An excerpt about the coffee ritual near the Red Sea in the 1970’s from one of my favourite books, “The Names of Things: Life, Language, and Beginnings in the Egyptian Desert” by Susan Brind Morrow

At an angle, out of the path of the setting sun, I see an iridule, what my aunt Dorothy once described to me as a sun dog. You see them in late February, she said. Here in late February, half the world away, is a sun dog, a perfect oval, a small circular rainbow. Saad Abdullah sees it too. We meet in the salt scrub between the encampment and the sea and look together at the irridule. When you see such a thing (a shamay’) he says, you must make a karma, an act of generosity, at once.

“What if you don’t?” I ask.

“God is generous. I don’t know what he would do.”

When the last trace of the sun has gone, the fast is broken. First with dates and lemonade, things soaking with wetness. Everyone hangs back, hesitant to be the first to show the weakness of desire or need. The lemonade, made from precious lemons brought from the Nile Valley and saved for this purpose, is passed from hand to hand in a large aluminum bowl. Everyone tries to take as little as possible. It is delicious.

Then there are the usual things: tomatoes and lentils and cheese and bread.

When all this has been cleared away, the long process of making gebany begins. Coffee comes from this coast, and the making of it one of the rituals of the day. First a small fire is made, of dry roots or charcoal or whatever is on hand.

When the fire has burned down to crumbling coals, a tuna fish or bully beef can with a bent wire handle is taken out of someone’s afesh, or coffee kit. A handful of green coffee beans, grown in Yemen, smuggled up through Sudan – is removed from a plastic bag in the kit and tossed into the can. The beans are blacked over the fire, like popcorn. This takes some skill of the wrist, to black them evenly, but not burn them, tossing them lightly up and down for quite some time, talking casually all the while, as though one is quite unaware of what one is doing (for this is a social activity, after all, a way to draw people together). The blacked beans are turned from the can into a hun, a mortar carved by hand (usually by its owner) from the red heartwoood of a samra tree, a variety of acacia that grows in from the sea. The carving on the hun is elaborate, with hagib, incised lines of pyramids, as protection against the evil eye. A shred of ginger, or some black peppercorns – something hot, also removed from one’s afesh – is put with the beans in the hun, where they are crushed, rhythmically, with a daggag, a pestle which is the end of one’s asaya, one’s walking stick, or with a long carved stone. Talc, a soft greenish-white stone found in the mountains here, is often used for this. The crushed coffee and ginger is funneled from the hun through one’s hand into the mouth of a gebany pot. (I remember seeing a statue of a gebany pot, with a round body and long, narrow neck, intricately carved and decorated, in the central midan at Khartoum. Such is the importance of coffee). Water in the meantime has been brought to a boil in a tin can on the coals. This is poured into the gebany pot over the crushed beans. The pot is placed on the coals until it begins to make the thickening sound of frothing up into a boil in the neck. It is then removed from the coals with a rag (a shred of an old orange nylon dress, also from one’s kit) and placed in the cool sand beside the fire. Three or four tiny china cups are taken out from one’s kit, along with a plastic bag of sugar. Sugar is poured into the cups, to fill them half full, then gebany is poured over it and stirred with a matchstick, or twig, and passed to the surrounding company. The cups are filled and refilled and passed until the coffee is gone.

Everything has a use, and is used over and over until it has a certain taste. Fire-blackened things, worn at the edges and one’s own through long habit, are best. By the time the gebany is made and drunk, the sky is very dark. The only light is the light of the charcoal of the fire, and the light of the cigarettes glowing around it, and the stars pouring thickly overhead.


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