pot is filled with water each time and boiled with the same roasted coffee inside. Each round has a name, Awel (first), and Baraka (blessing) the fourth or the last.
At many times, it starts with news of exciting expected or achieved event; it may be, for instance, the news of the engagement of a daughter of one of the attendees, or a son of another who doesn’t frequent this coffee-circle but is an ever-present of another in the neighbourhood as there were in the neighbourhood other similar circles too. Because these circles were loose associations with no strict membership restraints, it is common that one or more of this circle’s associates may also be associates of another circle. Considering this, these circles were practically a network of news dissemination and a mechanism for maintaining interaction between the constituents of the community, a practice so essential for its coherence and continuity.
Each of these circles may also have, between its ranks, the active and audacious one, like Aunt Fatima, who takes on herself the duty of reciting the prayers and opening of the ceremony.
Stories start to flow, a contest in eloquence and storytelling, news of the near and the far, gossips and small scandals which may not be so outside the context of this coffee-circle.
The usual conlusion
In the end, the tide comes to the ebb and the session also, with its rituals, stories, proverbs, gestures, gossip, and laughter, comes to a closure. Stories, gradually, devolve to short sentences and gestures, with longer periods of silence in between, and then, suddenly, one of the guests stands up and, theatrically, declares her leave, another asks to accompany her and the rest, as if they were reminded to get up do exactly that, almost together, and the group, after a little lingering, disperses.
The odd conclusion
Although the conclusion of the session just described seems to be the standard, it is in no way the only one as it seems; for there are many times when the conclusion gets dramatically different. One recurring end is, for instance, when old events, or new ones associated to old events, the protagonists of which are living or have died recently or long ago, no problem here, because unlike all the dead of the world, their deceased seem to live long after their death, and there some dead men who in their houses are treated as if they were still alive and their counsel and recommendation sought in times of hardship; for the turban of the dear departed is still dangling from the hook as if it is waiting for him to pick it, as he usually did, and put it on his head. His cane, the last thing he picks before he ushers to join the early morning prayers in the nearby mosque, is leaning on the wall near the door, also waiting for him. And there, near and below the bed, are his slippers and his ablution jug.
This huge presence of the dead amid the living is a pressure making it only inevitable that the name of one of them is invoked accidentally, or deliberately, leading to the detailing and praising of his feats and virtues, and it is almost always certain, that there is between the guests, one who was related to the dear departed or to one of her household members who valued him high or it could be a remote memory, told by her brother who himself died and took lodge in the ever living-memory, a short time after sharing his stories of the man with her, and here she is now that these memories are roistering in her chest and pressing on her tears’ repositories, break out in a bout of crying and sobbing while her shoulders violently shake. One of the women gets up to help, console and calm her, but as soon as she touches the wailing woman, she also starts shaking and soon falls victim to the wailing contagion, her entire body quaking and sinking into a spell of muffled and bitter weeping thus infecting the rest of the party, throwing them into a storm of wailing. Very soon and with no pre-arrangement, this storm will subside into a musically tuned symphony of lamentation initiating in a low tone gradually rising to a summit and then gradually taper off lower and lower to gradually rise once more, and so on and so on. During this artistic lamentation, the ladies weep, their eyes get red and their cheeks wet; some of them would even blow their noses in a piece of cloth, and when the kohl runs down from the eye-lids to the cheeks they rub their faces and foreheads with another smaller piece.
But don’t let this display of harmony and unity in melody and performance of the choir trick you into believing that they are consistent in their subject of grief also, because it is probable that every one of them is, in reality, mourning a different person than the neighbour sitting next to her. Every one of them was running a different show in her head, different than her neighbour and different than all the rest of the associates of this circle.
I don’t claim that what I say is the absolute truth, although, later on, irrefutable evidence for it popped up and closed the argument once and for all, as you will see later. But, until then it was hard for me buying into the idea that Zemzem, the groom from the hungry countryside, brought by the municipality toll collector and enforcer, three or four years ago, just to give her a life of humiliation and oppression. He comes drunk late in the night and bangs the door violently using his official fat, black, short baton, calling names and cursing the creature and her three years twin sleeping inside. As soon as she and her babies wake up in terror, she runs to open the door and receives the official-baton blows on her back, neck, arm, face and any other part of her body; to him, every spot seemed suitable for beating and punishing. In such a situation, the poor creature has to scream for help at the top of her voice, but her appeal fell on deaf ears, for the neighbours know, from the few times that they responded, that Kahsai will be sitting quiet and calm in their presence, and it is Zemzem herself, who minutes ago was appealing for their intervention, who will confront them and order their dismissal, calling them nosy and meddlesome, and they will go out with their eyes fixed to the floor, feeling the loss of a battle ahead and before its starting. As a result, a rumour had it that Zemzem was one of those who love and bring on themselves the beating by the loved one.
Ruse of the battered woman
But, in retrospect, I believe that people have misjudged Zemzem, and didn’t see that in showing her dissatisfaction with their intervention, which happened in response to her appeal in the first place, she was only cajoling her husband to buy his contentment. She had to do that if she was to shield herself from the ghost of the easy divorce which her husband may take refuge into if she goes on pressing him by lining herself with her saviours. And who is to take her in and her twin, if he decided to abandon her with divorce, or without it? She can’t dare think going back to where she came from; hungry villages don’t welcome returnees who come back in the same condition they left or worse. She knew that she is weak, uncovered crushed and desperate. Such being the case, is it expected that Zemzem forgets her anguish and instead mourn the memory of a man she knows nothing about more than what the women in the coffee-circle say about him no matter how his fair reputation and esteem. Besides, isn’t it probable that the coffee-circle might have been providing her a prospect to mourn herself and her miserable conditions without raising eye-browses; she can’t be alone, by herself, anywhere in the world even in her single-room house where the babies are around, and she and they are surrounded by prying eyes of the neighbours who live in the same stone-fenced compound?
