Coffee cultures of Israelis, Palestinians...and Hawaiians

>I have a lot of good reasons for staying in the Middle East as long as I have. While the main thing keeping me here 14 years and counting may truly be inertia, I also enjoy being an outsider, researching my Palestinian crime novels on site, visiting the Palestinian towns whose atmosphere of violence, decay and liveliness makes me feel so creative.

But let’s get down to brass tacks: I’m here for the coffee.

There’s no place outside Italy where there’s a more sophisticated coffee culture than Israel, and nowhere on earth do you find yourself cajoled into drinking as much coffee as Palestine.

When I first arrived here, Israelis were drinking one of two kinds of execrable coffees. Middle-aged ladies seemed to go for “Nes,” which despite being the Hebrew word for “miracle” signified only that it was Nescafe instant, served with water so hot that it’d be a miracle if you could taste anything and with enough milk to make it look about the same shade as the skin of the sun-loving ladies who drank it. The alternative was “botz,” which is the Hebrew word for mud and is entirely the right word to pick for this particular brew. To sum that up: why drink the liquid when you can also have the grounds stuck between your teeth for an hour or two?

In the last decade, however, the number of cafes – hip and less so – in Israel has risen sharply. Everywhere you go, even in Jerusalem and let alone in trendy Tel Aviv, there are bars offering top international brands from the ubiquitous Lavazza to Caffe Mauro and Bristot. It’s an Italian-style espresso-drinking culture and in some of the cafes they even understand how to maintain their espresso machines, thus guaranteeing a good cup.

See, at least there’s one thing about Israel which hasn’t gone to hell in a handbasket over the last decade. Don’t let anyone say I don’t look on the bright side.

Palestinians haven’t changed their style, however. (Which now that I think of it is also a good reflection of their role in the so-called peace negotiations over the past decade.) The way most of them like their coffee is cooked in a narrow-topped tin pan, boiling it over a gas flame with some sugar. “Masbuta,” or “just right,” for coffee with some sugar. “Sada,” or “bitter,” for funerals – and of course for Omar Yussef, the hero of my crime novels.

When in Palestinian towns, you’re greeted at every meeting by a small cup of thick coffee. You have to wait for the grounds to settle and then drink it before you can move beyond the small talk and get down to business. Every meeting, all day. Until you’re buzzing and wondering why all the colors are so bright, even though you’re inside and the shades are drawn. You’re also curious about the stabbing pains in your urethra….

Not that I only have coffee when I go out. Four years ago I quit journalism to work from home on my fiction. I get a monthly delivery of Lavazza for my home machine. It comes straight from the importer. Perhaps it’s the quantity I consume, but they seem to believe they’re delivering to a business address. Naturally I tell them I have an extensive staff, each of whom needs a lot of coffee, and that’s why they need to make an extra delivery again this month…

So with coffee being that central to my existence here, I was particularly intrigued to hear from a reader of my novels – and of this blog – named Terry Fitzgerald. TF informed me that my fellow blogger and terrific author of Bangkok crime novels Christopher G. Moore had signaled his approval of Terry’s Da’kine Coffee Bean, which he produces in Honaunau, Hawaii. He kindly offered to send me along a batch.

Now I used to be a journalist – when someone offers me something free, I’ll go to extraordinary lengths to secure it. In this case, I made several visits to my local branch of the Israeli Postal Service whence I eventually was able to wrest a bag of Terry’s prize-winning bean. (Check him out).

I’ve offered Da’kine to some Israeli friends, who commented with pleasure on its redolence of the most deliciously bitter of dark chocolate. I took it into Bethlehem for a rendez-vous with the real Omar Yussef. He drank it without sugar and with approval. As is traditional for a Palestinian when accepting a coffee, he said: “May Allah bless your hands. May there always be coffee in your home.”

This brand, too, I hope.

(I posted this on International Crime Authors Reality Check, a joint blog for me and three other authors of -- obviously -- international crime novels. Take a look.)

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