‘You Have to Start With Coffee’

A brief guide to Amman's rich coffee scene.

By / October 2019

The young man dressed in a white button-down shirt, black bowtie, and burgundy vest moved inconspicuously around the tent filling our shot glass sized cups with coffee. The strong Arabic brew tasted slightly acidic but was smooth going down. I sipped from my cup and conversed somberly with the other men who had come to offer condolences to the family of our neighbor. Perhaps I should have been pondering the brevity of life. But in that weighty moment, to be honest, I was distracted by the coffee and decided, when the time came, to learn more about it.

To begin my research, I paid a visit to Faisel Shahrouri, a salesman at Coffee Bank, one of my favorite coffee shops in North Amman. In Jordan, as in much of the world, coffee is a symbol of hospitality and is served at most important gatherings, but the custom takes on greater intensity in the Arab world. “No matter what you want, you have to start with coffee,” Shahrouri told me. “If you don’t offer coffee to your guests, locals will know you are not a true Jordanian Arab.”

Coffee Bank was founded in 1999 and currently has five locations in Amman. The company imports raw coffee beans from Colombia and roasts and grinds the beans fresh at each location. Among their products are Arabic, Turkish, Colombian, Mexican, Ethiopian, Adani, Italian, Espresso, French, American, flavored, cardamom-blended and decaffeinated coffees. Faisel said the various types of coffee are determined by the way the beans are roasted and ground. His store sells 20-30 pounds of coffee every day.

Faisel, 69, a soft-spoken Palestinian, has been working at Coffee Bank for about 20 months. The dapper-dressed pensioner with thin gray mustache and kind brown eyes is a retired geological engineer and print-shop owner. He met the owner of Coffee Bank through his printing business. After he sold his print shop, the proprietor convinced him to work at his store. Faisel said he likes his job because it gets him out of the house and allows him to interact with other coffee lovers.

Arabic coffee is often served in small, ornate cups.

The coffee grounds are brewed in an upright copper pot with a long thin spout.

Centuries ago Bedouins brought coffee to Jordan from the Arab peninsula where the beans were traded as a valuable commodity. According to Faisel, most Jordanians prefer to drink coffee rather than tea because of their Bedouin heritage. Coffee etiquette is very important in Arab culture and has its roots in Bedouin hospitality. According to Faisel, Arabic coffee has to be hot and ready to serve 24 hours a day in case a guest shows up unannounced. “It would be shameful for an Arab to serve cold coffee,” he said. “Guests would be insulted and would spit it out.”

When guests arrive, the host seats them according to status with the oldest sitting in the place of honor.The next oldest sits to the right of the honored guest and then the next oldest sits to his right and so on. When the host brings coffee, he always drinks the first cup to make the guests feel comfortable and to put their mind at ease that the coffee is good. After the host drinks, he offers the next cup to the eldest guest. On the rare occasion that the elder doesn’t want coffee, he will motion for the host to serve it to the person next in line. The host will go down the line until everyone has had their fill.

The server will always be standing. He will pour with his left hand and offer the coffee with his right. He will never offer the coffee with his left hand because that would be considered an insult and the guest will refuse to take it. The cups are usually very small, about three ounces, and often have ornate decorations on the outside. Guests can drink as much coffee as they want but, out of courtesy, practice moderation. Guests let the host know they have had enough by shaking their cups with a slight twisting motion. After guests are finished drinking, they can begin discussing the reason for the visit.When guests signal that they wish to leave, the host will serve another cup of coffee for the road.

Coffee plays an important role in a jaha, which is a community meeting where conflicts are resolved and important decisions are made in lieu of going to court. A jaha begins, the coffee is poured. However, no one will drink until the business at hand is concluded. Drinking coffee proves the matter is settled.

A jaha can also be a meeting to negotiate marriage contract. Usually, the family of the groom comes to the home of the bride’s family to discuss terms for the marriage. Once patriarchs or family representatives are seated the host will pour coffee. Then the leader of the groom’s family will stand and give a speech. The leader of the bride’s clan will do likewise. After these opening monologues, negotiations begin.

Faisel is the father of four and grandfather of eight and has been to many marriage contract signings. He told me that once representatives agree on the terms for the marriage the father of the bride will say “you may drink your coffee.” However, no one will lift their cups until the father of the bride takes the first drink.

Arabic coffee is served at azas (funeral visitations) as a way to show hospitality and appreciation to visitors. Attending funerals is extremely important for Jordanians and there is usually a large turnout from family, friends and neighbors. Faisel said it would be very difficult to provide a full meal for everyone who attends the aza so most people serve coffee as a culturally acceptable alternative.

According to Faisel, Arabic coffee is the preferred coffee for important guest and functions. However, Turkish coffee is more practical because it takes less time to prepare. Arabic coffee is a darker roast and coarser grind than Turkish coffee.

In Amman, a cup of Turkish coffee costs about $.75. Photographs by Sherry Wright

The old traditional way of making Arabic coffee involves roasting the beans over a mangal (Arabic fireplace) and then crushing them in a mebash (mortar and pestle). The coffee grounds are then brewed in a dallah, an upright copper pot with a long thin spout. Cardamom seeds are boiled with the coffee to give it a sweet aromatic flavor. Faisel said coffee without cardamom is not true Arabic coffee. It takes at least fifteen minutes to properly boil Arabic coffee. Once Arabic coffee is served the dallah is returned to the fire, ready for future guests. Arabic coffee is never served with sugar.

Gahweh (Turkish coffee) is the hot drink most consumed in Jordan. There is at least one gahweh shop in every neighborhood in Amman. Many shops employ young men to stand in front and wave a shiny metal serving tray in order to attract attention from pedestrians and drivers passing by. The young men give curbside service to drivers and they also deliver to proprietors of local businesses. A cup of Turkish coffee costs about $.75.

Faisel said the Turkish version of coffee was introduced to Arabs by the Ottoman Turks who occupied the region from 1516 to 1918. Gahweh is made in a finjan, a small pot with a long handle. The barista stirs a teaspoon of the fine Turkish grounds into a half cup of scalding water and places the finjan on an open flame. He brings the coffee to boil slowly and just before it boils over, he removes the pot from the heat. It’s bad luck to let coffee boil over and spill. He allows foamy head of coffee to calm down and then repeats the process two more times before pouring the muddy brown brew into an eight-ounce cup. The coffee grounds don’t totally dissolve and sink to the bottom of the cup. Most people drink what’s on top and leave the sludge in the bottom. It is served plain with no sugar, medium sweet, or extra sweet.

Legend has it that coffee was discovered a thousand years ago by a Yemeni goat herder named Ali. One day he saw his goats eating the fruit of a strange shrub, and he noticed how much more active and energetic they were after they ate it. He tried the fruit and experienced the same effect, so he began taking it with him to the monastery to keep him awake during prayer. When the local monks found out what he was doing they condemned the fruit as a dangerous narcotic, and they threw it into the fire. However, when they smelled the pleasant aroma of the roasting beans, they decided to try it for themselves.


Danny and Sherry Wright, regular contributors for EthnoTraveler, live and write in Amman.