Soho Press is reissuing The Devil’s Cup, Stewart Lee Allen’s fascinating book which offers a history of the world according to coffee.
Allen treks three-quarters of the way around the world on a caffeinated quest to answer these profound questions: Did the advent of coffee give birth to an enlightened western civilization? Is coffee, indeed, the substance that drives history? From the cliffhanging villages of Southern Yemen, where coffee beans were first cultivated eight hundred years ago, to a cavernous coffeehouse in Calcutta, the drinking spot for two of India’s three Nobel Prize winners … from Parisian salons and cafés where the French Revolution was born, to the roadside diners and chain restaurants of the good ol’ USA, where something resembling brown water passes for coffee, Allen wittily proves that the world was wired long before the Internet. And those who deny the power of coffee (namely tea-drinkers) do so at their own peril.
Read the new Introduction by the author and Chapter 1 below.
“Who knew that the story of coffee was such a fascinating saga of cruelty, madness, obsession, and death? The Devil’s Cup is absolutely riveting, alternating between the informative and the hilarious. Essential reading for foodies, java-junkies, anthropologists, and anyone else interested in funny, sardonically told adventure stories.” —Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential
“The Devil’s Cup is hugely entertaining and thoroughly edifying.” —Dave Eggers, author of The Monk of Mokha
The First Cup
As with art ’tis prepared,
so you should drink it with art.
Abd el Kader (sixteenth century)
“Ethiopia is the best.” Bill’s eyes brightened. “Finest Grub in Africa, mate. And those Ethiopian girls . . .”
“No girls,” I said. Bill Allfrey, a Cockney plumber I’d met hitchhiking through the Congo, was obsessed with finding me a girl but lacked discretion; his last bit of matchmaking had ended with me fending off a Kenyan hooker twice my size who’d kept shouting, “I am just ready for love!”
“No girls,” I repeated, shuddering at the memory.
“You don’t have to bonk them.” Mr. Allfrey gave me his most charming leer. “But you’ll want to.”
“I doubt it.”
“And the coffee . . .”
My ears perked up.
“Best buna in the world, mate.”
So it was settled. We were off to Ethiopia for a cup of coffee. Buses were a bit of a rarity in northern Kenya, so we hitched a ride in the back of an open truck loaded with soda pop. It was a desolate trip, twenty hours of sun-blackened rock and pale weeds. The main indication of human habitation was the machine-gun-riddled bus wrecks abandoned on the roadside. About seven hours into the trip, we passed a truck whose offer of a ride we had earlier declined. Its axle had shattered on the unpaved road, flipping the vehicle over and killing the driver and half the passengers. Those who had survived, all seven-foot-tall Masai warriors with traditional red robes and elongated earlobes, were standing about, weeping and shaking their spears at the sky. One of them lay crushed to death under a pile of shattered Pepsi bottles.
When we arrived at Ethiopia, the border was closed. The sole guard was friendly but adamant—no foreigners allowed into Ethiopia. Bill clarified our position. We didn’t want to go into Ethiopia, he explained. We only wanted to visit the village of Moyale, half of which just happened to located in Ethiopia. Surely that was allowed?
The guard considered, and after a lengthy discussion, he agreed that seemed fair enough as long as we were back by nightfall.
Ethiopians were drinking coffee long before the rest of the world and have a ceremony for sharing the brew. First, green beans are roasted at the table. The hostess then passes the still-smoking beans around so each guest can inhale the aroma. An ode to the moment is offered, and the beans are ground in a stone mortar and brewed. You must take three cups, Abole-Berke-Sostga, for friendship and prosperity.
That was how the restaurant owner prepared our coffee that day, and while I’ve experienced the ceremony many times since, it has never seemed so lovely. She was a typical Ethiopian country woman, supernaturally tall, stunningly elegant, and unnervingly beautiful. And the coffee served in her little hut was charred but excellent. However, she only had enough beans for one cup, and so we agreed to come back and finish the ceremony the next day. But when we tried to re-enter Moyale, the new guards refused to let us across the border.
