Editor’s note: Published originally on erminsinanovic.com, these two posts about coffee, Islam on the edges, and Muslim culture are being re-posted here with the permission of the author, Ermin Sinanovic.
Coffeetopia, Eminönü, Istanbul
Flat White, Coffeetopia
Islamic civilization and coffee have a long, loving relationship. It is probably not an exaggeration to state that the world owes its addictive coffee habit to the spread of the cosmopolitan civilization of Islam. Coffee was most likely introduced to the Turks via the port of Mocha in Yemen, and then spread by the Sufi orders and merchants throughout the Ottoman lands. Some Muslim jurists, the Islam’s veritable haram police, true to their calling and the usual conservative reflex, issued the rulings banning this new, potent drink, claiming it caused intoxication. While the jurists debated the permissibility of drinking the liquid black gold, Muslim sages, mystics, and masses voted with their lips. “My community will not agree on an error,” said the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Vox populi vox Dei, indeed.
Islam on the Edges is no less steeped in coffee culture. In fact, one could argue – in line with the overall argument about the originality, the uniqueness, and the disruption present at the edges – that coffee drinking at the edges of the Muslim civilization has certain unparalleled dimensions. As a friend of mine said a few years ago, while discussing finer points of coffee drinking during one of my many visits to Istanbul, “Turkish coffee is good. But if you really want to drink best Turkish coffee, go to Bosnia.” Amen and Amin!
And one of our names for coffee, Java, comes from the Indonesian island namesake, where much of the blessed berry was grown in the 1800s. Islam on the Edges should, then, take its rightful place at the center of coffee culture. From Bosnia and Herzegovina to Indonesia, Muslims have enjoyed great coffee for centuries.
And you tell me, friends, that there is no disputing taste and tasting? But all life is a dispute over taste and tasting! – Friedrich Nietzsche
The only thing worse than not drinking coffee is drinking bad coffee. A famous adage states, De gustibus non est disputandum (In matters of taste, there can be no disputes). Never has a more popular saying stated a bigger falsehood. Of course, tastes are, and must be, disputed!!! I’d never agree that Nescafe tastes good, for example, not even under the application of enhanced interrogation technique. Some of my best friends drink Nescafe and I respect that, but it’s not a very good coffee. Someone once reminded me that you can never be super snobbish about coffee. Truth! Some things just are. Of all the horrible things I did in life, drinking Nescafe ranks near the top of deeds I’m embarrassed about. In a coffee drinking universe, sipping Nescafe is a form of shirk (the sin of idolatry in Islam, i.e., replacing God with something else). I repent!
More Bosnian coffee
One of my earliest memories is waking up to the invigorating smell of Bosnian coffee prepared by my mother. She’d always leave a bit of coffee for me so that I could mix it with a mug of hot milk, what we called the white coffee (bijela kafa). I’d put a few small pieces of bread in my white coffee and enjoy the breakfast while she would enjoy her ćeif (pronounced, chafe; coming from Arabic kayf or Turkish keyif), which could be translated as pleasure, but in reality it means, “the art of enjoying something while being oblivious to the world and its trappings.” I knew this was the time my mother wanted to have for herself. Don’t disturb! We become our parents as we grow older.
Coffee roasting drum
Our neighbor during my early childhood, Dedo (Grandpa) Hilmaga used to roast the coffee for other people who’d buy raw beans so that they could get freshly roasted coffee on a regular basis. Dedo Hilmaga would often invite me to join him. He would carefully set the woods on fire and start roasting. He had a few roasting drums (šiš, or shish), from small to large, depending on the amount of coffee that needed to be prepared. The intoxicating smell of coffee would soon start spreading all over, while Dedo Hilmaga would smoke his cigarettes (always hand rolled!!!) and tell me stories. I loved him so much that I’d sing to him, “Dedo Hilmaga, narod, partija!” (Grandpa Hilmaga, people, party!), which was a take on the popular communist slogan, “Tito, Army, people, [the communist] party!” The political scientist in me wants to take a deep cleansing shower upon thinking about it, but there’s something about the innocence of the childhood that makes me look at it not through an analytical eye but with a mix of happiness and nostalgia.
Asterix, Obelix, and Dogmatix
In a way, I became like Obelix in the Asterix comic about the Gallic warriors who resisted the Roman Empire. Asterix and his people owed their supernatural strength, which they used to habitually whoop the Romans, to a magic potion. Obelix fell into the magic potion cauldron when he was a child, so he possessed supernatural strength all the time and, hence, it was unnecessary for him to drink it later in his life, in spite of his protestations. Except that in my case, the early exposure to coffee made me want it more and more. My life is in many ways a search for a good cup of coffee as it brings together everything that is beautiful and innocent in the world.
