View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Imbibing the Emirates

After travel writer Sankha Guha visited Fujairah, he wrote in the British Independent newspaper:

“Fujairah has two distinguishing features - it is the only emirate to have a coastline on the Indian Ocean, instead of the Gulf, and (whichever god is responsible for doling out fossil fuel deposits was having a laugh) it has no oil.”

“This is a country where roundabouts constitute major attractions - they are featured prominently in tourism pamphlets and guidebooks. As we skirt one in the small town of Dibba I can make out a cluster of sculpted two-storey-high water jugs on the central island.”

“In Paris they have the Arc de Triomphe, in London Nelson's Column and in Fujairah they have outsize kitchen utensils.”

The roundabout sculptures admittedly do not have the architectural style of international monuments to military might, but they warrant deep reflection for they symbolize those features that contain the essence of Emirati culture and the things that make for peace.

Take the coffee pot roundabout in Faseel, near the Hilton Hotel and a stone’s throw from the Fujairah corniche. When you’re swilling your coffee in a Starbucks coffee shop in America or a Costas coffee shop in London, it is salutary to reflect on the Arabic origins of this activity. Coffee bushes were first discovered in central Ethiopia, where the legend is often told of the goat herder who noticed his goats getting frisky when they devoured some wild beans. From these ancient times when Ethiopian goats got high, coffee has often been used as a kick starter or a stimulant. The Ethiopian plants were taken to Yemen where a thriving export industry developed and it spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that coffee reached Europe and this ‘Muslim beverage’ received a blessing and a ‘baptism’ by Pope Clement VIII (who loved his coffee), which accelerated the popularity of the coffee drinking culture throughout the world.

The English word ‘coffee’ originates from the Arabic gah’wa via the Turkish kahve and the Italian caffee.

Coffee in the UAE is served from a stylishly curvaceous pot, usually by the host as a way of symbolizing the giving of honor. Understanding this action underscores why it is insulting to refuse even one cup of gah’wa.

It is intriguing to wonder why, in such a hot country, the black gold is poured into small cups, which are smaller than Italian espresso cups and often these cups are only half-filled. One would think that in such a thirsty country coffee would be served in monstrous mugs or grandé sized cups. But with the numerous refills of coffee come the pouring out and acceptance of generosity and the lubrication of friendship. Etiquette has it that it is polite to accept an odd number of cups—one, three or five. When you have had sufficient you signal this by jiggling your cup from side to side.

Gah’wa is usually served without milk or sugar and it doesn’t need them. Dates and sometimes sweets or pastries are offered so the sweetener comes as an accompaniment. Usually the coffee beans are ground and brewed with cardamom and sometimes spiced with cloves and saffron.

At many banks and businesses in the UAE coffee is usually available in the waiting areas. The aroma that pervades these places creates an atmosphere of acceptance that is vital for doing business. Kept hot in thermos containers, one picks out a cup from a basin of detergent-free water, shakes off the drips and the coffee is poured.

‘Out sized kitchen utensils’ they might be but they stand as reminders of something more precious than oil. The coffee set silently speaks of an ancient art and the essential values in everyday experience. Coffee drinking, Arabic style, is ideally about honor poured out upon strangers, generosity accepted and the genuine sharing that revitalizes friendships. Liquid hospitality. Stimulant to peace.

Geoff Pound

Images: Coffee pot roundabout in Faseel, Fujairah and serving coffee Emirati style.