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Coffee, or kahwa is not just a drink, especially among the Bedouins. Tea is for every day, but coffee is a ceremony for visitors, guests, and the sharing of news. Drinking coffee together is a symbol of harmony, and of trust.

Arabic coffee as served in a city cafe will be sweet, very sweet, with the sugar boiled into the coffee as it's made. This coffee brings no obligations but a bill as you leave the cafe. The ceremonial coffee is rather different.

Served in tiny porcelain cups with no handles, the host or the person serving coffee(*) holds the pot in his right hand, pouring into a cup in his right and passing it to the guest immediately. (Often, the cups will be held in a small nested stack in this hand.) The guest should take the cup with his(**) right hand, and drink it all. The cup will not be full--it may only contain a few drops of liquid, allowing the guest to consume it in a couple of sips. The coffee will be bitter and unsweetened, to symbolise the harshness of the desert.

If the guest has accepted coffee, he should drink at least three cups, because each cup has significance. They are known as "finjan al dayf" (the first, the "guest cup," as a welcome to the visitor and an agreement of trust), as "finjan al sayf" (the second, the "sword cup," to honour the courage of the men to to resolve and conflict that might be building up) and as "finjan al kayf" (the third cup, the "pleasure cup," which is purely for enjoyment.) More loosely, the first is for health, the second is for love, and the third is for future generations. If more than one cup is offered, it is very rude not to drink all three rounds of coffee.

If the visitor refuses to drink any coffee, it suggests that he has bad intentions or has some other serious problem with his host. Likewise, pouring the coffee out onto the ground, in front of a guest, demonstrates that the host feels wronged by his visitor. Or, if a coffee is a toast to someone's name, and a visitor has a conflict with the person toasted, he might tip the coffee out, refusing to drink. These matters are not taken lightly: honour is at stake, and it will require the involvement of the sheiks to sort it out.

More rounds and refills may well be offered, and the guest is free to drink as many as he pleases, and should signal when he is done by shaking his cup slightly from side to side. Remember, though, that coffee is a luxury, and it is usual to switch to drinking tea after the rituals of coffee have been completed.

Never throw the dregs into the fire, or you are stepping into the realms of superstition and bad luck. Dregs on the fire are said to release demons.

There are echoes of this traditional coffee ceremony even in the cities, far away from the black tents of the desert. Where there is a sense that you are a guest, and not just a customer, there may be a single round of the bitter coffee in tiny cups, passed around the room to welcome you as a group rather than as a passing stranger. (It happened when listening to a storyteller, and even when typing away madly on a strange keyboard in a net cafe in Amman.)

* The coffee is often served by the youngest male member of the household.

** Usually, coffee is drunk in groups of men. Western women may be treated as honourary men, and invited to join the group. This has its advantages: as a woman you get to see both sides of the tent, slipping between the men's and the women's worlds. Otherwise, only old women mix socially with male guests.


How to make Arabic Coffee

It's not difficult to make traditional Arabic coffee, but you will need to start with green coffee beans, and some cardamom. You'll need about one part coffee beans, to three parts of water, and half a part of cardamom.

Place the coffee beans in a dry frying pan. Toast the beans until the color turns to golden brown then set aside to cool. Put the cardamom pods (seeds) in a mortar and pound with a pestle until they are fine. Go back to the cooling coffee beans, and pick off any flakes. Grind the beans so they are still fairly coarse.

The grinding sound of the pestle and mortar is distinctive and is a signal to everyone within hearing range that news is about to be shared.

Mix the ground coffee with the cardamom in a pot, and add hot water. Bring this to a good roiling boil so that it starts to foam and froth. Pour this into a serving pot and you are ready to serve it immediately. Milk and sugar should not be added.