Yemen Mocha: The Song of Yemen [Archives:2007/1096/Culture]

October 22 2007
Photo from archived article: photos/1096/culture1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/1096/culture1_1
Khadija Sharife
For the Yemen Times

If you look up the words Yemen and Mocha on the internet, no doubt, one of the first pieces of trivia that emerge from the invariably irrelevant media portals will be that of the game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” – and the question is, who doesn't – with the million dollar question verbalized as: “The choice coffee variety Mocha takes its name from a seaport in which country? A. Somalia, B. Yemen, C. Oman, D. Djibouti.”

Audiences were stumped. Where in fact, they queried, was Djibouti?

Quite naturally, this could be a rather puzzling question to Americans who hold a World Series of baseball in which no other country but the U.S. participates. Alas, the country in question was Australia.

Situated on the Arabian Peninsula and bordered by the Red Sea to the West and Saudi Arabia and Oman to the North and East, with an actual territory extending over 200 different islands, Yemen historically is one of the world's oldest civilizations. Its soil has seen the rise and fall of multiple empires, as well as the loss and gain of the formidable spice trade that controlled much of the world's political economy for many centuries.

I was fortunate enough to meet a Yemeni coffee trader named Hassan Mohammed several years ago in my search for the perfect coffee. My company, which represents fair trade and organic products (otherwise known as double certified), was in dire need of a flagship brand, a product that would take us above the plateau on which we currently stood, founded on institutions emphasizing successful alternative and sustainable examples, not only for the human body but for the ecology (what's considered indigenous ecology or natural and human resources).

This alludes to the destructive nature of ideological policies that comprised the variegated interactions between so-called First and Third World nations, an extremely inadequate definition of the exigencies which characterize those bodies of land and the peoples that reside therein.

In Islam, the ethos of environmental law is rooted firmly in the concept of creation and the perception of nature, raising Adam (pbuh) or mankind to the position of khalifa (one who can change or alter the world for better or worse), while all of nature is without free will and dependent upon man's nature to allow for the realization of its natural predisposition.

Thus, the concepts of tabi and tabi'a (the nature of nature and the realization of it) aren't dissimilar to the root of rahman and rahim, or what is complete in itself and what has been manifested tangibly.

In the modern world, Islamic scholars generally have relied upon frozen and literal interpretations of the scholars of old, especially given that Sharia law must be reinterpreted in every age according to the developments, sciences and technologies of the period occupied.

The existence of highly poisonous pesticides, insecticides and artificial fertilizers, which have acted as the root source and catalyst for cancers, neurological diseases, hormonal imbalances and congenital malformations, as well as genetic modification (or GM, altering DNA strands) patenting human and ecological genomes, cash cropping which exhausts the land causing deforestation and desertification among other practices, such as industrialization of the poultry and cattle industry (otherwise known as the animal product and animal byproduct industry) and various economic premises such as Communism and Capitalism which allow the world to be viewed from a purely economic perspective, cancel God and therefore, immutable rights.

Utilizing and accepting such practices is haram, constituting that which is against God's nature or submission to peace.

This best can be illustrated by integrating the ecology in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a, which has been called “the Venice of the Middle East” and “the Garden City of the World,” based on the fact that, according to the United Nations, at least 13 percent of the city has been allocated as garden plots, either privately owned or belonging to the waqf (trust).

Imam Ghazzali, a Muslim theologian, jurist, philosopher, and mystic of Persian origin, states that the takhsis or reductionism of theologians concerning the nature of nature by stripping formulative sciences such as fiqh from that which encompasses all realities to the exclusion of religious rituals is against the spirit of Islam and consequently haram.

Given that the Qur'an has more than 900 verses related to hydrosciences alone and another 2,250 verses related to economics and political economy related to commodities and the natural or ecological world, it would seem that the Qur'an mainly is a book about social and natural sciences.

The injustice of financial economy in today's world is obvious when considering that of the top 100 financial entities, 59 are multinational corporations raking in more profit than entire countries, most of which utilize free trade zones like Aden.

Therefore, it can be concluded that organic and fair trade produce, though few and far between, are those products that are automatically halal by virtue of the principals which act as their fountainhead.

Unfortunately, markets are controlled and Yemen's total volume of coffee exported in 2000 was no more than 2,250 tons. The bulk of exports disproportionately centered on crude oil, subsequently allowing Yemen to be considered a one-resource economy.

