As Zayed al-Tamimi’s brass pestle hits the mortar, its rhythmic clink resounds with the crunch of coffee beans through the hall of the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. On a display screen above him, closeups of his motions attract the eyes of coffee professionals and enthusiasts. Watching most closely is the panel of four judges.
Al-Tamimi has traveled from Iraq to the capital of the United Arab Emirates (uae) to compete in the first-ever Gahwa Championships, held in December. He is preparing a signature pot of gahwa—the Arabic word for coffee—as he vies for honors in the category of Sane’ Al Gahwa, (literally, “Maker of the Coffee”). As he drops thick pods of cardamom and delicate threads of saffron into the mortar to crush with the beans, he fuses all he has learned about centuries-old Arab coffee-making.
A later competition includes Dubai barista Louie Alaba, who offers the judges his cold-brew “gahwaccino” that uses fig, chili and cinnamon. As the competitions hit a stride, attendees discuss the importance of coffee-making across the whole of the Arab world, and how it is not just a matter of a dark- or light-roast beverage served with optional sugar and milk. Arab gahwa is a ceremonial affair, each pour symbolic of the historical and social significance of coffee drinking and an embodiment of hospitality. Coffee is synonymous with Arab hospitality.
In the uae, 1-dirham coins pay homage to coffee culture by showing gahwa’s most time-honored symbol, the dalah, or the traditional Arab coffee pot, with its wide, stable bottom, elongated handle, finial lid and gracefully thin, beak-like spout. Across the Arabian Peninsula, it is not unusual to see a giant-sized dalah erected as public art in the middle of a traffic roundabout.
In his 1982 poem “Memory for Forgetfulness,” the late, celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish described the first cup of morning coffee as the “mirror of the hand.” He continued: “And the hand that makes the coffee reveals the person that stirs it. Therefore, coffee is the public reading of the open book of the soul. And it is the enchantress that reveals whatever secrets the day will bring.”