Culture, History, and Politics in a Cup of Turkish Coffee

Culture, History, and Politics in a Cup of Turkish Coffee

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

Turkish Coffee. Source: Justin Schler/Flickr.

“There’s a woman in a long, flowing gown waiting. You are about to meet someone who is about to change your life for the better.”

“Clouds line near the rim of your cup. But I see that they bring showers of good fortune that should revitalize your life.”

“Ah! You will have many people around you supporting you in your life’s journey. The coffee grains at the base of your cup are really concentrated.”

These were just some of the things that were said as we practiced the art of fortune-telling after drinking our Turkish coffee. I was attending a short workshop last weekend on this centuries-old tradition organized by ATA-DC, the American-Turkish Association of Washington, D.C., in the run-up to the 11th Annual Washington DC Turkish Festival that they will be hosting later this month. In a span of an hour, we were taught some basic ways to interpret the shapes of the remaining coffee grains after someone has drank his or her cup of Turkish coffee.

Indeed, drinking Turkish coffee and fortune-telling are virtually inseparable activities in Turkey. Although there are some who pursue this art of fortune-telling from coffee cups professionally, many Turks often do it casually between friends as a means—in the words of this Al-Monitor article—“to extend conversation and intimacy.” In fact, there is a Turkish proverb, “Bir fincan kahvenin 40 yıl hatırı vardır,” which can be loosely translated to mean “a single cup of coffee being worth forty years of friendship!”

The “Turkish” in Turkish coffee derives from the method of preparing the coffee, rather than the origin of the coffee beans used to make the coffee. As a matter of fact, coffee has never been grown in Turkey. The practice of coffee drinking first originated in Ethiopia, which then spread to Yemen, and subsequently throughout the Ottoman Empire. It was during the long reign of the Ottoman Empire that the specific method of preparing what is today known as Turkish coffee was perfected.

Turkish coffee is prepared first by grinding freshly roasted coffee beans into a fine powder, before mixing it with water and sugar, and then brewing the mixture slowly over a low flame. This is traditionally done in a cezve, a copper pot with a long handle. The indication of a good brew of Turkish coffee lies in the presence of foam, and many often spoon the foam directly into the cups as the coffee is slowly brewed.

In Turkish marriage custom, a prospective bride is expected to prepare and serve Turkish coffee to the groom’s family. At the same time, however, the prospective bride may also add salt instead of sugar to the groom’s coffee to gauge his reaction. If the groom does not complain, he would be deemed by the bride as good-tempered and patient, and hence, suitable for marriage.

The tiny cup of Turkish coffee has also not been immune to the vagaries of politics. Its name itself is a site where larger political tensions have manifested. For instance, in Armenia, where the memory of the mass killings of Armenians that occurred in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire still looms large, there is no Turkish coffee, only Armenian coffee—although the two coffees share essentially the same method of preparation. As the author of this Roads and Kingdoms article quipped about ordering coffee in Armenia, “I am triply careful to stress the drink’s fundamental Armenian-ness—Shat haykakan Soorj, Hayastanum, Hayastaneets (very Armenian coffee, in Armenia, from Armenia).”

In Greece, where Turkish coffee is widely consumed, the name “Turkish coffee” became heavily politicized after the Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus in 1974. What was essentially Turkish coffee acquired a new name, Greek coffee, in the upsurge of nationalism and anti-Turkish sentiments that followed Greece’s fallout with Turkey over the Cyprus issue. For one, the Greek coffee company Bravo started a successful advertising campaign titled Emeis ton leme Elliniko (We Call It Greek) following the Turkish invasion.

The name of Turkish coffee aside, the place of coffee in Ottoman society had been politicized too. As drinking coffee being increasingly popular in the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century, the ulema, the body of Muslim scholars, sought to ban coffee on the basis that it was an intoxicant prohibited by God. That said, it was more probable that the ulema felt their authority threatened by the growing spread of coffeehouses in the empire, the first of which opened in Istanbul in 1555. As Antoine Galland, a French Orientalist, wrote in an 1827 essay titled “On the Introduction of Coffee into Europe,”:

“The number of coffee-houses increasing prodigiously in Constantinople and their attractions also with the habit of frequenting them, it was soon found that the imams and expounders of the law were left to keep company with their beards, the mosques remaining nearly empty to answer in learned echoes to the declamations of the doctors. Though rigid predestinarians, it was not to be expected that these [Muslim] parsons would come readily into the notion that Providence had decreed they should preach to empty benches; on the contrary, seeing the mortifying success of their rival jugglers of the coffee-houses, they instinctively thought, as their craft always do, of the strong arm of power, and vehemently invoked its aid against the Arabian berry.”

The Ottoman authorities did ban coffeehouses on a number of occasions on the grounds that the coffeehouses encouraged not just vice and religious negligence, but more importantly, political dissension. Since coffeehouses were meeting places where men from different sections of Ottoman society could gather and exchange ideas, the authorities feared that the coffeehouses might be avenues through which political opposition to the Sultan could effectively grow and spread.

Nevertheless, given how entrenched the practice of drinking coffee was in Ottoman society, the authorities could never completely shut down the Ottoman coffeehouses. Many coffeehouses simply operated clandestinely, while at the same time, public pressure often forced the reopening of the coffeehouses after a ban.

As a testament to its enduring place in Ottoman and Turkish culture, the institution of the coffeehouse still survives today—even after the upheavals of the early 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire fell apart and the Republic of Turkey took its place. In fact, there are even Turkish coffee machines in the market today that pours the coffee, complete with foam and all, automatically into cups.

Perhaps, as you enjoy some Turkish coffee at one of the Turkish restaurants around Washington, D.C., or even better, in Turkey, you might want to think about the long history of the tiny cup of coffee in front you, within which lies the marks of broader political and social events. Indeed, many of the little things we consume in our everyday life are relics of the myriad confluences of culture and politics that have occurred through history. If you open your eyes to these histories, even the quotidian might just become so much more interesting!

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