Klinik Kopi, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Going to the other edge of Muslim civilization, Indonesia is a wonderful place to explore coffee. Yogyakarta, the cultural and educational center of Java (!), has many quirky, independent coffee places, as you would expect in a student-centered city. Klinik Kopi (Coffee Clinic!!!), a micro roastery in Yogyakarta, is worth making a 30 minute cab ride from the center of Yogya. The owner travels all over Indonesia, buys small quantities of coffee from individual growers, and roasts the beans at Klinik Kopi. The place has a certain guerilla-like qualities: no milk is served! No sugar. No lattes. Just coffee. Black. As it should be, most of the time. It’s open from 4 pm to 10 pm. Klinik Kopi is situated in a tropical garden that is nicely maintained by the proprietor who lives in the same place.
Cold press espresso
And, of course, he does not use espresso machines. Of course! Only hand-pressed espresso would do. (Mind blown to pieces!!!)
Back to the center, Istanbul has seen somewhat of a revival of the coffee culture in the last decade. It used to be, not too long ago, that if you wanted a cup of Turkish coffee in Istanbul you had to search far and wide. Not anymore. Turkish coffee made on coal embers (közde kahve) has become ubiquitous while independent coffee shops serve all types of coffee: from espresso and latte to drip coffee, all the while using various preparation techniques. The Turks still drink tea as their major hot beverage, but coffee is coming back home.
Arpacilar Camii, Istanbul
No wonder the Sufis loved their coffee – you could feign spirituality and still achieve fana’ (annihilation of the self) because of coffee. It is only appropriate that Coffeetopia would be situated right across the street from Arpacilar Mosque, which houses the tombs (türbesi) of Sufi masters, Şeyh Mehmet and Ali Geylani.
Of course, real spirituality can’t be forged, it has to be experienced. It is here that coffee provides a perfect companion. Early mornings with a džezva (jazwa, copper pot) of Bosnian coffee, dhikr (remembrance of God), and contemplation of the Qur’anic verses are a perfect start to a day, awakening the soul and preparing it for challenges that lie ahead of it. The love of coffee is the love for everything that’s beautiful in the world, most of all God, His Signs, and His beautiful creatures.
From the edges to the center, from the center to the edges. It is only appropriate that this blog would be written in Istanbul. Constant movement, never settling, searching for more and better – isn’t that what life is all about? But once you find, you’ll know. And when you know, you need to sit down, drink a cup of good coffee, and give thanks for all the blessings we’ve been given. Because, it will be alright. It’ll be alright.
Coffee break, 7-12 and 13-17
Begova Mosque, Sarajevo
Islam on the Edges is Islam full of dynamism, uniqueness, innovativeness, and adaptation. Constantly at the edges, Muslims who live in these parts – such as Bosnia and Indonesia – embody the contradictions of belonging to the Muslim civilization but frequently being treated as outsiders, and being so close to the Other but never quite belonging. A closer look at Islam on the Edges reveals unique syntheses and strains along the stitches. It also uncovers a certain ease of being and living that is wonderfully appealing in its relaxed orientation, pulling the strangers to it with an irresistible spiraling centrifuge, as if it says to them: come, come to the center. Journey to the center leads to the edges, only to be pulled back to the center. To discover the axis of our being, we need to go to its frontiers. You cannot know Islam until you know its edges. Unburdened by historical determinism that is often present at the heart of Islam, Muslims who live on the edges are capable of unleashing the type of creativity that is often lacking among the Muslims at the Center who have been lulled into a stupor caused by the drunken obsession with past glories that remain in the past, and the unfulfilled dreams of the future that has been elusive for more than a century. To write a love letter to coffee from Sarajevo, the quintessential frontier, is to touch the innermost core of our being, to tickle the beans that form the fiber of our life.
Šehar roastery, Sarajevo
Good coffee has five ingredients: quality beans, water, tools, method of preparation, and ćejf (keyf or keyif). Good Bosnian coffee is made with Minas coffee, named after a region in Brazil. It is a mix of Arabica and Robusta, perfectly blended to make the signature taste that defines the Bosnian coffee. There are a few quality roasteries in Sarajevo, including Šehar and Dibek.
Both of these roasteries pound the coffee into the required powder consistency and do not use grinders. Coffee is pounded on a rock (dibek) with a metal rod (ćuskija). It is then sifted so that the powdery coffee is separated from coarser parts which are then returned into the dibek so that they could be pounded again. Dibek is the continuation of the business that started in 1895, when the current owner wife’s grandfather opened a coffee house.
As coffee is mostly water, quality of water is crucial for making good coffee. In the United States, the usual recommendation is to use filtered water in coffee making. The problem with the filtered water is that it strips water of many minerals that interact beautifully with coffee. Bosnia is blessed with mountains, and many municipalities get their water from the hills and mountains surrounding the towns and the cities. As water runs through the mountains, it picks up the minerals that enrich it and – when delivered to people’s homes – makes the perfect base and platform on which a blessed concoction is made.
Bosnian coffee set
No art can exist without tools of the trade. The main tool for making good Bosnian coffee is džezva (copper coffee pot). A good džezva makes a difference between good coffee and a great one.