That was the beginning of my fascination with coffee. Not so much the drink—which I consume religiously, of course—but its meaning: its attendant ceremonies, religious and secular, and how it shapes our mind. I do not consider coffee merely a “beverage” (a wretchedly anodyne term). It is a mind-altering substance, perhaps the world’s most widely domesticated, and is really a recreational entheogen whose popularity has changed human society.
Now, there is certainly no shortage of books claiming some quotidian commodity changed the world. But these titles are a bit misleading to my mind, because what “changed the world” was in fact a desire for the object, not the object itself. Humanity’s insatiable greed, in other words. Coffee, which is the second most traded commodity in history, is another matter. It directly affects the human mind and nervous system. Mildly, to be sure, but when a substance like that is introduced into the social body as rapidly and in such huge quantities, the potential ramifications are immense.
This was obvious to European scholars when it showed up in the 17th century.
“For this sparkling outburst of creative thought,” wrote famed historian Jules Michelet of the French Revolution and the rise of human liberty, “there is no doubt that the honor should be ascribed in part to the great event which created new customs and even changed the human temperament—the advent of coffee.”
How French to attribute the Age of Enlightenment to an espresso. But Michelet was not alone. His contemporaries in England attributed the decline of monarchial rule and the rise of democracy to the influence of coffee. Coffeehouses were considered to be such hotbeds of revolutionary thought that rulers from Turkey to England outlawed them, sometimes on pain of death.
This focus on Europe, by the way, does not derive from a Eurocentric world view (well, perhaps a little), but from the fact that its inhabitants were then addicted to coffee’s polar opposite, the depressant alcohol. The average European was consuming at least two six-packs of beer a day, starting at breakfast and continuing through lunch and after that until they passed out. This quickly changed once the Continent’s first café opened around 1650; within 50 years, there were over 2,000 in London alone. Within a century, most Europeans, particularly its elite, had replaced beer at breakfast with coffee. Europeans, alongside Americans, now consume some 10 billion pounds a year. Never has a society so quickly and entirely switched from a dietary regime based around an intoxicating depressant to one embracing a stimulant. So the impact of coffee’s arrival (along with tea and other forms of caffeine) was particularly noticeable there, for better or worse.
I knew nothing of this when I read Michelet’s intriguing comments, and I certainly had no idea that they would lead me on a quest around the world via train, dhow, tuk-tuk, freighter or, finally, donkey.
I only knew it was time for me to head back to Ethiopia and get that second cup.
Stewart Lee Allen, 2018
A Season in Hell
Abole, Berke, Sostga—one, two, three cups,
and we are friends forever.
Con artist in Addis Ababa
“You like ram-bo?”
My questioner was a wiry Arab-African squatting in the shade of a white clay wall. Sharp eyes, wispy mustache, white turban. Not your typical Sylvester Stallone fan.
“Rambo?” I repeated uncertainly.
He nodded. “Ram-bo.” He adjusted his filthy wraparound so the hem didn’t drag in the dirt. “Ram-bo,” he repeated with infinite disinterest. “Farangi.”
“Are you really a Rambo fan?” I was surprised—Charles Bronson had been more popular in Calcutta. I flexed my biceps to clarify. “You like?”
The man looked at me in disgust. “Ram-bo,” he insisted. “Ram-boo, Ram-boooo. You go? You like?”
“No go,” I said, walking off. “No like.”
I’d just arrived in Harrar, a remote village in the Ethiopian highlands, after a grueling twenty-four hour train journey from the capital, Addis Ababa. I already preferred Harrar. Its winding alleys were free of both cars and thieves, a big improvement over Addis, where pickpockets followed me like flies and my one night out had ended in an attempted robbery after a “friendship coffee ceremony.” I also liked Harrar’s Arabic flavor, the whitewashed mud buildings, and the colorful gypsy-African clothes worn by the girls. Rambo Man had been the only hus-tler so far, and he seemed reasonable enough.
