Coffee is a daily staple in many parts of the world. For most, it is the source of a quick caffeine fix before the workday. A trip to the café is often one of several errands with little significance. However, some cultures have much stronger traditions regarding the coffeehouse. In the Middle East, for instance, getting a cup of coffee (or tea) is a significant part of each day, with cultural and social importance.
The Middle East is a region that includes eighteen nations and is home to at least twelve languages. Making generalizations about the culture in this region often creates inaccuracies, as there are usually exceptions to every rule. However, one statement that can safely be made about Middle Eastern culture is that it emphasizes hospitality. While it is customary to offer visitors (even unfamiliar guests) a meal or a cup of coffee in a Middle Eastern home, many Middle Easterners (particularly those in urban areas) now prefer to meet and socialize at a communal venue.
The coffeehouse has become the center of social life for a large (and growing) number of Middle Easterners. Customs from the home were transferred to cafés, and many comforts besides tea and coffee are often enjoyed there. One of the most unique is shisha (also called hookah, nargile, and argila), flavored tobacco smoked through a waterpipe. Customers also play backgammon and other popular games to pass the time.
Typically, Middle Easterners will spend roughly an hour at the coffeehouse each day. It serves as a center for discussion and offers a place to unwind. Traditionally, only men frequented these establishments. However, this has slowly been changing in recent years. Cafés specifically catering to women have opened in more traditional areas, while crowds of mixed genders (especially among younger generations) can be seen in others.
Although something as simple as a coffeehouse may not seem to have broad implications, it does have great importance in the Middle East. First, it is a place where longstanding traditions can continue to thrive. Arabic coffee (often brewed with spices such as cinnamon, clove, and even saffron) and the widely enjoyed shisha have been common for centuries. Cafés have preserved not only these regional specialties, but the social customs that accompany them as well.
Additionally, because they are the predominant site of social activity in many parts of the Middle East, it is not surprising that coffeehouses are often the birthplace of change. As the revolutions of Arab Spring swept across the region, they were preceded by hushed conversations in cafés, whispers of rebellion that served as the sparks to ignite a much larger fire. Similarly, coffeehouses have led to other forms of progress in the Middle East. As women’s roles have slowly expanded in a very conservative culture, taking part in daily customs (like those of the coffeehouse) has accelerated change and acceptance.
The essence and importance of Middle Eastern coffeehouses, in actuality, has little to do with coffee, tea, or shisha. Cafés are a societal center in the region and, while paralleled in other areas, remain a very unique aspect of daily life in the Middle East.