Džezva or Copper coffee pot
Sarajevo’s traditional craftsmen continue to produce hand-made copper pots until today. Kazandžiluk (Coppersmith Street) has existed for about 500 years in the old Sarajevo town (Baščaršija). As you walk down the street, you can hear the sound of the craftsmen’s hammers and tools as they’re making all types of copper products.
All previous ingredients were tangible: coffee, water, a pot. The intangible ingredients in making good Bosnian coffee are method of preparation and ćejf. The method of preparation is what distinguishes a coffee master from a novice. It adds a special touch which elevates coffee taste to levels that are above the ordinary coffee that is drank by many. In his 1850 book, Travels in European Turkey, Edmund Spencer described the method of preparation for Bosnian coffee and came to a conclusion that it produces better coffee than anything he’s tried in Europe at that time. Amen and Amin! (Thanks, Amina, for finding the book in my office in the US and sending me this picture!)
Ministry of Ćejf
Ćejf or ćeif, that intangible art of enjoying coffee, which I previously defined as “the art of enjoying something while being oblivious to the world and its trappings,” is final and perhaps the most important ingredient in the art of coffee. Coffee is enjoyed, not drank. There are many coffee drinkers in the world. And then there are a select few, khawass al-khawass (خواص الخواص), for whom coffee leads to ways of knowing. Coffee is an epistemological category!
Ministry of Ćejf (thanks, Smaja, for the tip!) is a freaking cool coffee shop in Sarajevo’s Old Town. Owned by a former Australian actor, Reshad Strik, whose father was a Bosnian, it is one of the few places where you can get a solid latte, in addition to Bosnian coffee and natural fruit drinks. Reshad decided to settle in Sarajevo and married a Sarajevan woman. He roasts beans for Bosnian coffee, and soon plans to start roasting espresso beans as well. No visit to Sarajevo is complete without visiting Ministry of Ćejf. I asked the owner, if this is the Ministry, who is the Minister? He was puzzled by the question, then answered, we’re all ministers. We’re all equals. That may be true, but some of us are masters (of coffee).
Teta (Aunt) Makbula’s coffee shop
In Bosnian language, ćejf is a noun but it can be expressed as a verb. When you have really enjoyed something you say, “Eh, jesam otćeifio!” (I just ćejf-ed it). And if you’re drinking coffee and someone’s passing and asking, “Šta ima” (What’s up), you answer, “Evo ćeifim” (I’m ćeif-ing). Ćejf is a lifestyle that has to be experienced and lived. It cannot be imitated.
A great place for ćeif is Teta Makbula’s coffee shop, right next to the Begova mosque, the main mosque in the old city in Sarajevo.
Many stories are told in Bosnia about ćejf and the art of drinking coffee. A popular joke says that two men wanted to go to a café (kahvana/kafana) and invited another friend to join them. They drank their coffee in silence, as it often needs to be enjoyed (ćejf-ed), only occasionally letting out a sigh, “Yah!” But the third friend would double sigh, “Yah, yah!” Next day, the two of them met again. One of them wondered if they should invite the third friend again but the other answered, “No, don’t invite him, he talks too much.” Too much interference and your ćejf is spoiled (pokvari mi ćejf).
Dibek owner narrated a story of his wife’s grandfather, from whom the business was inherited. One day, a man came to his shop and asked for coffee. Unfortunately for him, he was not well versed in the art of drinking coffee. Bosnian coffee is usually served with a Turkish delight (rahat lokum) and water. The custom (adet) is to start with rahat lokum, then drink some water, and only then enjoy the coffee. When the man was done drinking he wanted to pay. The owner answered by saying, “You don’t owe anything. I settled your bill. I saw you drinking water after coffee. You washed away my coffee with water! Please don’t come again.” Customer is not always right.
Old Sarajevo City Hall (Vijećnica)
Coffee can be enjoyed in a company. On such an occasion, it becomes glue that binds together narratives weaved by the storytellers. It creates muhabet (coming from an Arabic word which means love, it is used in Bosnian to mean a good conversation among close friends). Spread love by drinking coffee!
In Bosnian language, coffee has many names, depending on the occasion on which it is enjoyed: razgovoruša (talk-up coffee), dočekuša (welcoming coffee), sikteruša (literally, f**k off coffee; when the guests overstay their welcome; usually served very weak), krmeljuša (coffee that removes morning eye rheum), and many, many other. Just as the Arabic language has many names for camels, the Bosnian has invented many a word for the black bean and the beautiful drink it creates.
Most of the time, though, coffee is best enjoyed in solitude and silence. Just this morning, as I was drinking my coffee near Sebilj in Sarajevo, a man asked if he could join my table as all other tables were not available. After hearing I was fine with it, he added, “I don’t like to talk in the morning as I’m enjoying my coffee.” I nodded. One ćejf master to another. No words necessary. As I got up to leave he said, “I hope I didn’t spoil your ćejf.” I said, “You didn’t.” He didn’t talk while drinking his coffee. Neither did I. All was good. State of bliss.