Coffee culture is a central part of both social and political life of the Beja, as it is in many other areas of the Middle East and North Africa. The original blog, from which this section is extracted, can be found here: Coffee Rituals, Camel Shins & Ostrich Brochettes: The Beja Tribes of Eastern Sudan & Egypt – Part II
For several years in the early 1980’s I managed a livestock-health project working with several of the Bisharin –or Beja – tribal lineages that are located in the Red Sea Hills of Southeastern Egypt and Northeastern Sudan:
The Beja clans,known also as the Bisharin, Hedareb, Hadendowa (or Hadendoa), the Amarar (or Amar’ar), Beni-Amer,Hallenga and Hamran [Wiki], have a long history that extends back into pharaonic times, possibly depicted in a 12th Dynasty tomb chapel at Meir, Upper Egypt – a topic that I will take up elsewhere.
While continuously linked with commerce and politics in the Nile Valley for many thousands of years, the Beja have maintained their own language – to-bedawei – being, according to my sources, is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family. A brief description of the language can be found here, and with links to other sources, here.
Beja Coffee Ceremony:
Coffee preparation is an art in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa – just as it is amongst the Beja clans. In many regions the task is carried out by the lineage or household head, as in the following picture, where the host – dressed in traditional white garb and blue vest of Beja men – prepares a little fire, his camel saddle frame placed behind him –
Preparation Ceremony and Recipe –
- Coffee beans are first freshly roasted over a small fire, often in no more than a little refurbished tin can that has been cut down to an appropriate size, to which a wire handle has been affixed.
- The beans are then crushed by hand in a mortar and pestle, which can be seen to the left of the above notable. Pepper corns may and some other crushable spices may be added.
- The pots used to make/serve the prepared coffee are of red clay (pictured below)– being a traditional round shape, about 4” in diameter with a long neck and spout. It is a design found throughout eastern Sudan, as well, and sometimes is made of light tin, which is an excellent choice for cafes and restaurants that serve the brew.
- The beans are put in the clay container, together with spices, usually a few cardamom pods and some pepper.
- This is then slowly brewed by the side of the fire – and when done, a loose sieve made of dry grasses stuffed in the top of the pot in order to keep the grounds and spices in when the brew is poured.
- Very small cups are then placed on a tray – the cups, too, are traditionally round and very small, holding about 2 oz of liquid. For the last several decades small tea cups imported from China have been the most commonly used. I have seen similar cups in drawings from the late Nineteenth Century, as well, which are signs of a former and very active trade between China and Asia and the Indian Ocean / African East Coast areas.
- After simmering the brew is poured into the small cups, with a high sweeping motion of the pourer’s hand and arm in order to enhance aroma, sound and froth. The pouring part of the ceremony requires great skill and lends both to aroma and sound of the drink as well as anticipation of the guests.
- Coffee cups on the tray are then passed around – all the while guests and hosts have been chatting and exchanging news; now, ‘bismillah’ (in the name of Allah) is exclaimed by each participant, as a salutary preface to drinking the coffee – or ‘qahwah’, as it is known.
But this coffee is not drunk, so much as noisily sipped; noisily, because bringing air into the sip helps to spread the wonderful aroma and flavor.
Following such a refreshing break, ‘business’ can then begin or – if guests are merely passing by – they will make their farewells with long promises to come by again very soon.
During my several years of work in this area I always looked forward, when entering an encampment, to the coffee ceremony as a key and very enjoyable part of beginning formal activities.
Some further reading –