I found a suitable café and grabbed a table in the shade. The coffee, brewed on an old hand-pulled espresso machine, was a thick black liquor served in a shot glass. The taste was shocking in the intensity of its “coffeeness,” a trait I attributed to minor burns incurred in the pan-roasting technique common in Ethiopia. Harrarian coffee beans are among the world’s finest, second only to Jamaican and Yemeni, but this . . . I suspected local beans had been mixed with smuggled Zairean Robusta, which would account for the fine head of crema (called wesh here), as well as the fact that after one cup I felt like crawling out of my skin.
I ordered a second. Rambo Man had come to stare at me from across the road. Our eyes met. He shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands suggestively. I scowled.
Harrar is one of the legendary cities of African antiquity. It was closed to foreigners for centuries because an Islamic saint had prophesied its fall the day a non-Muslim entered the walls. Christians who attempted to enter were beheaded; African mer-chants were merely locked outside and left to the tender mer-cies of local lion packs. Not that inside was much better. Hyenas roamed the streets, noshing on the homeless. Witchcraft and slavery flourished, particularly the notorious selling of black eunuchs to Turkish harems. By the 1800s, the walled city had become so isolated that a separate language had developed. It is still spoken today.
This reputation drew Europe’s most intrepid adventurers to Harrar. Many tried, many died, until Sir Richard Burton, the Eng-lishman who “discovered” the source of the Nile, managed to enter the city in 1855 disguised as an Arab. It fell soon afterward.
The most intriguing of Harrar’s early Western visitors, how-ever, was the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud had come to Paris when he was seventeen. After a year of pur-suing his famous “derangement of the senses” lifestyle, he’d established a reputation as the most depraved man in the city. By nineteen, he’d finished his masterpiece, A Season in Hell. Having reached his twentieth year, he renounced all poetry and disap-peared off the face of the earth. Rimbaud . . .
“Rambo!” I shouted, jumping out of my chair. That’s what the fellow had been going on about—Rimbaud, pronounced “Rambo.” He’d wanted to take me to Rimbaud’s mansion. The poet had not “disappeared off the face of the earth” when he’d abandoned poetry in 1870. He’d merely come to his senses and become a coffee merchant in Harrar.
Rambo Man, however, had vanished.
Rimbaud’s reason for coming to Ethiopia was more compli-cated than a desire to enter the coffee trade. He was actually ful-filling a passage from A Season in Hell, in which he predicted going to a land “of lost climates” from which he would return “with limbs of iron, bronzed skin, and fierce eyes.” He wanted action, danger, and money. He got at least the first two in Harrar. The emir had been deposed only twenty years earlier, and ten-sions were still high. The French coffee merchants needed some-one crazy enough to risk his life for a bean (albeit one going for one hundred dollars a pound). Rimbaud was their man.
The importance of the Harrar Longberry, however, goes beyond the fragrant cup it produces. Many believe it is here that the lowly Robusta bean evolved into the civilized Arabica, potentially making the Harrar Longberry the missing link of the genus Coffea. To understand the importance of this you must first know that there are two basic species of coffee beans: the luscious Arabica from East Africa, which prefers higher eleva-tions, and the reviled Robusta from Zaire, which grows just about anywhere.
That being understood, we must now go back to that myste-rious time before the dawn of civilization, the Precaffeinated Era.
Back then, fifteen hundred to three thousand years ago, the world’s first coffee lovers, the nomadic Oromos, lived in the kingdom of Kefa. The Oromos didn’t actually drink coffee; they ate it, crushed, mixed with fat, and shaped into golf-ball-size treats. They were especially fond of munching on these coffee-balls before going into battle against the people of Bonga, who generally beat the pants off the Oromos. The Bongas also happened to be first-rate slave traders, and sent about seven thousand slaves each year to the Arabic markets in Harrar. A fair number of these unfortunates were Oromos coffee chewers who had been captured in battle. It was these people who acci-dentally first brought the bean to Harrar. Ethiopian rangers say the old slave trails are still shaded by the coffee trees that have grown from their discarded meals.