Mohammed said Yemeni coffee, the finest on earth, is relatively unknown due to the perceptions and misconceptions surrounding Yemen as a country, an economy and a producer of specialty and quality coffee beans.

“[People] prefer to drink soil flavored with sugar and milk,” he said, “because there's no difference between soil and the coffee sold in these shops. Our coffee is sold on special markets for $30 per lb., yet we see nothing of this.”

Peppered among his feelings about the coffee trade in a rapaciously globalized world waving the Free Trade banner which has added multiple dimensions to the monopoly of commercialization regarding actual trade while drastically reducing direct to farmers and traders – “Everything is a monopoly,” he spoke about Yemeni culture and civilization, to date one of the world's oldest and least investigated, including the anthropological, societal and political structures of pre- and post-Islamic Yemen.

He focused on the Old City of Sana'a, a World Heritage site that's still inhabited, unique in architectural structure with an individual symmetry seeming to attest that God is in the details.

However, according to a friend working at the U.N., Sana'a severely lacks adequate water and waste sanitation facilities while preservation efforts lack determination and coordinated execution. Old Sana'a is a labyrinth of tall walls and taller housing developments seven to eight stories high, as if this ancient city's residents refused to leave the collective memory and safety of their quarters, instead piling apartment onto apartment in a bid to reach the sky.

Mohammed stated that these narrow corridors, unfathomable to the one who had not spent his childhood in exploration of its chaotic maze, can best be understood when standing atop the buildings, if only to perceive the bigger picture

In his translation of “The Selected Travels of Ibn Battuta,” H. A. R. Gibb repeats Ptolemy's well-known appellation in the Roman Empire by calling Yemen by its Latin name – Arabia Felix or Fortunate Arabia – by stating that “Yemen consists of a high central table-land dropping abruptly to the coastal plain on the south and west. The mountains intercept the summer monsoon rains and the country, being in consequence predominantly agricultural, has always enjoyed a greater measure of culture than the rest of the peninsula.”

Seamlessly woven into the narrative of coffee, or perhaps simply to find a concrete beginning for a select narrative that detracts from the ancient and timeless civilizations of Africa and the Middle East and further stain the historicity of development and trade, it often has been stated that coffee was discovered in 850 A.D. by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi, who observed that his goats were friskier after having munched on the coffee bush.

Historically, the reflection of different cuisines rooted in the world's various climates and regions testify to the fact that whatever is edible and prevalent in a region according to the level of culture and sedentism, or the settling of a people, which inevitably leads to a more sophisticated quality of life, will be incorporated into their general diet and subsequently, come to form a cultural construct alluding to the identity of the people in question, the sophistication of the civilization or society and the chain of agricultural production which is indicative of wealth, security and safety.

In reality, the so-called tribe of Gallu – a term used by a specific Cushite tribe called the Kambaata situated in southwest Ethiopia – which since the dawn of coffee has produced some of the finest beans on earth, including Yergecheffe, is defined as 'through the night' with the derivative Galtit meaning “a way of passing through the night.” This word integrates the entire societal construct of the Kambaata – socioeconomic, political and cultural – with tradition being the rule of law.

So central to this tribe's cuisine, coffee certainly precedes the 'Kaldi' period of 850 A.D., and emphasis must be laid on the ancient Red Sea trade that pre-exists scant evidence provided by modern anthropologists and historians who haven't taken into account the ancient kingdom of Saba spanning both Ethiopia and Yemen, nor what appeared to be coffee grounds found in a gourd of sorts in southwest Ethiopia.

The legend of Kaldi's discovery – having been proven neither true nor false – was perpetuated by French traveler Jean La Roque, whose father, a merchant from Marseilles, regularly traded with the Levant via his office based in Constantinople, then the seat of the Ottoman Empire and otherwise known as the Gates of Felicity.

France was Constantinople's largest commercial partner followed by England and the Low Dutch Republic. The French secretly supplied munitions and other provisions to the Spanish-Hapsburgs, but couldn't break ties with the Ottomans for many reasons, the principle one being that it was a consistent supplier of high quality produce, including coffee.

The bulk of coffee was traded through the Yemeni port of Al-Mokha, grown in the Yemeni highlands utilizing nearly the very same process as today and resulting in coffee just as superb in quality. Although not certified as organic, the process is of course organic by default.

