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Syria: Bitter Coffee, Strong Opinions

Politics, disputes and feuds mulled over as traditional coffeehouses continue to play central community role.
By Mustafa al-Jalal

Abu Hussam used to run his late father’s coffeehouse in the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province of northwest Syria. When the revolution began, he was forced to flee because he was wanted by President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

After seeking refuge in opposition-controlled Kfar Nabel, he opened a new coffeeshop there. This one not only serves coffee but also serves as a space for political debate and dispute resolution, and even as an impromptu rebel control room.

“When my father died, responsibility for the place fell on my shoulders,” said Abu Hussam, who is 47. “After I took part in the first demonstration in Khan Shaykhun, the regime put my name on a wanted list and then raided and burned the coffeehouse to the ground. Once I resettled in Kfar Nabel, I quickly opened up again, and luckily it’s returned to its former success, although it works a little differently now. It’s become a shelter for everyone fleeing from, or wanted, by the regime. And sometimes it becomes a control room where plans of attack against regime checkpoints in Khan Shaykhun are discussed and laid out. All this is in addition to the original purpose of serving coffee, of course.”

According to Abu Hussam, the key element to any café is the bitter Arabic coffee which must be prepared with a set of essential equipment.

“There’s the roasting pans where the beans are prepared, the straw or wood platters where they’re cooled, the mill to grind them, the copper pots where the coffee is boiled and left to steep, and those well-known traditional cups in which it’s served,” he explained.

The interior is very important as well. “The floor is usually laid wall-to-wall with carpets,” Abu Hussam continued, “and the sides are lined with long cushions stuffed with wool. At least, that was the way it was in the old days. Some modern coffeehouses are still laid out this way, though the cushions are now made of foam blocks, and people can lie back on pillows stuffed with either wool or straw.”

Many coffeehouses are decorated with brass, wooden and clay vessels, as well as the typical urns used for coffee. There might also be other traditional items like wooden wagon wheels and musical instruments – rebabs, ouds, tambourines and suchlike – and there is usually a wood-burning stove for warmth, and a huge water jar placed next to the door.

Hajj Ali, 80, one of Kfar Nabel’s familiar faces, told Damascus Bureau about the traditional role that coffeehouses play.

“The coffeehouses of old were open day and night to welcome passers-by and provide shelter for travellers and folk coming in from neighbouring villages, in the days before proper transport existed,” he said. “The coffeehouses provided food for their guests, and the bitter coffee circulated for as long as there was anyone there to drink it. The coffeehouses also played a role in mediating conflicts between people.

“Today they’re more like political clubhouses, where people dissect and debate the latest developments.”

Hajj Ali said there were certain coffeehouses whose owners would mediate in disputes in return for a cut of any money paid in settlement, while there were others places where the owner himself would even pay out of his own pocket to resolve quarrels.

Abu Adnan, 62, is among those who takes a fee for his services. During the daytime, his coffeehouse hosts people seeking to resolve disputes, and he mediates between them in exchange for a modest percentage of payments made in cases like manslaughter or traffic accident injury. In the evening, the coffeehouse turns into a place of entertainment, as people gather to play cards, dice and chess, and watch the news or a variety show on television.

“It’s forbidden to engage in any political debate that might turn into a dispute or descend into insults or any direct or indirect conflict,” says Abu Adnan. He emphasises that customers have to respect the customs and ethics of the coffeehouse.

Hajj Badea, 83, said coffeehouse debates and topics are mostly political in nature these days. The regulars have changed, depending on where they are on the political spectrum, as those who oppose the revolution are replaced by new patrons who support it.

Like Abu Hussam, Abdelkarim, 42, inherited a coffeehouse after his father passed away. Most of his father’s friends abandoned the place, especially after regime forces entered the city. Those who frequent it now are all under 60 years of age; most are intellectuals and university graduates, and that has transformed both the form and content of discussions. The coffeehouse hosts these conversations in addition to its other roles.

“Anyone can talk about whatever they like without fear of being detained by one of the security agencies, as was the case before the revolution began,” said Abdelkarim. “Prior to the revolution, any criticism of the regime in any form was strictly forbidden.

“One of the most marked changes in terms of the culture of the patrons who now frequent coffeehouses is the provision of satellite TV and internet there, given the need to track news of the Syrian revolution on a local, regional and international level,” he continued. “Before, TV and internet were not allowed in coffeehouses. The political leanings of patrons mean that a place will be frequented by either one side or the other, even though we should all be allowed to express any view we wish without fear of denunciation. Since regime supporters are under pressure, they’ve gradually absented themselves from the coffeehouses and stay at home, as most coffeehouses in Kfar Nabel are like this one – loyal to a particular view.”

Not all coffeehouses are places of safety, however.

“There are a few specific coffeehouses that have opened their doors to rebels with criminal intentions, where they plot kidnappings and extortion, and the owner then helps negotiate in exchange for a cut of the ransom,” Abu Hussam said.

Mostafa al-Jalal is a Damascus Bureau contributor in Syria.

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists. 

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