The Ancient Etiquette of the Bedouin Coffee Tradition

Deal Maker or Deal Breaker?

In Bedouin culture, drinking coffee is not just about getting a caffeine fix. It is a ritual, a symbol, a sign of hospitality and trust, and a way to settle disagreements and issues. ‘Any problem can be solved over a cup of coffee.’

The quiet village of Dar Salah is located just east of Bethlehem and about a 15-minute drive from the Judaean Desert border. We arrive to meet with Wisam Salah, the Director General of Bedouins Without Borders, an independent Palestinian non-profit organisation focused on supporting the needs and development of Bedouins in Palestine, the Middle East, and the North Africa regions.

Wisam Salah is our Bedouin host for the day as he shows us around the property which not only serves as an office for his staff but is also a place where the community can come together for workshops and training. The building is an old-fashioned communal Palestinian house, with a central courtyard, several interconnecting rooms, and a beautiful garden outside. We are shown some handmade goods produced by the Bedouin community, including tapestries, colourful carpets, leather bags, embroidered textiles, and jewellery. Wisam introduces us to Panda, a rare black and white Canaan dog breed native to Palestine. There are only a handful left in the world and they reside and are cared for by the Bedouins.

We head out and Wisam takes us in his 4x4 to the desert. Our view of the earthy sand dunes is majestic with a beautiful tranquillity, there is a calmness and warmth in the air that makes you feel completely peaceful. We are invited to sit down for a cup of coffee at a nearby campsite, which is being renovated by Wisam’s organisation.

Coffee Code

‘Any problem can be solved over a cup of coffee,’ Wisam tells us, as he pours us each a steaming cup of Arabic coffee. The taste is exquisite and strong, a combination of sour and smooth and unbelievably aromatic. We are here to learn more about the coffee culture of the Bedouin community and the intricacies associated with this very important and beautiful custom.

The Bedouin community does not consume coffee regularly. As desert dwellers, they prefer tea with sugar because tea cools their body temperature and gives them energy.

Coffee has a more symbolic meaning when served and is sacred to their tradition. It is a sign of respect, welcome, honour and hospitality towards guests. It is used in making agreements or pacts between individuals or tribes, solving problems, and passing judgment under tribal law.

Exploring desert culture from Dana to Petra to Wadi Rum in Jordan.
Exploring desert culture from Dana to Petra to Wadi Rum in Jordan.
Hiking desert and mountains of the Sinai Trail in Egypt
Exploring desert culture from Dana to Petra to Wadi Rum in Jordan.
Hiking desert and mountains of the Sinai Trail in Egypt

According to Bedouin tradition, three types of coffee are served, subject to certain etiquette rules. The first is called Finjan Al-Haif (‘house cup’), this is the first cup of coffee that is poured, and that the Bedouin host must drink in the presence of his guests. He does this to ensure that the coffee he is going to serve meets his standards. This is important because a bad tasting cup of coffee (‘gahwah Saydeh’) is considered a sign of disrespect towards the guests. When the host is satisfied with the quality of the coffee, he serves it to his guests. This is the second cup of coffee served, called Finjan Al-Dhaif (‘guest cup’). This cup is served to the guest and is a symbol of welcome, hospitality, and protection. Once a guest enters a Bedouin's home, he is protected by the host and the offer of coffee is a symbol of that protection. The host continues to refill the guest's cup with coffee until the guest shakes his cup from side to side, a gesture that indicates he has had enough, but the more cups of coffee a guest drinks, the happier and more honoured the host will be.

Later, the Bedouin host may offer a third cup of coffee to his guest called Finjan Al- Saif (‘sword cup’). This cup symbolises the Bedouin’s desire to form an official alliance with his guest, the greatest honour a Bedouin could offer his guest. This alliance means that the guest would be considered an official clan member who would not only be protected by the entire tribe (a protection that would extend outside their community) but would also be expected to protect and fight with the tribe in return.

Make or Break

The process of Bedouin coffee brewing is a painstaking task that dates back thousands of years. They prepare fresh green coffee beans and roast them slowly in a frying pan over a wood fire. Then a wooden or copper mortar and pestle are used to grind the beans into powder, along with spices such as cardamom, saffron, cinnamon or cloves. The process of grinding the beans is done by hand in a musical rhythmic manner. There is a true beauty in this age-old tradition that is an art form in itself. Once the coffee has been properly ground into a fine powder, it is then added to water in a copper coffee pot and brought to a boil. Then the coffee is left to simmer for several hours until it is ready to serve. When served, it is often accompanied by dates.

What would happen if we refused a coffee? I ask. Wisam answers with a story. 'One time I wasn't feeling well after having surgery and wasn't allowed to drink coffee, but I had a very important meeting with tribe members that I had to attend, there were probably 30-40 people in the house I was visiting. A little boy, around 7 years old, the son of the owner of the house, was serving coffee for all the guests. I refused the coffee the boy offered as he walked around the room, I refused three times before the whole room went silent. The tribesmen stood up and grabbed their knives and guns, because refusing coffee is a sign of total disrespect, which made the men distrust me. I calmly took the coffee and drank it with a smile on my face despite my illness. I then explained my circumstances to the members, which they fully understood and apologised for the misunderstanding.’ Wisam pauses and smiles before continuing. ‘So, accepting a cup of coffee is very important to the Bedouin tradition, it is the ultimate deal maker or deal breaker.’

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Hamza Sarraj is a multi-award winning Palestinian architectural engineer and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his career to combining his heritage with ground-breaking innovation. Early in his career, he worked on the restoration and rehabilitation of the Armenian Genocide Museum in Jerusalem and oversaw projects for Bethlehem University and the Bet Sahour Arab Orthodoxy Club. He later co-founded design and development consulting studio 16 Baker Street Studio, and Zamakan Virtual Reality, a...

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