But the important thing is the difference between the regions’ plants. Beans from relatively low-lying Kefa grow in huge coffee jungles and are generally more akin to the squat, harsh Robustas that probably came out of the jungles of Zaire thousands of years before. Harrar’s beans, by contrast, are long-bodied and possess delicious personalities like the Arabicas. In adapting to Harrar’s higher altitude, something wonderful seems to have happened to them. No one knows what, but we should all be grateful that it was the evolved Arabica beans of Harrar that were later brought to Yemen, and then to the world at large.
So Rimbaud’s risking his life for the bean (in fact, it killed him) is perhaps not so unreasonable. It’s worth noting, howev-er, that the poet/merchant did not seem to hold Harrar’s coffee in high regard. “Horrible” is how he describes it in one letter; “awful stuff” and “disgusting.” Oh well. Perhaps all those years of absinthe had dulled his taste buds. The fact that the locals were fond of selling him beans laced with goat shit probably didn’t help matters.
After a few more cups, I checked into a hotel and set out in search of Rimbaud’s home. Harrar is a small place of about twenty thousand inhabitants; a maze of alleys lined with lop-sided mosques, mud huts. It is noticeably lacking in street names. Rimbaud’s house is probably the easiest thing to find in the city, since any foreigner who approaches is mobbed by wannabe tour guides. I had no intention of paying anybody for guiding me to a house, and eventually, by taking the most obscure route imaginable, I managed to reach what I knew was Rimbaud’s neighborhood undetected, only to find myself in a dead-end alley.
There was nobody in sight, so I yelled a cautious hello.
“Here,” came a familiar voice.
I crawled through a jagged crack in one of the walls, and there, squatting on a pile of rubble, was Rambo Man.
“Aha!” he shouted. “You have come at last.”
He was sitting in front of one of the oddest houses I’d ever seen. At least it seemed so in the context of Harrar’s one-story mud huts. It was three stories high with twin peaked gables, all covered in elaborate carvings. The shingled roof was fringed with fleur-de-lis decorations and the windows were stained red. Straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale, I thought. The oddest thing, though, was how the mansion was surrounded by a twelve-foot-high mud wall with no opening other than the crack that I’d just crawled through.
The man was looking at me in surprise. “You have no guide?”
“Guide? What for?”
“No problem.” He waved a yellow piece of paper at me and demanded ten birra.
“What are these?” I asked.
“Tickets? Are they real?”
“See them.” He seemed vaguely offended. Ticket—Rimbaud, said the piece of paper. 10 Br. “You see—real house. Govern-ment. Not like the others.”
“You mean there are other Rimbaud houses?”
“No. Only one.”
I paid him, and he led me up a narrow interior stairway into a huge chamber, perhaps three thousand square feet, with a fifty-foot-high ceiling ringed by an old-fashioned oval balcony. The walls were covered in handpainted canvas “wallpaper,” now so filthy and tattered that I could barely make out the quaint Parisian garden scenes and heraldic devices. Huge dust particles floated about. There was no furniture of any kind.
The great French poet spent the last days of his life in this surreal chateau, alone except for his beloved manservant. He wrote no poetry, and his letters were filled with complaints of loneliness, disease, and his financial problems, including a dis-astrous attempt to sell slaves and guns to the Ethiopian emper-or. His prophecy of coming home with “limbs of iron . . . and fierce eyes” proved false. He returned to France delirious and destitute. His left leg had been amputated. A mysterious infec-tion soon killed him.
I wandered about for a while, peering over the balcony, touching the walls. The place seemed uninhabited. A boy in rags trailed after me only to flee as soon as I spoke. Pigeons cooed from nests among the tattered wall hangings.
As I left, the man asked me if I wanted to meet Rimbaud’s descendants.
“There were daughters,” he said. “Rimbaud’s daughters . . .”
“Rimbaud had children?” I asked.
“Many daughters. Very beautiful girls . . . so young . . .” he stopped, suggestively. “You want Rambo girl?”
