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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

WORLD TRAVELS: Saudi’s Ahwah Arabiyah

It was time…We started exchanging “Coffee?” emails last January with the search for good coffee as our excuse to travel the world.

For us there isn’t a better Internet moment than receiving that first email with “Coffee?” in the subject heading. As we get older there are only three of us left: MacD, Hops and me. Everyone else has fallen by the wayside––we’re the last of a dying breed, guys ready for a road trip. We even recount fond stories about the married ones, the ones who stopped coming years ago, the ones we don’t even think to ask anymore. We used the search of good coffee as our excuse to travel the world.

Traveling becomes the great equalizer. Times and places where you see that no matter what the setting is, all people love to live and experience life. Many places welcome you as if you are family. We’ve sipped coffee in the exotic and the tame––Moscow, South Carolina, Toronto, New Zealand and Costa Rica. This time it called for something different. Saudi Arabia.

Coffee is a big thing there. Ahwah Arabiyah, Arabic coffee, comes first as the primary ritual in Saudi hospitality. In Saudi Arabia’s capital of Jeddah, coffee shops are the “in”place to pass evenings away. 

This is not your local Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts where you grab a run-of-the-mill pastry and a brew in a cardboard cup and hope that the barista gets your order out before the blended drinks back up the orders. Jeddah’s coffee cafés serve more than coffee, sweets and meals. They offer shishas, friendship, and the chance to converse openly and freely with the opposite sex. In a country where public places must have family sections separate from singles sections, most cafés limit their services to families.

The irony of the café is that many do cater to singles. The low lighting and dividers inside many upscale shops make them a perfect place for a quiet meeting away from society’s watchful eye. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t one of those “Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” situations. Simply two people getting to know each other without the gossip machine starting.

“There is nothing wrong with having a coffee with a guy out in public,” says Rasha, a regular of the café scene.“It’s one of the only places where co-mingling is accepted, and with so few entertainment places in Jeddah, also a place for fun.”

We discovered that the coffee café is the entertainment equivalent of the sprawling mall complexes in Anymajortown, USA. Every café is under pressure to invent and import ideas in order to maintain its stature in the area. Karaoke competitions, multiple TV screens featuring American sports and television shows (“Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Friends” are favorites) and cooking demonstrations are just some of the popular activities.

Entertainment isn’t the only area of strong competition; coffee is not just ground up beans. Many café owners mix their own blends––some adding spices such as cardamom seed powder to give a characteristic flavor all their own. The coffee is served in small porcelain cups without handles. It keeps coming until you indicate you are finished with a rapid shake of the cup.

The best part of the whole café culture is that you can enjoy the sights of Saudi Arabia by day and evening without missing the late night action. I realized that the café in Jeddah has evolved into this city’s club in terms of the place where you have to be seen. All of the best seats are reserved and you have to “know” the right people to get into the most popular spots.

In the end all this proves that you haven’t really lived until you’ve had a cup of coffee in Saudi Arabia.