Coffea Arabica: Cultivating the Coffee Culture

Since it was first introduced to the Arabian Peninsula from Abyssinia in the fifteenth century, coffee and the rituals surrounding its enjoyment have been important components of daily life there and all across the Middle East. It is no accident that, in the world at large for nearly as long, coffee has been inextricably linked in the popular imagination to life in Arabia along with camels and date palms, desert sands and verdant oases, the birth of Islam and, much more recently, the age of oil.

To cite one example, in 1935, in the midst of an around-the-world cruise occasioned by his membership in the official delegation representing the United States at ceremonies in Manila marking the granting of independence to the Philippines, Emil Hurja, a close advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt at the time and later a spokesman for Arab causes at the founding of the United Nations, stood on the deck of a steamship angling northwest across the Indian Ocean en route from the Indian city known then as Bombay—today’s Mumbai—for Cairo via the Suez Canal. “Getting into the Red Sea,” he wrote,

...we noticed many Italian warships, and countless cargo boats, heading for the rocky coasts that we could see silhouetted against the skyline of Africa, home of beleaguered Ethiopia. On the eastern shore of the Red Sea, steaming a short distance out of Aden, we noticed the ancient city of Mokha, once the center of the south Arabian coffee trade, now as deserted as the skeletons of old mining camps of Nevada mining boom days. … The town is surrounded by a wall; many of the large white buildings are in ruins, but the lofty minarets of two mosques still stand as sentinels against the blue Arabian sky to remind the world of a place that gave its name to the world and then died. For here is where the expression “a cup of Mokha” originated, to signify, as always, a good cup of coffee.

In his classic study of Bedouin life, “The Arab of the Desert” published in 1949, British writer H. R. P. Dickson wrote exhaustively about the lives of nomadic desert Arabs, including the role played by coffee in their daily routines (emphasis ours):

The well-to-do Badawin (Dickson’s idiosyncratic spelling of Bedouin) “such as our man Salim al Muzaiyin or the shaikh of a tribe, has one square meal a day, usually in the evening. This consists of plain rice cooked in semen (ghi), a few dates dipped in butter, some lehen (butter-milk), finishing up with coffee. In the early morning he starts the day with some lehen and dates, also coffee. He does not often eat meat himself, because he cannot afford to do so. Should a guest of standing arrive, the host will always kill a sheep or lamb for him, which goes the round of the family after the guest has had his share.

Dickson linked the Badawin/Bedouin’s love of coffee with his love of smoking: “The Arab realises that the theory that smoking is a sin does not hold water. ‘Why not stop me drinking coffee?’ he says, ‘it is an equally noxious drug and equally harmful to man.’

In a paper read before the Statistical Society of London in January 1852, John Crawford, Esq. spoke at length about coffee and its links to Arabia:

One species alone, Coffea arabica, is cultivated, or at least largely so, and yields the important commercial article. … As an object of cultivation it takes the place, within the Tropics, in relation to other objects of culture, that the vine does in the South of Europe, or tea in China. … Coffee, although taking its name from Arabia, is not a native of that country, but of Abyssinia (the historical name of Ethiopia, the target of Mussolini’s invading forces observed by Hurja from aboard that steamship in 1935), where it is found both in the wild and cultivated state. From that country it was brought to Arabia in comparatively recent times. … It was not known to the Arabs, therefore, for more than eight hundred years after the time of Mahomed, and was introduced only between forty and fifty years before the discovery of America. The Arabians called coffee Kahwah, which is an old word in their language for wine. The unlucky word gave rise to a dispute about the legality of its use among the Mahomedan doctors, who, mistaking the word for the thing it represented, denounced as a narcotic that which was anti-narcotic. They were beaten, and coffee has ever since become a legitimate and favourite potable of the Arabs. In a century, its use spread to Egypt and other parts of the Turkish empire.

For two centuries from its introduction into Arabia, the use of coffee seems to have been confined to the Mahomedan nations of Western Asia. … One striking use of coffee first, and then of tobacco, among the Mahomedan nations, is well deserving of notice. These commodities have been, in a great measure, substituted for wine and spirits, which had been largely, although clandestinely, used before and hence a great improvement in the sobriety of Arabs, Persians, and Turks. I give this interesting fact on the authority of Mr. Lane, who mentions it in his notes to his translation of the Arabian Nights.

Anyone dependent on their morning cup of joe to properly start their day understands from personal experience the powerful effect the caffeine in their brew can have on a person. That effect was especially pronounced when coffee was first introduced into European life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to a public that had never experienced anything like it before. An example can be found in one of English poet Alexander Pope’s most famous works, published in 1712, “The Rape of the Lock”:

Coffee (which makes the Politician wise,
And see through all things with his half-shut Eyes)
Sent up in Vapours to the Baron’s Brain
New Stratagems, the radiant Lock to gain.

If coffee, as Pope claimed, “…makes the Politician wise / And see through all things with his half-shut Eyes,” perhaps we should demand that our leaders visit Starbucks every morning for double shots of espresso sending up lots of “Vapours” to their brains before they start their work days. I’m sure Howard Schultz of Starbucks wouldn’t mind.