To sleep with the bastard offspring of Arthur Rimbaud, I thought; that would be a story. She would be beautiful, as all the women here were, and perfectly arrogant, as behooved one of Ethiopian-French descent. It was tempting. But hadn’t it been a case of Harrarian clap that killed Rimbaud? I declined.
Don’t roast your coffee beans in the marketplace.
(Don’t tell secrets to strangers.)
Oromo nomad saying
I met Abera Teshone while looking for the hyena men, a caste that feeds Harrar’s trash to the packs of hyenas that gather nightly outside the city walls. The caste started as a way of keeping the animals from entering the city and attacking humans. Today it’s largely a tourist attraction, although the sight of hideous animals accepting garbage from men in rags is not likely to topple the Disney empire.
Abera, a young man with a withered left leg, had been my guide for the event, and afterward we’d gone for a beer. He wanted to know why I had come to Harrar.
“Not many tourists come here,” he explained.
“I noticed. I came here to learn about coffee.” A thought struck me. “Hey, didn’t you say you were an agriculture stu-dent? What do you know about its origin?”
“Do you know the story about Kaldi and the dancing goats?”
“Of course,” I said. It’s one of coffee’s mythological chest-nuts. It goes like this:
An Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi one day noticed his best goat dancing about and baaing like a maniac. It seemed to happen after the old billy goat had been nibbling the berries off a certain plant. The goatherd tried a few himself and soon was dancing about, too.
A holy man wandered by and asked the boy why he was dancing with a goat. The goatherd explained. The monk took some berries home and found that after eating them he could not sleep. It so hap-pened that this holy man was famous for his rather tedious all-night sermons and was having trouble keeping his disciples awake. So he immediately ordered all his disciples, called dervishes, to chew the bean before he preached. The dervishes’ sleepiness vanished, and word spread about the great prophet whose electrifying wisdom kept you awake until dawn.
Being a city boy, I mentioned to Abera that it seemed strange that the goats would eat berries. Didn’t they normally prefer leafy stuff?
“Yes, well, perhaps it was so,” he said. “That is how the coun-try folk still make it.”
“They make coffee out of leaves?”
“Yes. They call it kati.”
“Really? I would like to try it. Maybe in a café . . .”
“Oh no,” he laughed. “This is only drunk in the home. Hard-ly anyone in Harrar drinks it today. You must visit the Ogaden. They still drink it.”
“Where do they live?”
“The Ogaden? They live now in Jiga-Jiga.” He made the place sound like a disease. “But you can’t go there. It’s very, very dan-gerous. And those Somalis, those Ogaden, are very arrogant. So rude!”
“Why? What is the problem?”
“They are rude people!” Abera shook his head angrily at the Ogaden’s poor manners. “Why, just not long ago they did a bad thing to a bus going there. To all the men.”
“Bad? How bad?”
“Why, very bad. They killed them.”
“That’s pretty bad,” I agreed.
According to Abera, Ogaden bandits had pulled all the men off a bus heading to Jiga-Jiga and demanded they each recite a verse from the Koran. Those who failed were shot in the head. Thousands of the Ogaden, a desert nomad tribe, had recently been forced into refugee settlements as a result of the collapse of the Somali government. The largest camp was near Jiga-Jiga on the Ethiopian/Somali border, and as a consequence the whole area was buzzing with guerrilla activity. The recent tur-moil in Mogadishu, where dead American soldiers had been dragged through the streets, had made the Ogaden especially hostile toward Yanks. The situation had grown so difficult that the relief agencies no longer sent white workers to Jiga-Jiga for fear they’d be shot.
“It is very bad for foreigners to go there,” he said. “But why do you want to go?”
“I just want a cup of coffee,” I said. “Have you actually been there?”
“It’s Hell.” Abera looked down his nose. “I urge you not to go.”
