Yemen and coffee go way back. The word “coffee” originally comes from the Turkish “kahve,” which comes from the Arabic “qahwa.” While legend and Wikipedia generally locate coffee’s genesis in Ethiopia, the drink has always had strong ties to the Arabian peninsula. One account has a Yemeni Sufi mystic discovering coffee during his travels in Ethiopia. Another story recounts the tale of an Oromo goatherd who noticed the local birds getting agitated after eating a certain variety of red berries. Feeling especially energized when he ate the berries himself, he took the bush’s seeds to a local Muslim holy man . . . who, offended, threw the seeds into his fire. Where they turned into delicious, delicious roasted coffee.
Coffee first appears in recorded history in the 15th century Sufi monasteries of Yemen. If you ask for coffee at a local cafe it’s likely as not to be Nescafe. Sadly, the drink has not fared well since then. You cannot get a Mocha in Mocha. Coffee culture in the country (aside from two American-run, Starbucks-styled coffeehouses) is dead. There are a couple reasons for this. The first is a pervasive problem within Yemeni society:
COFFEE’S FIRST PROBLEM: QAT
Qat is a mildly narcotic evergreen bush chewed by some huge percentage of Yemeni adults (maybe 75%). It is ubiquitous. One of the first things you notice about Yemen (after the ninjas), is the huge number of men on the street who look like they’ve stuffed a tennis ball in their cheek. Nope, it’s not a malignant growth. It’s a qat ball.
A well-known Yemeni writer called the plant the “green imam who rules over our republic.” It is a bigger time-suck than Facebook. Yeah. Think about that for a second.
What does qat have to do with coffee? Well, as far as I can tell, any farmer who can grow qat does grow qat. It’s about six times more profitable than food crops. And the only real input it requires is lots and lots of water.
Q: Wait . . . surely water is prohibitively expensive in an arid desert country with a dwindling water table?
A: NOPE! It’s free! FREE! You just put in a pump and pull it out of the ground for FREE!
Q: But wait . . . what happens when the water table dries up . . . isn’t that supposed to happen in like, 7 years or something?
A: NAH NAH NAH NAH NAH I CAN’T HEAR YOU.)
So, bye-bye coffee trees.
COFFEE’S SECOND PROBLEM: TEA
Nope, I don’t mean ‘tea,’ I mean tea. Tea is the drink of choice in Yemen these days. I was asking my Arabic teacher about why this is, and he gave me two surprising answers:
1. Tea is better because it has much more caffeine than coffee. Yep. I don’t get it either.
2. Coffee is for girls. Yep, you heard it. Tea is a powerful, manly drink. Unlike coffee, which is apparently unsuitable for powerful, manly manly-men. Except for first thing in the morning. But after that, it’s only for the broads. Yep. I don’t get it either.
In any case, following our long conversation about coffee (in which it took me far, far too long to figure out that the arabic word bunn means ‘bean’) my Arabic tutor brought me two kinds of Yemeni coffee- white coffee and roasted coffee.
Per his instructions, I boiled up the roasted coffee with some ginger, added the mandatory 8 spoonfuls of sugar, and sucked it down. It tasted like . . . coffee with ginger and sugar? Anyhow, report coming later about the white coffee.