Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Tomatoes, coffee and human values

The story of the spread of tomatoes and coffee in the Arab world has much to say to our present global situation, writes Wael Farouk


“It’s an innovation. Every innovation is a perversion, and every perversion leads to hell.” This point of view is the basis on which the mufti of Aleppo issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against tomatoes at the beginning of the 19th century when these reached his city in northern Syria.  The Levantines were amazed to discover that tomatoes were eaten as vegetables, despite their red colour that won them the nickname of the “devil’s buttocks”. Colonialism, people murmured, had imported these red fruits into the Levant to spoil the genuine Levantine cuisine. It is for this reason that tomatoes, despite their Latin American origin, are still known in the Levant either as al-ifranjiya, or “the French ones”, or bandura, an altered form of the Italian word pomodori.

Despite this early dislike and mistrust of tomatoes, suspected of cultural aggression, their cultivation and consumption had spread widely just a few years later across the Arab world. Tomatoes became the main ingredient in some of the most popular national dishes, such as koshari, a mixture of lentils, rice, pasta, chickpeas, onions, garlic and chili peppers in tomato sauce. This dish today embodies one of the traits of the contemporary Egyptian personality: its creative chaos.

Coffee followed an opposite path. Its origins can be traced back to Abyssinia and Yemen, from where it moved to Egypt with Yemeni students coming to study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. It then moved to the Arabian Peninsula with pilgrims performing the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and from there it spread to the Levant and Turkey. Venetian merchants then took it from Ottoman Turkey to Italy and from Italy to England and France, until coffee finally reached the New World.

Coffee’s geographical movement was accompanied by a parallel movement in history, especially religious history. Coffee, in fact, started its travels from the Sufi cloisters of Yemen and the Christian monasteries of Abyssinia. It was a magical beverage capable of renewing energies and thus allowing the monks to prolong their night-time prayers. Coffee was born as a spiritual beverage that had the peculiarity of exalting the body’s strength for spiritual needs.

A few decades after its first introduction to the Arab world, coffee had penetrated Mecca, Cairo, Damascus and Istanbul. With the diffusion of coffee, a new social phenomenon caught on as well: cafes or coffeehouses, or special places for drinking coffee in which people could meet and listen to songs, stories, popular theatre pieces, or play games such as chess, or discuss matters of everyday life and government policies. Coffee thus created new public spaces outside of the traditional authorities’ control, in the first place that of the religious authorities. It was at this point that coffee’s persecution began.

At first, the Islamic jurists (fuqahaa) claimed that coffee was alcoholic (qahwa, coffee in Arabic, is an ancient word that originally meant “wine”). When it had become clear that it was not, the fuqahaa said that whatever had a negative or positive effect on the mind was haram, or religiously forbidden. Sheikh Ibn Abdel-Haqq Al-Sonbati, an Islamic jurist, led a violent campaign against coffee-drinkers, saying that on the Day of Judgement the faces of coffee-drinkers would become as black as the tools then used to prepare it. Such claims incited extremists and some ordinary people to attack the early coffeehouses and their customers, causing violent incidents and the first “martyr for coffee”.  
A similar campaign was repeated in Mecca. Its then ruler, Khayr Bey, summoned the Meccan fuqahaa and although they did not declare that coffee itself was haram, they said that people meeting to drink coffee was. The then sultan of Egypt and the Hijaz, Al-Ghouri, issued a decree forbidding the drinking of coffee, since this was “related to corruption.” The Ottoman sultan Suleiman Al-Qanuni did the same thing when he issued an edict in 1546 prohibiting coffee and coffeehouses across the Empire.

Coffee did not escape demonisation even in the Christian world. In the 17th century, a public debate took place in England around “the new Eastern beverage” that was exposing those drinking it to Turkish charms — i.e. Islam — and encouraging them to abandon Christianity. There was a belief that coffee was part of a Turkish conspiracy to destroy Christianity. Such a belief led William Laud, the then archbishop of Canterbury, to send a note to the House of Commons in which he asked for the issuing of a law prohibiting the “beans of Mohamed”. This edict was issued in 1637.  In France, drinking coffee was forbidden to women, for it was believed that coffee could intoxicate them and cause abortions. When it became clear that this was not the case, women’s consumption of coffee was nonetheless still regarded as shameful and dishonourable.
Today, coffee is the second-most consumed product in the world after petrol. Coffee’s dramatic history has fallen into oblivion, but the lessons it can teach our societies are still valid. When power finds nothing else but religious institutions to impose its authority, and when the religious authorities find no other means than resorting to power to impose their values, then these religious authorities are in effect proclaiming their spiritual poverty and aesthetic bankruptcy, as well as their inability to arouse wonder and ask questions.

In fact, they fear questions because they have stopped looking for God in the world and no longer strive to encounter Him in every beating human heart. They have stopped bearing witness to Him in order instead to devote themselves to the fabrication of demons.

Today’s universality of tomatoes and coffee is due to their ability to adapt to different forms of selves and cultures, and to become items in which the diversity and specificity of different identities can emerge. Unlike globalised brands such as McDonald’s or Coca-Cola, they are not monolithic moulds englobing all identities and cultures after having removed what distinguishes them from each other by means of huge propaganda machines aimed at standardising peoples, societies and cultures.

Human values are different from tomatoes and coffee because they have always been universal: they constitute a single spirit for millions of faces and an ocean into which the rivers carved by the many experiences of different people, societies and cultures eventually flow. Today, however, human values, like tomatoes, are facing the challenges of globalisation and the risk of being limited to a trade mark, or a label that makes room only for those willing to give up their identities.

The writer is a professor at the Catholic University of Milan and author of Conflicting Arab Identities: Language, Tradition and Modernity.

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