My gritty black cup of magic

Tales of Two Cities

I’m sitting on my friend’s couch on a Thursday night, trying to prep my brain for the pain it must soon go through; I am about to study Calculus II. But I can’t muster the energy to focus on any thought except one: I think I’m falling in love with the cup of coffee I’m holding. So I allow myself four minutes in heaven, curled up on that couch and cradling that beautiful potion.

Because it is magical. It was one of those nights full of I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-with-my-life moments and what-if-I-fail-everything thoughts. But coffee is the Band-Aid of emotions. Worried about failing that calculus exam tomorrow? Three sips, and your worries go poof! Not sure where you’re headed in life and feeling an anxiety attack coming? Drink that coffee till there isn’t a drop left. After each sip, for one brief moment my mind is consumed with one thought: “I want to swim in this.”

Primarily a college town, Berkeley naturally has coffee shops sprouting between every other store, and most have taken on a studious atmosphere and lure in students on false claims of high-speed Internet. No, Strada. Your Internet sucks. Your coffee, however, makes up for that, which is probably why the cafe is always jam-packed with drowsy students looking to get their fifth coffee fix of the day.

But it feels as if coffee drinking also has a purpose: to help us wake up or study, or to be used as something to do during meet-ups. It’s always “Let’s discuss this over coffee” with a professor or a prospective employer, or a hastily thrown “Let’s meet for coffee sometime!” when you run into an old acquaintance — a phenomenon that bothered Will Hunting, the titular character of the movie “Good Will Hunting,” when he suggested eating a bunch of caramels because “when you think about it, it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.”

But coffee shops are always filled elbow-to-elbow with people early in the morning and not long after the sun sets, when people are struggling to stayawake. It’s as if we love our beds and sleep with such intensity that we need the rich aroma of coffee to keep us away from their temptation.

It always makes me smile, seeing the long line of disgruntled students outside of Starbucks at 8 a.m. And although I use music as a substitute for caffeine in the morning (nothing wakes me up more than Marcus Mumford’s sweet, sweet voice), I have become slightly dependent on coffee when I’m pulling those horrid all-nighters — well, almost-all-nighters, to be completely honest (a valid term, according to Urban Dictionary. Check it.) These days, I only drink coffee to study. But, that wasn’t always the case.

Except for the last two, every single one of my past summers was spent at my grandma’s house in the Damascus countryside. Us kids would always want to wake up early, and my cousins, sister and I would play around until the grown-ups woke up. My elder cousin and sister’s favorite part of the day was when my aunts and grandma would bring the coffee out into the courtyard. We’d sit down, steal pieces of ka’ak, a crisp baked pastry, and dunk it in our mother’s abandoned coffee cups, munching on our treats as we listened to the grown-ups gossip about who got married to whom and the never-ending planning of the day.

The earliest evidence historians have of coffee drinking appears in the Middle East, and the beverage has remained an important part of Arab culture. Hospitality was, and still is, seen as a sacred duty; visitors to people’s tents were invited to sit down and share a cup of coffee, and it was considered a huge insult to reject this offer.

Today, Arabs take great care in selecting their coffee cups, buying little colored glasses covered in intricate and beautiful designs. My dad’s burgundy and golden coffee cups were not considered lowly kitchenware; they were his pride and joy. When you walk down the cobblestone streets of Old Damascus, you are bound to run into at least one street coffee seller: a man dressed in traditional loose black pants, a colorful vest and a fez, carrying a huge golden coffeepot that fits onto his back and skillfully juggling small brass cups around before he presents one to you, brimming with hot, thick, gritty Arabian coffee.

Coffee in the Middle East is part of everyday life. It’s not only downed as an energy drink or as a substitute for sleep — you are engulfed in its aroma when you’re visiting someone’s house, and one of the first questions your host will ask you is how you’d like your coffee (Sweet. Always sweet. Never, ever pick bitter Arabian coffee).

In Damascus, coffee means small cafes with rickety wooden chairs and hookahs and social visits. In Berkeley, it means quick runs to Starbucks and going to Au Coquelet at 1 a.m. Why? Because everywhere else is closed, and I need coffee’s magic to power through the last two pages of my essay.


Sarah Dadouch writes the Friday column on global perspectives of Berkeley. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @SarahDadouch.