What the clink of coffee cups is to the UAE could be explained by likening it to what the ice cream van jingle is to the West - a cultural icon of massive proportions. Both traditions are a cue to gather and share stories and build carefree memories. It’s a harbinger of conversation and cordiality. It’s a call that brings communities together, brings generations together – a call that’s ingrained in great traditions.
From its humble origins in a brass pot over a fireplace to its modern avatar in golden coffee pots, Arabic coffee or gahwa is so much more than a cup of spicy coffee. A symbol of the historical and cultural significance of coffee drinking and a sign of hospitality, both the gahwa and the majlis where it is usually served are ubiquitous in Emirati culture. Every fragrant pot of gahwa has a story to tell, and it’s the UAE’s original welcome drink. Its symbol, the traditional gahwa pot or dallah, is given tribute on Dh1 coins.
Centuries-old rituals pour out with every cup. So much so, in 2015, gahwa was added to the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
“You say coffee, we say gahwa,” Ahmed Al Jaffla, protocol manager and a senior presenter at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, says to me as we sit down in the majlis at the heart of the Centre. A simple cup of gahwa talks about culture and way of life in the UAE, and gahwa is available, consumed and offered in every Emirati’s house. “It doesn’t matter if a guest says he’ll be arriving in the next two minutes - I’ll still have a fresh pot of gahwa awaiting him at home, and a plate of dates of course. There’s no Emirati house without this drink and fruit.”
The dates are always served first – Ahmed says this is because the fruit sweetens your mouth so much that you need to clean your mouth after with coffee. “They come as a pair - you eat a batch of dates and you automatically expect some gahwa.”
A recipe to relish
With no need of milk or sugar to make it delicious, the process from bean to cup is a many-step ritual. Colour and flavour might vary minimally due to different proportions. The gahwa is usually prepared with cardamom, saffron and rose water. “You bring coffee and water to the boil first,” says Ahmed. “So say I want to boil a litre of water, I’ll add two to three spoons of gahwa to it, wait for it to boil, turn off the heat as soon as it does, then leave it to simmer for two minutes. When all the ingredients sink to the bottom, to the flask I add a spoon of cardamom, a spoonful of rose water and pinch of saffron. Then I add all the gahwa to it and close the flask. In the old days this flask – or dallah - would have been a brass pot, set on top of a charcoal tray and a fire to always keep it hot. Now we want to make it easier, so we don’t light a fire, and we make it in a flask.”
Elaborate customs and rituals
Preparing it is definitely an art – but so is serving gahwa. Ahmed says it’s traditional to pour it in a little cup without a handle, called a finial, and to only fill it halfway. “You can fill it up to a quarter too, but the limit is about halfway. If I fill it up fully I’m telling you I don’t want you to come to my house again. If I fill it too less I’m telling you I’m not interested in serving you. So I have to fill it up the right amount.”
There might be limits to filling it up, but there’s no limit to how much you can drink – no one’s keeping count and you can ask for as many cups as you want, interspersing each cup with conversation. “When you’re done you gently shake the cup, indicating you don’t need anymore. If you don’t, I will keep filling it, until the pot is empty, until you say you have had enough. Hospitality dictates that.”
Declining gahwa is a sign things aren’t going too well. “Say you’re my neighbour and I had a party the previous night and there was a lot of noise and you’re very upset,” Ahmed says. “And you came and knocked on my door, and I offered you gahwa but you don’t drink it and you put it down. I will then do what I can to try to solve the problem so that you drink the coffee. If you leave home without drinking it, it means you’re still upset, so the next day I have to come over to your house and sit down and try to solve it again – over some gahwa.”
Doing it right
Never hand over a cup of coffee with the left hand – it’s an immediate sign of rudeness. This holds true even if you’re left handed, Ahmed says. “In this part of the world you wave with the right hand, you point with the right hand, and you serve coffee with the right hand.”
At the end of the day if the coffee has gone cold or bitter, a fresh pot is set to boil. Ahmed says there will always be a flask ready, right up to midnight.
How can you elevate a majlis experience from good to great? By making a fresh batch of coffee right in front of the guests, starting from the beans. “We roast beans on the frying pan so guests can smell the beautiful aroma, then grind them as they watch. Boil water and add spices - everything fresh in front of guests. It’s an act and a show liked by everyone.”
While the majlis is traditionally a male-only gathering, the gahwa is enjoyed by men and women alike, albeit in separate spaces. Can a woman serve gahwa to a man? No, unless she’s serving her brother, son or husband. “A woman serves women, a man serves men,” says Ahmed. He’s quick to assure us this isn’t about disrespect, and is in fact it’s about the opposite: “It’s showing women respect, so she doesn’t have to serve a stranger or be served by one, as sometimes when you serve coffee and the other person collects the coffee he might touch your hand. Women are held in a higher place in Emirati society, hence this rule.”
The silent server
Most often, a host will have a special person to pour the coffee, be it the host’s son, the host himself or someone he has employed. This person is often referred to as a silent server, as he only concentrates on the task at hand, that of serving, without making conversation. “He won’t even ask if a guest needs more coffee. In the old times they used to employ a deaf person, as a majlis could have a shaikh or businesspeople talking of important issues such as trade - issues they wouldn’t want the server to hear in case he passed the message on to anyone outside that majlis. The server would sit back in the corner next to the coffee, and the host would tap him on the shoulder if he wanted gahwa to be served.”
The silent server will carry three to four finials in his hand and always start serving from the right of the majlis – unless there’s a shaikh or an older person present, in which case he’d serve them first, then continue serving the person on his right. “In olden times, the server was not just deaf, he also often couldn’t talk, so they’d make a ringing sound to attract the attention of people, if someone was deep in conversation and didn’t see him. As for a used cup, if someone’s done drinking the server will take it and place it at the bottom of the pile of cups, so that he can go about serving people using fresh cups at the top.”
The server will stand next to guests until the last person gestures that he doesn’t want any more. “But even then he won’t just go away. He’ll still keep the pot ready, as a mark of showing respect, showing that we don’t mind serving you again.”
More dos and don’ts
A few other guidelines exist for serving gahwa: Indulge your caffeine habit all you want, but don’t involve the kids with anything more than serving. Gahwa always has to be served piping hot, and is hence never served to children. “Plus, just a few sips will keep them up all night, so that’s a no!”
Close the lid as soon as you serve it so the coffee doesn’t get cold. Never shake the dallah when you hold it; it’s a wrong sign and the sediment at the bottom mixes with the coffee so it becomes bitter. Serve it held straight and place it back straight.
A cup of gahwa is the very meaning of hospitality and generosity, a true introduction into Emirati culture. So the next time you hear that jingling of cups, you know you’re invited.
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