Coffee Customs in Eastern Sudan and Egypt: The Beja Tribes and a Recipe

Revised 14 May 2014
Beja merchants at the Red Sea market town of Shalaeen.  Source - Wikipedia

Beja merchants at the Red Sea market town of Shalaeen. The Red Sea Hills can be seen in the background.  Source – Wikipedia

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

Background:
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:

Beja tribal area; our work was primarily in the Hala’ib Triangle next to the Red Sea. The triangle is the disputed area between Sudan and Egypt, now nominally controlled by Egypt, at least it was during my time there. Source: unknown

The Beja clans,known also as the  BisharinHedarebHadendowa (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.

Scene from a tomb chaple at Meir, Upper Egypt, showing an ancient Egyptian notable supervising a beduin of the Eastern Desert who possibly is a Beja.  Source - ARAMCO magazine

Scene from a tomb chapel at Meir, Upper Egypt, showing an ancient Egyptian notable supervising a bedouin of the Eastern Desert who possibly is a Beja. Source – ARAMCO magazine

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 –

Coffee preparation for guests is a ritual affair, with various spices added to the clay pot in which it is brewed. - Source: © David Haberlah
Lineage notable preparing a little fire to make coffee.  The base of a camel saddle is behind him and a wooden mortar is to the left.  He wears the white robe and blue vest that now is the daily garb of Beja men.  Source –  (c) David Haberlah.

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.
JCups similar to those used by the Beja today. Source - Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 1890.

JCups similar to those used by the Beja today. Source – Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 1890.

  • 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.

    Thanks to Brian Johnson for this link! Source: bejapix.tumbler.com

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.

Some further reading –

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About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-North, Ceremony, Coffee Ritual, Cuisine, Egypt, Egypt-Ancient, Egypt-Recent, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Middle East, Recipes, Red Sea Hills, Social Life, Sudan and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Coffee Customs in Eastern Sudan and Egypt: The Beja Tribes and a Recipe

  1. dianabuja says:

    Reblogged this on DIANABUJA'S BLOG: Africa, The Middle East, Agriculture, History and Culture and commented:

    I have just updated the following blog on Coffee Culture among the Beja Clans of the Red Sea Hills of Egypt – a ceremony that has also been part of history and culture in the Middle East and North Africa, including a recipe. Enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

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