It was a pleasant two-hour drive from harrar to Jiga-Jiga, through the so-called Valley of Wonders, although what makes this valley so wondrous I couldn’t say. I had set out at five in the morning, Abera having warned me that drivers refused to return from Jiga-Jiga after two in the afternoon for fear of bandits. He’d recommended I get an early start and head back to Harrar before noon unless I intended to stay overnight, in which case I’d most likely find my hotel robbed at gunpoint. That was assuming, of course, that anyone would be stupid enough to let me stay at their lodge. Was he being a tad para-noid? Perhaps. At any rate, it was a refreshingly cool way to start the day. By the time we’d reached the desert’s edge, however, it had grown so warm that some of my fellow passengers removed the pistols cached beneath their shirts.
“The human head, once struck off, does not regrow like the rose.” This observation was made by a British officer when Sir Richard Burton proposed visiting here in 1854, and it kept run-ning through my head. The parallels between Burton’s and my quests were starting to seem spooky. We were both seeking mys-terious “bodies of water” in Central Africa; my mysterious liq-uid contained a few coffee beans, but other than that, we were looking for the same thing. Burton wanted to see how the Nile started out; I wanted to see how some of it ended up. Burton wound up with a Somali spear stuck through both cheeks, which is about where I hoped the parallels would cease.
Jiga-Jiga proved to be a dusty place specializing in huts con-structed from flattened Shell oil drums. I popped my head into the first doorway that showed a tray of chipped glasses.
“Kati?” I inquired in Amharic and Arabic. “Do you have kati?”
The lady pointed at my tattered straw fedora and burst into giggles. I tried another café. The proprietor shooed me out, as did the next and the next after that. Every time I stepped out onto the street I found yet another six-foot-tall skeleton eyeing me with an ominous disinterest. Men had rifles. Women wore wildly colorful head scarves. Ogadens, I presumed.
Suddenly, a wizened old woman, with a string of Christian crosses tattooed about her neck, beckoned me into her hut. She started babbling. She seemed frightened. I pantomimed sipping and asked about kati.
“Kati?” she asked and gestured to a sack full of dirty leaves. She repeated my drinking pantomime. “Kati?”
“Yes!” I pulled one of the leaves from the sack and sniffed—was this it? The legendary kati, qat shia, Abyssinian Tea, and per-haps the great-grandmother of all coffee drinks? She gestured for me to sit in a corner of the hut and then turned away. Only there was nothing in the corner to sit on. In fact, there was nothing in the hut but the bag of leaves. Was this really a café? No cups, no seats . . . and where was she going to cook the kati? How did I even know those were coffee leaves?
The old lady stopped and looked at me suspiciously.
“Kati?” I repeated.
“Owwwww,” she sighed in a breathy voice.
Oh well. She looked honest enough. I crouched on the dirt floor. But what if she drugged me? There was a knock on the door, and a man in a military uniform stuck his head in. He wanted my passport. He wanted to know what the hell I was doing in Jiga-Jiga.
“Coffee,” I explained lamely. “I was told to come here to drink it.”
The soldier asked the old lady a question. She shook the bag of leaves.
“You are a very stupid white man,” he said angrily. “This is a restricted area—very dangerous! Please come with me.”
“But . . . she’s going to make some . . .” I could tell this plea was falling on deaf ears. “Of course, officer,” I said coyly. “May I buy you a cup of tea first?”
“Tea?” he asked.
“No, no. I mean kati.”
“What is that?”
I started to explain. “No. You must leave. This area is under military control.”
As he loaded me onto the next van leaving for Harrar, I flashed back to the time some Irish friends were thrown out of East Harlem by two New York cops, despite their protests that they were meeting friends.
“Don’t be stupid,” one of the cops said after they’d escorted my friends to the nearest subway station. “You’ll never have no friends here.”
“The German president is coming to visit Jiga-Jiga,” Abera said when I told him what had happened. “So they made you leave.”
But he had good news. He’d mentioned my quest to his girl-friend. It turned out her housemate knew how to brew kati, and she’d invited me over for a cup.
