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While wandering around Al Fahidi in Bur Dubai I stumbled upon a new Coffee Museum in a beautiful traditional building. In the captivating and often amusing travel story: Northern Najd by Carlo Guarmani, he states:
Coffee…is as necessary to the life of an Arab as the air he breathes.
This is certainly accurate in my own experiences in Arabia. I have lived with Italians, travelled extensively through South America, seen Luwak eating coffee in Indonesia, refused to drink lamentable drip coffee by the tumbler in the USA, worked with Swedes who seem to subsist on coffee, all of whom are ardent coffee drinkers, but never have I spent time with a people more focussed on good coffee in its many forms of preparation than Arabs. My staff in the region have 4 separate coffee making apparatus in our office.
It is entirely apposite then, that Dubai have a Coffee Museum. I found the exhibits not only visually appealing but edifying as I learnt about the history and process of coffee preparation.
The museum includes displays of the traditional Kahwah, which was the central meeting room of traditional Arab homes. In the fascinating story of William Gifford Palgrave‘s journey through Saudi Arabia, he visits many dignitaries, including King Feysul Saud and is entertained in their Kahwahs: Personal Narrative of a Year’s Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia (1862-1863). This museum helped me to better visualise the rituals and apparatus used in this most central of Arabian ceremonies, the preparation of coffee.
The legend of Kaldi states that when, in the Ethiopian highlands, his flock of goats nibbled on the bright red berries of a certain bush they became more energetic. So he chewed on the fruit himself and his exhilaration prompted him to bring the berries to a monk in a nearby monastery. Apparently, the monk disapproved of their use and threw them into a fire, from which an enticing aroma ensued. The roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers, ground up, and dissolved in hot water, yielding the world’s first cup of coffee (according to Wikipedia). Monks at the monastery were able to stay awake during long hours of prayers thanks to the coffee. The discovery quickly spread until it reached the Arabian peninsula and from there Arabs took coffee with them around the world. Today coffee is grown in a multitude of countries around the world.
Upstairs is a library that contains interesting books but the feature that most captivated me was this map:
Also upstairs is a small, elegant coffee bar with a quietly spoken and charming Ugandan barista. I had already had a coffee that morning, and my tolerance for caffeine is low, so I chose some Colombian decaffeinated coffee. The barista has access to the most advanced coffee making facilities that I’ve ever seen, including the high tech chemistry lab style equipment (from Chemex) that I’ve only read about. It reminded me of my years spent in chemistry labs during my PhD. The Victoria Arduino espresso machine is by far the most elegant that I’ve ever seen. The barista suggested a pour-over because I had selected decaf and so that’s what I had.
While I waited, chatted with the barista and admired the equipment, the Emiratis at the bar completed their coffees and conversation. The two women came over to me and started chatting with me, asking me where I was from and what I think of the museum. I was effusive, mentioning my enjoyment of Palgrave’s book and delight at seeing the traditional equipment here, my travels in Colombia and Indonesia and my admiration of the set-up of the museum and coffee bar. The two ladies were enraptured by my enthusiasm and promptly asked their male companion to take photos of them with me. They went on to tell me that the museum is their idea and the three of them have set it up together. They wanted to celebrate and preserve the cultural heritage of coffee that is so central to the identity of Arabia. I think they have done a marvellous job and its as a tribute to them that I’m writing this post.
The barista and I chatted quietly for a while, about poverty, education and the role of women in creating change. I mentioned the excellent micro-loan initiative kiva.org. I wish him all the best in his future endeavours and realising his dream.