Coffee was sold at auctions such as Beit Al-Faqih, a two-day journey from the port of Mokha, the main trade port for Yemeni coffee, thereby securing the political economy of this valuable commodity for going on 220 years, during which time both Ottoman and Indian privateers, navies and merchants received their share.

The first documented coffeehouse in Constantinople or Istanbul appeared in 1457 and was called the Kahvehane. The etymology of the word kahve, similar to qahwa in Arabic or the Persian qahveh, though unknown, is thought to have been derived from the Arabic word meaning wine; thus, qahwat al-bunn is translated literally as “wine of the bean.”

However, by this time, coffee beans had been circulating in and around various Muslim provinces and countries for more than 500 years. Coffee's history as we know it and the nature of documentation was mainly that of French ambassadors to the Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile, La Roque's father continued to excite his interest in coffee by bringing him small leather pouches of beans each time he returned from Istanbul. La Roque would later travel to Yemen and painstakingly record the historiography of coffee in Yemen and the inevitable spread and transplantation of the bush to Brazil, Java, Columbia, India and other fertile lands within the palm of the colonialists.

In the early 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch and British East India Companies transferred and controlled the monopoly of power constituting not only the spice, cotton and cocoa trade, but that of tea and coffee too.

Famed French poet Arthur Rimbaud left France to travel the world, and perhaps to escape his demons, eventually ending up working for a company called Bardeys and Co. founded by brothers Pierre and Alfred Bardey, who made their millions by cutting out the Ottoman and Indian traders and directly supplying coffee to Europe. Bardeys often was referred to as “The Colonists' Fist” or “The Sweatshop of Aden.”

Some of the first coffeehouses to appear in the West, such as Lloyds, founded by Edward Lloyd who made his fortune by financing frigates among other ventures, acted as the base from which those with wealth could meet those with talent or skill.

Jonathan's, a coffeehouse emerging in the late 17th century, became the unofficial stock-jobbers pad, where various commodities and companies, including coffee, simultaneously linked to an auction house of sorts in the back room, which later became Christies, the London Stock Exchange and Sothebys.

Interestingly enough, Queens Lane Coffeehouse established in 1654 in Oxford still sells coffee to students and tourists for a price valued at not more than a 25 percent increase in profit (coffeehouses were tagged as 'penny places.')

In the 'Western' world, coffeehouses – far different in nature to cafes or diners by virtue of the atmosphere and type of food offered – served as the locus or focal point for social gathering outside of class formalities.

In France, England and the Dutch Republics, they both fascinated and repelled people, the former attracting thinkers, traders, writers, artists and activists of various hues, some of whom would become the greatest minds of their particular nations and of the historical world in literature and science, including Voltaire, Rousseau, Galton, Descartes – the list is endless.

However, fearing the ferocity of free thought in such a relaxed atmosphere, some Muslim theologians and the Christian church tried to ban coffee, with the latter stating that it was the devil's drink, implying both that it was a Muslim drink and that it seduced and intoxicated the senses.

In the 'Muslim' world, coffee acted as another welcome diversion from the not unpleasant daily rhythm of work, prayer and family life, where thoughts could be expressed and philosophies developed.

Merchants owning the Ottoman Empire's various coffeehouses often invested in underwriting the ships of corsairs, regularly tacking bulletins to the boards and reading aloud broadsheets or newspapers alongside the great poetry of Hafiz and Rumi.

In many ways – and to Muslims of vastly different ethnicities, but perhaps specifically within the Arab world – coffee has become the national drink of Islam. Sheikh Abdulkadir articulated this in 1850 in the following prose:

Coffee is the common man's gold, and like gold, it brings to every man the feeling of luxury and nobility. Coffee differs from pure, gentle milk only in its taste and color. Take time in your preparation of coffee and God will be with you and bless you and your table. Where coffee is served there is grace and splendor and friendship and happiness.

All cares vanish as the coffee cup is raised to the lips. Coffee flows through your body as freely as your life's blood, refreshing all that it touches; look at the youth and vigor of those who drink it.

Whoever tastes coffee will forever forswear the liquor of the grape. Oh, drink of God's glory, your purity brings to man only well being and nobility.

Nowhere is this more prominent than in Yemen.