One More Cup of Coffee

I  met Khayaal Theatre Company director Luqman Ali, who is currently working on a new play called Coffee or the Abominable Liquor of Infidels, and learns how the hot cup of ‘Joe’ we now take for granted was once the catalyst for heated political debate and was even, arguably, the seed that germinated free speech and democracy in Britain.

Cedar Lewisohn – Can you start by telling me about your research into coffee?
Luqman Ali- The idea came to me when I was reading the books of Nabil Matar. He’s an academic who specialises in looking at the histories of relations between Britain and the Muslim world. In his book, Islam in Britain 1558-1685, he has a section on coffee. It talks about how coffee was first brought to Britain in the 1650’s and the controversy that accompanied the introduction of coffee to this country. The story fascinated me, as a lot of the discourse that took place in discussing coffee and opposing coffee in the Seventieth Century actually mirrors a lot of the discourse we are having today around the place of not just Muslims, but people of minority ethnic communities, weather from Africa or the Middle East. So I was taken by the story and thought this would make a fantastic theatre production.

CL- So you are really focused on how come came to the UK?
LA- Yes, that’s the lens we are looking at it through. But it’s also about conceptions of the other and conceptions of difference. Coffee was originally seen as something that “good” British people did not drink. It was the drink of the infidel Muslims. It was called a ‘satanic brew’ and it was called a ‘devils cup’ and that type of thing.  We are looking at the story of how coffee went from being seen as a suspect and conspiratorial substance to being the social adhesive which positively transformed notions of human rights, notions of  citizenry, notions of solidarity, and community, even education. I mean coffee houses where referred to as penny universities, because for a penny, you could basically sit with all ranks and classes and be educated about the ways of the world.

CL- Can you expand on how coffee affected human rights?
LA- Yeah- coffee came into Britain after the Interregnum and the beheading of Charles I and Charles II came to power. So issues about human rights, issues about what it means to be a citizen, the conflict between the parliament and the crown, all of these things were happening at the time in Britain. So coffee houses provided the first arena for these types of discussions to permeate and pervade society.
Coffee houses were known as being one of the only places, weather you were lower class or upper class,  you were welcome to socialise. It broke down class structures, at least for some time. In that context, coffee had a connection with human rights. Added to that, coffee houses played a part in the French Revolution, and also The American Revolution.  The opposition to authority was really conducted through coffee houses.

CL- I saw that coffee originates from Ethiopia, is that right?
AL- Yes. Originally, coffee as a bean was discovered in Ethiopia. But as a hot beverage similar to what we consume today, this did not happen until later in Yemen, when you had Sufi Orders, a specific Sufi Order, the Shathilya order, one of its spiritual teachers was inspired to crush and boil up the beans to create a beverage. That’s where coffee was born. And it was born primarily for spiritual reasons, because they were trying to find ways of keeping their adepts, the disciples up all night for night visuals and worship. The Arabic sources we are researching go right back to the decade when this all happened.  In Ethiopia, they used to chew the leaves of the coffee plant. But there is no evidence that they actually turned it into a brew in the way the Yemeni’s did.

CL- Can you talk more about some of the cultural connotations of coffee in relation to your research?
AL- Yes. If we talk about the enlightenment in Britain, lots of the great philosophical conversations took place in coffee houses.  The arrival of coffee and the setting up of coffee houses happened within ten or twenty years. We went from having one coffee house in London and one in Oxford, then with ten or twenty years, you end up having hundreds of coffee houses around the country. This enabled a huge cultural shift. Prior to coffee arriving, people where mainly drinking ale, because you could not drink the water. So people were influenced by alcohol a lot of the time; the coffee created a more sober environment for what became intensely philosophical and scientific discussions. Coffee exercised a huge cultural influence in the shifting of society.  The coffee house culture was imported from the Ottoman Empire, because coffee moves up from Yemen through the Arabian Peninsula, up into Syria and up into Turkey.  Then it’s mainly ambassadors and envoys from Europe (Germany, Britain), who are based in the Ottoman empire  who see the phenomenon of coffee houses and then bring the coffee back and set up coffee houses and so forth.

CL—The original Starbucks…
AL- Yes—but when you went into a coffee house back in those days, it was common courtesy, to say “what news have you?”. This was prior to newspapers. In fact- the whole concept of a Newspaper was born in the coffee houses. Because coffee houses used to produce news bulletins, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly. Whatever sector you choose to look at, whether its insurance, finance and commerce, science, academia—all of these institutions that we know so well today are influenced deeply by coffee house culture.

CL- How did the taste of coffee changed from the time you are talking about to the taste of coffee we have today?
AL- There is a guy called Dr. Matthew Green – who runs coffee house tours in London, where he will take you and tell you the story of coffee.  More so from the European angle.  He will also give you a taste of what 17 century coffee tasted like.  They did not have the mills that we have today – so it was a little bit more course. No way near as refined and sophisticated as we have now. Basically they were just boiling up crushed coffee beans and draining off the liquid and drinking what remains. 17th century coffee was very different. You didn’t put milk in it for one thing.

CL- Where the coffee houses mainly  in London?
AL- That’s were the biggest concentration was. But they were all over the country, in Leeds, Exeter… Initially they had broken down various class structures. But eventually that re-instated itself.. and there where coffee houses for upper class people and coffee houses for lower class people.
The amazing thing about this is because the coffee houses were proving such dens of iniquity and even treason, a lot of democratic conversations taking place in coffee houses, Charles II tried to shut them all down.

CL- That leads into my next question. What brought about the demise of coffee houses in the UK?
AL- Well- it certainly was not Charles II because his bid to close them all down failed. He had to rescind his edict that all coffee houses be shut down. The coffee houses started to close purely for economic reasons, to do with the fact that tea came on the scene. Tea displaced coffee as it was a cheaper commodity. The British could bring in tea themselves from their colonies and they could control the price of it much better than with coffee.  So tea played a big part in the demise of coffee houses. But today, we almost have a re-invigoration of the coffee houses.

CL – So my final thought, is that we are lucky today that coffee was not banned, it might have been seen like cocaine or something along those lines.
AL – That’s exactly how it was seen by those who opposed it in Muslim countries. Some hilarious scenes take place in Saudi Arabia, in Mecca, when coffee was actually put on trial. They actually had people drink coffee and observed them – this was around 1511, 1515. Then later people were trying to smuggle the coffee beans out of Yemen when they realised it was a valuable commodity. I think the Dutch were the first ones to do that.

Khayaal’s ( medium stage touring production, Coffee or the Abominable Liquor of Infidels, is scheduled for the autumn of 2018.