Nadine Elali

A social history of coffee

Talking to Harvard professor Cemal Kafadar

Cemal Kafadar

Nearly most, if not all mornings, begin with a cup of coffee. Yet we take for granted that this simple drink pioneered modern life today as we know it.


In memory of the Lebanese historian, Dr. Kamal Salibi (1929- 2011), the Department of History and Archaeology at the American University of Beirut hosted a lecture by Harvard professor Cemal Kafadar, who presented a fresh approach for thinking about the role of coffee in world history.


During this lecture, entitled, “How Dark is the History of the Night, How Black the Story of Coffee, How Bitter the Tale of Love,” Kafadar says that there is broad agreement that the first users of coffee were the Sufis in Yemen. Coffee then spread to the rest of the Muslim world and reached Turkey in the 15th century, where the first coffee house was set up.


In an interview with NOW, Professor Kafadar explains the significance of his research, including how living patterns changed with the consumption of coffee, as well as how coffee houses reinforced capitalist and democratic structures.


NOW: Who discovered coffee and when?


Kafadar:  There are many instances where coffee was consumed as a plant in Ethiopia or in Yemen. But the earliest users who regularized the consumption of coffee as a social beverage, to the best of our knowledge, were the Sufis in Yemen around the turn of the 15th century. So, while Columbus was stumbling upon the Americas, the Muslim world was discovering the delights of a good cup of coffee.


NOW: Why did the Sufis in Yemen consume coffee back then?


Kafadar: The Sufis were keen on cultivating during their night vigils, and coffee gave them a certain nimbleness of the mind, which we are all familiar with now. This was the beginning of a long appreciation of coffee as a companion to mental exercise, particularly when one wishes to stretch or manipulate the biological clock.


NOW: After Yemen, what was the route of coffee in the Arab world?


Kafadar: After the 1400s, accounts show that coffee moved northward toward the Hijaz (i.e. Mecca and Saudi Arabia). It was popular during times of pilgrimage and word spread from there. It then moved to Cairo, which was the biggest population center at the time (around the 1500s). However, Istanbul soon surpassed Cairo in terms of population size, it being the capital of a larger empire, and so coffee became consumed more there. It was in Istanbul that the first coffee house was set up.


NOW: Who specifically set up the first coffee house?


Kafadar: Two brilliant merchants from Bilad el Sham (i.e. Greater Syria), one from Damascus and the other from Aleppo, started the first coffee house in Istanbul in 1551. Despite being an important milestone, few know much about both men other than their names — Hakem and Shams.


NOW: What makes the establishment of the first coffee house significant?


Kafadar: Whereas coffee only existed in private Sufi homes or lodges prior to the 1500s, coffee houses became a social institution thereafter. Within 50 years there were several hundred coffee houses in Istanbul, Cairo, and Aleppo, as well as several dozen others in smaller cities. Today, we take for granted the proliferation of coffee houses around the world, yet prior to the 1500s they were non-existent.


NOW: How did coffee houses impact daily life and culture?


Kafadar: Three centuries after the establishment of the first coffee house, countless regions and people living between Yemen and Britain had come to recognize coffee as a household item, and as a favorite stimulant to begin the day. It became a popular beverage that underpinned social occasions including leisure, chatter, political dialogue, and the formation and circulation of popular culture.


NOW: What does your research mean for other historians?


Kafadar: My research began in earnest with studying the origins of coffee beans, but it later expanded to the study of world history because coffee was associated with new patterns of living. For historians, it is very exciting to recognize this transnational aspect, to be able to question a larger narrative, including discussions about modernism and post-modernism.  


NOW: What were these new patterns of living at the time that you are now associating with the consumption of coffee and coffee houses?


Kafadar: The story of coffee consumption and coffee houses intertwines with phenomena such as the change in nighttime practices, the rise of new forms of public art and entertainment, the emergence of a new kind of urban society, and the rise of new social and political actors, including the bourgeoisie. Cities became much better connected to one another, so were commodities, people, ideas, and monies. Today we call this globalization, back then it was a sense of connectedness and coffee played a very important part in it.


NOW: When did these coffee houses make their way to the West?


Kafadar: Prior to the 17th century, coffee was only found in the Ottoman world, and to a lesser extent, Iran. It was exactly around the middle of the 17th century that coffee and coffee houses began spreading to Europe. Fifty years later, coffee houses were present almost everywhere in Europe, and this too brought about a similar kind of change in public socializing.


NOW: Were there early signs of coffee houses present in Beirut?


Kafadar: Of course. There were 40 coffee houses in Beirut in 1672, even though  the city had a small population until the 19th century or so. That is a big number for a city that size.


NOW: How did tales of love and coffee houses intersect?


Kafadar: As I mentioned, with the rise of coffee houses, new forms of entertainment were unfolding such as the shadow puppet theatres and meddah (story telling). This popular culture of telling stories speaks about the relations of authority within family and society. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the industry joining coffee houses and entertainment became very big. An example is the Khan Khalili in Cairo.  


NOW: What was significant about this new form of entertainment?


Kafadar: These new forms of entertainment also pioneered things we take for granted today, namely the structured urban life. For better or worse, we like to know what time a movie starts and when it will end, and with these performances that would take two or three hours, everything became more regular, and the day became more sharply defined as a result.


NOW: Did women attend these coffee houses?


Kafadar: Early on, only males went to coffee houses. Not until the 19th century, when Europe began having a café, did we find the presence of both genders. In this region, however, accounts show that only when there was entertainment involved, would families be present (including women and children). The most obvious account of this is from Aleppo, where records show a European traveler in the 18th century describing how men, women, and children treated coffee houses as theatres.


NOW: Was coffee expensive?


Kafadar: It was not very expensive, even though the price fluctuated every now and then. Until the early 18th century, all of the coffee supplies came from Yemen through the Red Sea. The price also somewhat depended on the weather and on travelling conditions. When sugar was later introduced with coffee consumption, its price also became dependent on the cost of sugar.


NOW: Was there anything controversial about coffee? Was it always legal? Was it ever banned?


Kafadar: Prohibitions on coffee and coffee drinking constitute a convoluted story. At times, coffee was banned because it was associated with political activity, but these bans were short-lived. Coffee became a huge and profitable commodity, and states therefore welcomed this new source of revenue. Let us not forget that coffee is addictive and people like to consume it, so banning its consumption also had social repercussions.


NOW: When did smoking come into the picture?


Kafadar: Signs of smoking appear around the 1600s. Much like today, it became very popular as a supplement to coffee.


Read this article in Arabic

Cemal Kafadar, Professor of Turkish Studies in the History Department at Harvard University. (Image via radikal.com.tr)

"There were 40 coffee houses in Beirut in 1672, even though the city had a small population until the 19th century or so. That is a big number for a city that size."