If you truly want to know a place, go into its coffee shops and watch life. Sitting there for a few hours will teach you all you really need to know about a nation. You will see locals popping in, each revealing something about themselves and ultimately something about the place they live in.
Cafes in the Arab world is where all life is. Morning noises of street cleaners, toothless smiles, generosity in abundance is what we are all missing in our cosmopolitan busy lives. The quiet hours you can use for observing, connecting, listening and just being. Going to a café is a pilgrimage and shuffling towards one you can see people’s soul getting ready for their day.
In Tunis culture of coffeeing has reached another level and I do not mean the posh French cafes. I am talking about the groggy cafes where you choke from the smoke it exhales as early as after the dawn prayer. Men in white jellabas puff their tobacco and wash down their night sleep with a café noir as thick as oil giving your teeth a layer of death.
A mother shuffles in with a toddler in tow, asking for a croissant. She has a weary face, possibly after a few hours of cooking already before most people get out of bed. A businessman in suit, sharp and crisp for the morning but will certainly crease up by lunchtime. He will be popping back here again, never ceasing the opportunity to rest his mind from his busy job. An elderly gentleman elegantly swings in, he must have been really handsome in his youth, his charisma still making everyone look up from the morning papers.
Nothing is more symbolic than a nation unfolding their broadsheets telling the world how they deal with their ever so important conversations. It all starts in the coffee house and be it the glamour of a New York coffee place or the pastry laden backstreet café of Cairo or Marrakesh, Tunis is a formidable contender. Cafes here are for people to discuss, to engage and enlighten. The bucket of smoke does not deter anyone to enter and order their liquid for life. This black gold served in a richly decorated colourful glass cup is designed to make you feel like a pasha. Indeed, it was from the time of the pashas when coffeing became the national pastime. It was introduced by the Ottomans and in 1846 half of the cafes were owned by the Turks. But you do not get Turkish coffee here, you get the Andalucian variety with orange blossom water and a sweet-smelling jasmine flower on the side. The traditional coffee pot is called zezoua and it makes the nectar of the poets
Coffee is never just a drink. It is a sacred space, a ritual we use to inhabit ourselves. It is the place of quiet solitude, even for a few sips, where we seek nothing other than God’s reassurance that life is good. Or tough. Or unfair. Or just is. Coffee is our discipline our soul to remember all this, just like the Japanese who delve into the art of mindfully making a pot of tea. Here, you are invited to be mindfully engaging with your soul while you brew your ideas of the life you lead.
Coffee houses were the hub of intellectual life where people wrote their hearts out, be it a poem or a speech for the evening dinner. In times gone, cafes were places for intellectuals to exchange their ideas and compete for eloquence.
Coffee and writing has always been lovers. Their love affair is electric, bringing fire into souls, teasing out the most basic of human emotions. Lusting after a coffee is the same emotion as lusting after a loved one or a passion we feel a thing we want to do; the passion fires up each time we get near, be it a cup or a lost love rekindled. Writing speaks from the soul, as a lover grabs the true essence of who we are, taking no for an answer.
Writing, Coffeeing and Loving are just three names for true life; each tapping us on the shoulder to take notice. Writing reminds us of the little actions that surround us and make up our tapestry of life. Coffee flicks us on the nose to look up and take in what we see and Loving invites us to dive into this miraculous thing called life where lovers await our arrival.