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The Arabian Crop that Transformed London

Wednesday 1 April 2015



I’m sitting in a busy Shoreditch café on a Wednesday lunchtime. It’s my first time here and I’m immediately intrigued by the quality of design and décor. The minimalist aesthetic is coming to life as the rare and welcome winter sun reflects brightly across the wide glass façade. Smooth lounge music plays in the background adding a delightful aural texture to the eclectic array of engaged conversations taking place. On my right, two well suited gentlemen discuss the impact of the Ukrainain crisis on the Euro’s exchange rate. Two seats to my left, a couple of young ladies with colourful died hair wearing plaid shirts and ripped skinny jeans discuss their recent vinyl purchases from the market nearby. This is my kind of place.

“An espresso please”, I tell the waitress, “double”. She acknowledges and asks me what roast I’d like to go for. “The El Salvador is fruity with hints of vanilla and citrus notes” she helpfully explains. “The Columbia, my favourite, is nutty with velvety textures of juniper, almonds and caramel”, she animatedly adds. With explanations like that I concede that it is alright for a place to charge £2.60 for a 50ml beverage. But this isn’t your average brew, the owners here go on coffee bean tours around the world several times a year and import only the best of their finds then roast them next door to very high standards. Columbia it is then! I grab ‘The Washington Post’ and retreat to my corner seat.

But far from being niche speciality espresso bars with highly knowledgeable owners, patrons and barristas, the ‘coffeehouses’ of London’s 17th century were something of a social and cultural revolution. Introduced to the city by a Greek servant who had spent ample time in Arabia with his British merchant boss, life in the capital was forever changed. Mr Pasqua Rosée’s simple coffee shack in the heart of the city was the ‘eureka!’ moment London had long been waiting for. Within a matter of years, the number of coffeehouses in the capital mushroomed to thousands. What was a city in a perpetually drunken state began sobering up and converting into a highly efficient, organized, working capital where men of all social classes participated.

These humble establishments rapidly became one of the main drivers behind the capital’s economic boom. At ‘Lloyd’s Coffeehouse’, shipping industry folks forged intricate insurance deals eventually giving birth to the insurance market that is ‘Lloyds of London’. Meanwhile at ‘Johnathan’s’, patrons would list and purchase commodities and stock. This became the eventual site of the ‘London Stock Exchange’.

As Europe moved into the ‘Ages of Reason and Enlightenment’, the city’s coffeehouses played a pivotal role. Esteemed publications such as ‘The Spectator’ and ‘Tatler’ began their lives following passionate debates and banter in these public arenas. In the West End, coffeehouses had barometers judging playwrights and actors after theatrical matinees. The simple Arabian bean, initially tagged “bitter Mohammedan gruel” had forever changed London and the continent.

Entry was affordable to most of the working male populace. One penny bought you unlimited refills at this men only club. A sober and alert crowd of Londoners of all social backgrounds debated matters previously off limit for the first time. Politics was the hot topic and everyone was obliged to voice their opinions, loudly, as a rite of passage. Not a place for those with fear of public speaking then. At the aptly named ‘Parliament Coffeehouse’ near the House of Commons, MPs’ performances was put to public scrutiny. It was democracy at play in its rawest forms.

But as the number of coffeehouses grew rapidly, the monarchy felt threatened and called for the abolishment of ‘the places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of his Majesty and his Ministers’. Subsequent mass public uproar caused Charles II to backtrack, this was not a battle he could easily win.

King Charles was not the only ruler to attempt to ban the social establishment. From its inception in the Yemeni urban conglomerates where Sufis gathered around in circles and consumed copious amounts of the brew from Mocha, the coffeehouse was detested by those in power. Mecca’s immediate adoption of the trend sparked an angry reaction by its governor who in 1511 banned, albeit shortly, coffeehouses as they “stimulated radical thinking”. The suspension provoked the ire of the Ottoman rulers who considered coffee a “blessed” drink and called for the governor’s execution. The short lived ban in the holy city was to the direct benefit of the social and cultural hubs of Damascus and Aleppo as they then reigned supreme as the coffee capitals of the world. Their unique position on the trade routes to Europe exposed Venice and Vienna, both who went on to become major coffee strongholds whose tradition lives on to this day. Later in the 20th century, only the modernist charm of Abdul Nasser was sufficient to prevent the closure of Cairo’s freethinking and rebellious ‘Caffee Groppi’. “I need these guys” he was often quoted as the Arab nationalist took control of Cairo’s rebellious establishments.

It is a strong tradition of Arabian ‘qahwah’ joints that still remarkably remains to this day across all major cities of the Middle East. From Baghdad to Tunisia via Beirut, it is impossible to walk a side street and not find a gathering of men enjoying the drink and playing backgammon or debating current events. Many of these qahwahs have been around for centuries, passed on from generation to the next, witnessing revolutions, turmoil and the rare peaceful moment. It’s probably not an exaggeration to claim that rarely has there been a commercial establishment as fundamental to its society’s advancement as the humble coffeehouse, particularly in the Middle East. And so despite being the enthused and influential coffeehouse adopter at large, London was certainly not alone and not the first.

Back in Shoreditch, my double Columbia arrives as I’m remembering my childhood in Tripoli, Lebanon. The coffee shop was a fundamental part of my upbringing. My father, a lifelong loyal patron to various local spots, would often take me along with him, particularly on weekends. He always had a quiet corner which the waiters often reserved for him. There he would spend the day working, sipping double espressos, reading the daily paper and attending meetings of various sorts – often revolutionary in nature. It was his second office. Meanwhile I would pretended to be doing homework as I quietly escaped to explore this busy new world where everyone seemed to be jovially interacting and time was on their side.

A little bit of that magic never left me as I continue my eternal search for that perfect coffee shop to call home. And when I do, it is only befitting then that I find myself a corner seat, slowly sip my velvety brew, read the local paper then get to work as I remember the good times – it’s the London way, with an Arabian twist.

khawaja.firas@gmail.com

* London


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