Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Early Coffee Manners and Customs

Karstens Niebuhr(1733–1815), the Hanoverian traveler, furnishes the following description of the early Arabian, Syrian, and Egyptian coffee houses: They are commonly large halls, having their floors spread with mats, and illuminated at night by a multitude of lamps. Being the only theaters for the exercise of profane eloquence, poor scholars attend here to amuse the people. Select portions are read, e.g. the adventures of Rustan Sal, a Persian hero. Some aspire to the praise of invention, and compose tales and fables. They walk up and down as they recite, or assuming oratorial consequence, harangue upon subjects chosen by themselves. In one coffee house at Damascus an orator was regularly hired to tell his stories at a fixed hour; in other cases he was more directly dependant upon the taste of his hearers, as at the conclusion of his discourse, whether it had consisted of literary topics or of loose and idle tales, he looked to the audience for a voluntary contribution. At Aleppo, again, there was a man with a soul above the common, who, being a person of distinction, and one that studied merely for his own pleasure, had yet gone the round of all the coffee houses in the city to pronounce moral harangues. In some coffee houses there were singers and dancers, as before, and many came to listen to the marvelous tales, of the Thousand and One Nights. In Oriental countries it was once the custom to offer a cup of "bad coffee," i.e., coffee containing poison, to those functionaries or other persons who had proven themselves embarrassing to the authorities. While coffee drinking started as a private religious function, it was not long after its introduction by the coffee houses that it became secularized still more in the homes of the people, although for centuries it retained a certain religious significance. Galland says that in Constantinople, at the time of his visit to the city, there was no house, rich or poor, Turk or Jew, Greek or Armenian, where it was not drunk at least twice a day, and many drank it oftener, for it became a custom in every house to offer it to all visitors; and it was considered an incivility to refuse it. Twenty dishes a day, per person, was not an uncommon average. Galland observes that "as much money must be spent in the private families of Constantinople for coffee as for wine at Paris," and relates that it is as common for beggars to ask for money to buy coffee, as it is in Europe to ask for money to buy wine or beer.

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