What’s in a cup of coffee

Over at n+1, Alexander Bevilacqua wrote an article about European-Middle Eastern relationships prior to (say) the French Revolution. The article begins with the following brilliant sentence. “Hard as it is to imagine today, there was a time before coffee.”
He continues, “[b]y the Renaissance, Sufi mystics were consuming coffee in Yemen, and soon the drink became popular throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. In the 16th century, Ottoman Turks discovered the beverage when merchants from Aleppo and Damascus founded the first coffeehouses of Istanbul. Gradually, and in a manner that was anything but inevitable, coffeehouses opened in Europe too—first in Oxford, then in London, then on the continent. By the end of the 17th century, Europeans had learned to love this strange new concoction.
In a book that had something entirely different as its subject, I read that “[i]mports to England an Wales soared after 1790 as ‘coffee became the alarm clock that marked industrial time.'”
I really like that idea of coffee marking industrial time.

But back to the Sufi mystics for a second. I cannot but wonder what coffee meant for them, given that Sufi literature and poetry is allegorical and escapes direct interpretation. It often sounds overtly erotic, even when the object of desire is God and not a human lover, and much of it refers to intoxication, which is expressly forbidden in Islam. In a world without drugs or alcohol, was coffee their poison of choice?

And what does coffee mean to us, aside from marking industrial time? Bevilacqua makes the case that Western dominance over the Levant was by no means a foregone conclusion prior to the 19th and 20th centuries. Before that, there was a moment of cultural exchange between Europe and the Middle East, unrepeated since, as equals. “It was a chapter fleeting enough to be long forgotten. Yet traces of it survive in the global popularity of coffee, the ideal of the coffeehouse, the percussion section of classical orchestras, and the name of furniture pieces from sofas and divans to ottomans.”

And a whole other history could be written about the moment when you ask “Do you take sugar?”

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