Jordan // Culture and etiquette //

The meaning of coffee

In tribal bedouin culture, where the mark of a man is how he treats his guests, and where what is unsaid has as much (or more) resonance than what is said, coffee plays a hugely significant symbolic role.

In some areas, merely starting to make coffee is a signal to families in neighbouring tents that something is afoot: by pounding freshly roasted beans in a mihbash – a form of pestle and mortar, sometimes wood, sometimes metal – using a distinctive rattling or jangling sound, a man (it’s always a man) can send out a wordless invitation from his tent for all within earshot to gather round. He brews the coffee with cardamom in a dalleh, a long-spouted pot set in the embers, and then serves it to everyone present in tiny thimble-sized cups, always beginning with the guest of honour and proceeding clockwise around the circle. The first cup is known as l’thayf (“for the guest”), to indicate hospitality. The second is l’kayf (“for the mood”), to indicate a relaxed atmosphere. The third is l’sayf (“for the sword”) to show that any animosity has evaporated. Then, and only then, can the social interaction or discussion begin.

However, if the guest of honour places their first cup in front of them without drinking, this is a signal that they have a request to make of the host – or that there is some underlying problem between them. Only when the request has been met, or the problem solved, will the guest drink. For a guest to leave without drinking even the first cup is a serious snub – such a dispute may require independent arbitration.

A guest could, if they wish, spark a feud by commenting gahwahtak saydeh (“your coffee is hunted” – that is, tainted or bad). If, in the opinion of those present, the beans are indeed off, there is no problem. If, however, the coffee is good, the guest is then deemed to be deliberately insulting the host. The consequences could be serious.

Coffee, too, can serve as a symbol of revenge. A man could gather his neighbours and declare one cup of coffee to be a “blood cup”, meaning whoever drinks it accepts the task of cleansing family honour by taking revenge on a named enemy. But then if the person who drinks fails to exact revenge, they themselves face dishonour and exile. Coffee, in this instance, is life or death.

There are many more such traditions – and they aren’t limited to tent-dwelling bedouin. Even in modern homes, where the beans might be pre-roasted and the coffee machine-made, the rituals and meanings remain unchanged. Coffee is more than just a drink: it’s an integral part of Jordanian culture.