Islamic civilization and coffee have a long, loving relationship. It is probably not an exaggeration to state that the world owes its addictive coffee habit to the spread of the cosmopolitan civilization of Islam. Coffee was most likely introduced to the Turks via the port of Mocha in Yemen, then spread by the Sufi orders and merchants throughout the Ottoman lands. Some Muslim jurists, Islam's veritable haram police, faithful to their calling and the usual conservative reflex, issued the rulings banning this new, potent drink, claiming it caused intoxication. While the jurists debated the permissibility of drinking the liquid black gold, Muslim sages, mystics, and masses voted with their lips. "My community will not agree on an error," said the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Vox populi vox Dei, indeed.
Islam on the Edges is no less steeped in coffee culture. In fact, one could argue - in line with the overall argument about the originality, the uniqueness, and the disruption present at the edges - that coffee drinking at the edges of the Muslim civilization has certain unparalleled dimensions. A friend of mine said a few years ago while discussing finer points of coffee drinking during one of my many visits to Istanbul, "Turkish coffee is good. But if you really want to drink the best Turkish coffee, go to Bosnia." Amen and Amin!
One of our names for coffee, Java, comes from the Indonesian island namesake, where much of the blessed berry was grown in the 1800s. Islam on the Edges should, then, take its rightful place at the center of coffee culture. From Bosnia and Herzegovina to Indonesia, Muslims have enjoyed great coffee for centuries.
The only thing worse than not drinking coffee is drinking bad coffee. A famous adage states, De gustibus non est disputandum (In matters of taste, there can be no disputes). Never has a more popular saying stated a bigger falsehood. Of course, tastes are, and must be, disputed!!! I'd never agree that Nescafe tastes good, for example, not even under the application of enhanced interrogation techniques. Some of my best friends drink Nescafe, and I respect that, but it's not a very good coffee. Someone once reminded me that you could never be super snobbish about coffee. Truth! Some things just are. Of all the horrible things I did in life, drinking Nescafe ranks near the top of the deeds with which I'm embarrassed. In a coffee-drinking universe, sipping Nescafe is a form of shirk (the sin of idolatry in Islam, i.e., replacing God with something else). I repent!
One of my earliest memories is waking up to the refreshing smell of Bosnian coffee prepared by my mother. She'd always leave a bit of coffee for me so that I could mix it with a mug of hot milk, what we called the white coffee (bijela kafa). I'd put a few small pieces of bread in my white coffee and enjoy the breakfast while she would enjoy her ćeif (pronounced, chafe; coming from Arabic kayf or Turkish keyif), which could be translated as pleasure, but in reality it means, "the art of enjoying something while being oblivious to the world and its trappings." I knew this was the time my mother wanted to have for herself. Don't disturb! We become our parents as we grow older.
Our neighbor during my early childhood, Dedo (Grandpa) Hilmaga used to roast the coffee for other people who’d buy raw beans so they could get freshly roasted coffee regularly. Dedo Hilmaga would often invite me to join him. He would carefully set the woods on fire and start roasting. He had a few roasting drums (šiš, or shish), from small to large, depending on the amount of coffee that needed to be prepared. The intoxicating smell of coffee would soon spread. At the same time, Dedo Hilmaga would smoke his cigarettes (always hand rolled!!!) and tell me stories. I loved him so much that I’d sing to him, “Dedo Hilmaga, narod, partija!” (Grandpa Hilmaga, people, party!), which was a take on the famous communist slogan, “Tito, Army, people, [the communist] party!” The political scientist in me wants to take a deep cleansing shower upon thinking about it. Still, there’s something about the innocence of childhood that makes me look at it not through an analytical eye but with a mix of happiness and nostalgia.
In a way, I became like Obelix in the Asterix comic about the Gallic warriors who resisted the Roman Empire. Asterix and his people owed their supernatural strength, which they used to whoop the Romans, to a magic potion. Obelix fell into the magic potion cauldron when he was a child, so he always possessed supernatural strength. Hence, it was unnecessary for him to drink it later in his life, despite his protestations. Except that in my case, the early exposure to coffee made me want it more and more. My life is, in many ways, a search for a good cup of coffee as it brings together everything that is beautiful and innocent in the world.
Going to the other edge of Muslim civilization, Indonesia is a beautiful place to explore coffee. Yogyakarta, the cultural and educational center of Java (!), has many quirky, independent coffee places, as you would expect in a student-centered city. Klinik Kopi (Coffee Clinic!!!), a micro roastery in Yogyakarta, is worth making a 30-minute cab ride from the center of Yogya. The owner travels all over Indonesia, buys small quantities of coffee from individual growers, and roasts the beans at Klinik Kopi. The place has certain guerilla-like qualities: no milk is served! No sugar. No lattes. Just coffee. Black. As it should be, most of the time. It’s open from 4 pm to 10 pm. Klinik Kopi is situated in a tropical garden that is nicely maintained by the proprietor who lives in the same place.
And, of course, he does not use espresso machines. Of course! Only hand-pressed espresso would do. (Mind blown to pieces!!!)
Back in the center, Istanbul has seen somewhat of a revival of the coffee culture in the last decade. Not too long ago, it used to be that if you wanted a cup of Turkish coffee in Istanbul, you had to search far and wide. Not anymore. Turkish coffee made on coal embers (közde kahve) has become ubiquitous, while independent coffee shops serve all types of coffee: from espresso and latte to drip coffee, all the while using various preparation techniques. The Turks still drink tea as their primary hot beverage, but coffee is coming back home.
No wonder the Sufis loved their coffee - you could feign spirituality and still achieve fana' (annihilation of the self) because of coffee. It is only appropriate that Coffeetopia would be situated right across the street from Arpacilar Mosque, which houses the tombs (türbesi) of Sufi masters, Şeyh Mehmet and Ali Geylani.
Of course, real spirituality can't be forged; it has to be experienced. It is here that coffee provides a perfect companion. Early mornings with a džezva (jazwa, copper pot) of Bosnian coffee, dhikr (remembrance of God), and contemplation of the Qur'anic verses are a perfect start to a day, awakening the soul and preparing it for challenges that lie ahead of it. The love of coffee is the love for everything that’s beautiful in the world, most of all God, His Signs, and His beautiful creatures.
From the edges to the center, from the center to the edges. It is only appropriate that this blog would be written in Istanbul. Constant movement, never settling, searching for more and better – isn’t that what life is all about? But once you find it, you’ll know. And when you know, you need to sit down, drink a cup of good coffee, and give thanks for all the blessings we have. Because it will be alright, it’ll be alright.