Islands of sorrow
It seems that each one of the associates of this sad coffee-circle was, in reality, lamenting and mourning her-self and her concerns. Look at Ammuna and Rahma, each has deeper sorrows than to care to weep for dead men or women. It is worthier to lament their homes ruined by the State when it incarcerated their husbands by applying an unfair article of the law, article ten (Articolo dieci), under which the government may incarcerate for three months any citizen without laying definite charges. It was a time when it was enough for the state to imagine smelling on you the smell of an opponent of the Ethiopian Empire’s policies in Eritrea to throw you in jail with no explanation, or argument. At the end of the three months and the release of the prisoner, because there was no proof against, the State may apprehend the released prisoner again just a few meters away outside the jailhouse with the same old claims. This was exactly what happened to Rahma’s husband. He owned a tailoring and clothing shop at the downtown area, but the absence from work of more than six months accumulated rent which caused the seizure of the shop’s capital of fabrics, tailored clothes, sewing machines, thus driving Rahma and her three sons into deprivation and poverty with no hope of getting out of this predicament even after the release of her husband who will not find what to do then except what his predecessors before him have done: migration to Arabia, a destiny, from which he keeps postponing his returning day to his home year after year, and he may die before seeing that day.
Every associate of this coffee-circle has enough pains and sorrows which allow no place in the heart for mourning a man or a woman who took their final leave long time ago. Even Aunt Fatima!
A word on Aunt Fatima
The star of all sessions was Aunt Fatima! Although the least loquacious, she was the wittiest and most eloquent when she chooses to speak; she was funny, her jokes, short comments, and jabs make eyes twinkle and mirthful; her stings break out the gathering in laughter and her arguments, always wrapped in proverbs and parables, break the back of any contender’s argument. She had an imposing personality, a boss projecting character, in a style no one misunderstands. A type of person who speaks truth to power; When Hajj Taha, a wealthy notable, respected and feared by all, divorced his old wife, after thirty-five years of marriage, to marry another woman much younger than him, no one openly censured his foolishness because everyone was keen to keep the rich man’s goodwill, except Aunt Fatima. It was not in the custom and traditions for women to criticize and put men to shame, but to Aunt Fatima there is, simply, a limit to everything especially injustice, and here she is, true to her nature, crashing an all-men gathering, to point to the rich man at the center and loudly and authoritatively say: You! You are a pharaoh surrounded by monkeys and sycophants, then rushed out.
Aunt Fatima came to live in the neighbourhood a long time ago with her husband and her brother (both long time dead at the time of this story) from a Seraye countryside where her brother was a vocal supporter of independence until one day, a band of shiftas, working for the unionist party, ambushed him while traveling to Mendefera and severed his right ear completely, a reason for him to move to Asmara seeking help and later bought and settled in the compound he was renting. Her only son who was born after they settled in Asmara, was found dead in his sleep at the young age of fifteen. Her older daughter was living, with her husband and children, on the other side of the city, and comes visiting her mother and the neighbourhood often and especially on social occasions.
Aunt Fatima was the only woman in the coffee-circle who takes no role in the mourning symphony; she was a silent monitor who keeps the eyes moving and surveying the ladies’ faces meanwhile. Perhaps it is because of this that one day Dahab, a chatterbox and the youngest in the gathering, tossed a guff implying a reprimand to Aunt Fatima as being hard-hearted and indifferent to the dead whom they all mourn. As if stung by a snake, Aunt Fatima Jumped and stood up akimbo, staring at Dahab silently for a moment, then extending her hand and pointing, started addressing Dahab with a sharp, single sentence: “you are a fool”, then moved her pointing slowly to the rest, “you are all fools, you believe that I don’t know what you are up to, you believe I don’t know what you weep for? You are all fools! Every one of you weeps for your reason and every one of you is doing it for herself, and you do it in unison because it is sweeter to weep in company! But maybe you are right in this; what is the use of weeping for the dead, the dead will never know about it, and it does not do any good for the living either! You implicate that I am hard at heart, but maybe I see it only pretension to do what you are doing. Maybe I weep in my heart, not for your dead, by the way, but for you who now are living with me and sooner or later will die, and for this gathering which no one will remember thereafter. That is what is worth weeping for! That is what is worth weeping for!
So this was the truth; Aunt Fatima was apprehensive of being forgotten, her terror was the inevitable destiny: oblivion! But, what did she know? Here I am pulling her and the coffee circle out from the sea of oblivion, and telling their story many, many years after, and from remoteness, she could never have imagined: the other side of the globe! Yet even this may not have seemed much of a consolation to her, for I imagine her, quickly appending me to her circle of love saying: even what you say now will go the same way and will meet the same destiny.
[i] Meanings of the daughter prayer:
Coffee from Jabaa (jabaa is a mountain in Yemen where coffee is said to be originated)
Bliss from jabaa
To all who say Jabaa
By the bereka of Ahl al nebaa (ahl al nebaa are those who tell news from heaven)
Sheikh Ali al Shazli
Master Abdelqdir al Jilani
The Sultan of the saints
The Imam of Truth
The master of the Tariqa (Tariqa in the sufi terminology is a manner and it is a way to truth and God