In its early days of availability to Europeans, coffee was a luxury item enjoyed by those select few who could afford to pay exorbitant prices for their caffeine fix. Compare that (if you’re old enough and a Yank, like I am) with coffee prices in the U.S. back in the ’50s and ’60s when you could order a cup of java at a local diner or Woolworth’s lunch counter and it would cost you but a dime. But then along came the Starbucks phenomenon, and look at coffee prices now. How about nearly six bucks for a venti White Chocolate Mocha or Cinnamon Cloud Macchiato or Iced Cappuccino with Cold Foam? Coffee has once again become something of a luxury item to dyed-in-the-wool aficionados with dollars to burn and a taste for the exotic. History has repeated itself in a way.

According to some self-appointed experts, however, you needn’t necessarily empty your piggy bank or search under couch cushions for spare change to pay for a good cup of coffee. In a blind taste test a few years back of coffees selected from a range of purveyors and served straight with no flavorings, a simple, unadulterated cup of McCafé from Mcdonald’s was declared the winner. In another, similar taste test, a cup of coffee from Dunkin Donuts bested all competitors. Ever skeptical of such claims, I wonder whose ad agencies organized those tests. One working for Mcdonald’s in the former case and one working for Dunkin Donuts in the latter is my best guess.

Returning again to our friend, Mr. Crawford, he made an interesting claim about coffee’s (and tea’s, and tobacco’s) contribution to forming a better society:

It can hardly be denied but that the consumption of tea and coffee, and I will add to them another stimulant of which the effects are, to a considerable extent, of the same nature, tobacco, have contributed materially to the sobriety, decency, and even morality, of the inhabitants of this country (Great Britain). They all stimulate the nervous system, without producing intoxication, and it is difficult to commit an excess in them. The change in manners affected by them, whatever its extent, has been the work of about two centuries and a half, for before that time every stimulant of popular use had been intoxicating. The actual price paid by the consumer for the three articles in question cannot, I think, be estimated at less than 25,000,000 £ a year … Had this enormous sum, chiefly contributed by the middle and working classes, not been expended in these commodities, it must have been so in the intoxicating potables used by our ancestors. It is true that tea, coffee and tobacco, have not displaced ale and spirits but it is certain also, that they have, to a large extent, been substituted for them.

The essence of that argument could be updated and incorporated into a powerful advertising slogan for Starbucks or Peet’s or some other modern-day coffee house offering pricey coffee drinks. It could say something to the effect, “Drink more coffee and help save the world.”

Arguing against the high tariffs being placed at the time on coffee, tea, and tobacco imports, Crawford concluded his talk with a plea:

If the commodities which I have named really conduce to the sobriety, and, consequently, to the morality of the people, it becomes the duty of the legislature to encourage their consumption in the only way in which it can legitimately do so—by the imposition of moderate and equable duties.


I carry deeply embedded within my memory stereotypical mental images from the ’50s and ’60s of dark and smoke-filled dens where members of the avant-garde, beatniks, and assorted other artist types gathered in coffee houses in Paris’ Rive Gauche to argue the relative virtues of Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” as opposed to those of Jean-Paul Sarte’s “No Exit,” or in dimly-lit dives in New York City’s Greenwich Village to argue over the merits of Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl” versus those of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” How starkly those images contrast today with the scene at a typical Starbucks, where smoking is verboten, where the lighting is cheery and bright, and where as many people are huddled over their laptops and iPads or texting on their smartphones as are conversing with one another.

And let us not forget the classic public coffee houses of the Middle East, where people—mostly men—for centuries have gathered together to drink coffee, debate politics, watch performances, share hookahs, play chess or backgammon, and more. Despite twice being banned by Ottoman Sultans, coffee houses continue to thrive in the region to this day.


This writer happens to live in Seattle, birthplace of Starbucks. In historic Pike Place Market, overlooking the Elliott Bay waterfront, long lines gather daily outside the entrance to what most people assume is the original Starbucks store. Truth be known, it’s not.

At its birth, Starbucks was originally the brainchild of three fraternity brothers from Cal-Berkeley—Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordy Bowker. Baldwin helped pay his way through college working for a Berkeley coffee roaster named Peet’s. Years after graduation, the three friends took a trip to Italy where they marveled at the vitality of Italian coffee houses. Upon returning to Seattle, they founded the company we know today as Starbucks, whose original location was not the store hordes of tourists flock to as a sort of coffee Mecca, but rather a shop a few doors to the north.

Eventually Baldwin sold his shares in Starbucks to Howard Schultz, who built the company into the international powerhouse it is today. Baldwin, meanwhile, took his proceeds from the sale and purchased Peet’s, which he greatly expanded before selling to JAB Holding Company, a German conglomerate which counts among its diverse holdings Panera Bread and Krispy Kreme. For a time in his post-coffee days, Baldwin took up olive growing in California’s Sonoma County, where he contracted with a company called “Goats-R-Us” to help clear land of scrub growth so he could plant more olive trees.

Baldwin continued to have a residence in Seattle for a time after selling his shares in Starbucks to Schultz, maintaining on the side his former Starbucks office, located upstairs from the original company store, not above the store mistakenly assumed by visiting coffee lovers to be the original location.


Music and coffee often go together. In honor of that tradition, we offer here our suggestions for four coffee-themed tunes for you to enjoy the next time you sit down to enjoy your cup of joe, three old-time standards sung in English by iconic performers, a fourth sung in Spanish by Dominica’s foremost singer-song-writer:

Frank Sinatra, “The Coffee Song”

Peggy Lee, “Black Coffee”

The Ink Spots, “Java Jive”

Juan Luis Guerra, “Ojalá Que Llueva Café en el Campo” (“May It Rain Coffee Upon the Fields”)