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Coffee percolates through Iraq's cultural history

Coffee is more than a beverage. It links Iraqis to their ancient hospitality and serves as an entry to small talk when visiting a tribal sheik, as an excuse to sit and argue, as a comfort in times of death.

July 04, 2011|By Raheem Salman and Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times
  • Abdullah Saadi is a professional coffee server in eastern Baghdad who is keeping tribal traditions alive. With him are his brother and nephew.
Abdullah Saadi is a professional coffee server in eastern Baghdad who is… (Ned Parker, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Baghdad — Abdullah Saadi fingers the fine brown leather belt with holsters for thimble-sized coffee cups and a dagger. He is a keeper of customs, Baghdad's professional server of coffee.

He sits in a brick house behind an iron gate in the cramped warrens of Sadr City. The room is painted bright lemon in contrast to the gray street outside. His mother walks through the room, half-embarrassed, singing for guests, "I am the mother of the coffee maker." She thumps her chest and laughs at her son.

In Iraq, coffee isn't merely a matter of ordering a grande to go from Starbucks. Here, in a country where people blend modern and tribal identities freely, the beverage links people to their history, to their ancient hospitality. It serves as an entry to small talk when a man visits his tribal sheik's house, as a way to gather with friends and mourn in times of death, as an excuse to sit and argue and gossip.

"Coffee means generosity," Saadi says, explaining the delicate customs he presides over, keeping alive the old ways in the big city.

His late father, a porter, smashed coffee beans in a mortar and pestle and had his own special blend of spice that he offered to his guests.

"We have history in coffee," he says, proud of a recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation.

People count on Saadi for his knowledge of the past and his ability to navigate delicate coffee etiquette questions. Speaking haltingly, like someone not used to the spotlight, he elaborates on the do's and don'ts of coffee in Iraq, particularly the Shiite south where his family has its roots. The coffeemaker helps keep alive rural customs that could have been lost as Iraq changed in the last half century with the growth of its cities.

Guests must always drink the first cup of coffee at a gathering, he says; the second cup is optional for the guest. And the third is a show of honor by the hosts, a throwback to the way families would offer their last cup to an esteemed guest who had come a long way, by caravan.

Today, people might not travel as far or in conditions that are as taxing, but the rituals are still a way to bring meaning on a sweltering day in a country where too much goes wrong, to remind themselves they are linked to brighter, glorious days.

"There are so many requirements for a coffee maker," Saadi says. "He should know about tribes."

If a man leaves his cup untouched, Saadi must walk quietly and inform the host his guest didn't drink. But this is not about the taste of coffee; instead, the man wants something more from his host. The guest may want to ask a woman's hand in marriage from his tribe; or his help in reconciling two families or people.

The master of the house must immediately ask his guest his demands and grant them. He is obligated. Because these are the old ways.

There are other traditions long gone. Saadi gamely recounts some: If a tribal leader gathered his family and asked who would drink his enemy's coffee, it meant he was asking someone to kill his foe. The one who volunteered had to fulfill the request or live in shame the rest of his life.

Iraq's recent history, however, has also seen retribution and bloodshed. Saadi's best coffee days actually turned out to be during Iraq's civil war, when he sometimes juggled two funerals in the same day as Baghdad was swept up in a cycle of bloody retribution.

What made him saddest in the war were the people who no longer had a home. When a loved one was killed, they often couldn't afford anything for their mourning ceremonies. If they didn't have the coffee to offer guests, sometimes Saadi, whose own house is humble, would come and make coffee for them free of charge.

"They felt so shy because they couldn't make coffee. They were so poor," he says.

He rarely ventured out of the Shiite Muslim sections of east Baghdad, but his coffee was well known in the neighboring Sunni Arab district of Adhamiya. At least once during the civil war, he traveled to Adhamiya on request, but his conditions were strict: The man hiring him was responsible for his safety.

But there was nothing to be frightened of. People were too grief-stricken to wonder who he was, or where he came from. "No one paid attention to me," he says.

These days he serves coffee at mourning ceremonies for ordinary tragedies: a municipal worker who suffocated from chemicals in Baghdad's sewers; a 14-year-old girl who died from eating bad falafel. He wonders how someone could die from falafel.

Saadi sees himself as bringing a small bit of comfort to his world, even for those in grief. He pours a thimbleful. "There is richness to it," he says, and drinks.

ned.parker@latimes.com

Salman is a staff writer in The Times' Baghdad bureau.

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