There are actually two types of coffee-leaf beverage. The first, and more common, is kati or kotea, a concoction made of roast-ed coffee leaves. The other is called amertassa, an earlier version of the drink made from fresh-picked green leaves that are left to dry in the shade for a few days and then brewed without roast-ing. The market lady from whom we bought our supplies could remember her grandmother drinking amertassa. Now it was almost extinct. She did, however, have a burlap bag full of kati, broad leaves with orange and green highlights.
Kati and amertassa are strong candidates for being the first cup of coffee, for while Ethiopians have been eating the beans since time immemorial, the first mention of a coffee beverage sug-gests it was brewed from the plants’ leaves. Kafta was its Arabic name. Some scholars claim it was brewed with leaves from the narcotic plant qat, yet in the early em>qahwa, a clear reference to coffee in a liquid form. So what were the Ethiopians drinking? Quite likely a brew made from coffee leaves: the semi-mythical Abyssinian Tea. Raw beans were added later in southern Yemen by the Sufi mystic al-Shadhili of Mocha or one of his disciples.
Whatever the case, kati is a lovely cuppa. Preparation is sim-ple: dried leaves are roasted on a flat pan until they acquire a dark, tarry texture, then crumbled and brewed over low heat with water, sugar, and a pinch of salt. Cooking time is about ten minutes. The resultant amber-colored liquor has a delicately caramelized, smoky flavor comparable to lapsang souchong (Chinese smoked tea) but more complex, both sweet and salty, with a sensuously gelatinous texture.
It proved an especially sympathetic combination with the qat leaves Abera had bought for us to chew. Qat is the evil sister to coffee and has addicted much of southern Arabia and East Africa (it has also recently developed a following in the West). The two drugs’ histories are so intertwined that one nickname for the patron saint of coffee drinkers, al-Shadhili of Mocha, is “the Father of Two em>qat and coffee. Qat is taken by chewing raw leaves and holding the pulp in the cheek until the juices are extracted. I’d first tried it years ago in Kenya and been unim-pressed, but the stuff Abera brought that day was electrifying, comparable to low-key Ecstasy. Ecstasy, however, produces a physical and emotional high, whereas quality qat—and Harrar is said to grow the finest—gives a more cerebral euphoria, plunging the chewer into a trance-like state that makes conver-sation a hypnotically sensual experience.
We spent the rest of the day lounging on the raised platform in Abera’s traditional Harrari home. Friends came to visit. More qat was chewed, more kati was brewed, and the afternoon soon lost itself in a qat haze, earnest but idle, where nothing matters so much as expression and understanding. The day was hot, but Abera’s clay house was cool and made comfortable with cush-ions. We talked about Rod Stewart, for whose haircut Abera confessed a great admiration. Later, during the more serious part of a qat session called Solomon’s Hour, the talk turned to witchcraft. I mentioned the Ethiopian Christian deacon who had claimed Muslims used coffee to lay curses on people. Abera had never heard of this. But here in Harrar, he said, some used it for magical healing.
“People come from many miles to Harrar to be healed by these people,” he said.
“Have you ever seen it done?” I asked.
“Once.” He shook his head. “I do not approve of these people.”
“What happened?” I asked. “Did you see the Zar?”
“You know about the Zar?”
“The priest in Addis told me. It’s a devil, right?”
“No, not exactly. It is the one that comes to the sheykah.” He asked his friend, who worked for a UN agency but spoke em>sheykah. He knows all these people.”
It turned out that a celebrated sheykah had just returned to Harrar after finishing four years of special training at Ethiopia’s holy Lake Wolla, He was now holding sessions in Harrar every Tuesday and Thursday. Today was Tuesday.
“Your friend knows these holy men?” I asked.
I hesitated. “Is it possible for a foreigner to go to a healing?”
“You wish to go?” Abera seemed surprised. “I don’t know . . .” He asked his friend another question. “He says he does not know. No foreigners go to these things. But he can ask.”
It took us the rest of the afternoon to locate the sheykah, only to be told that he was still asleep. It’s a holiday, said his groupies; best to come back later. With presents.
“Presents?” I asked.
“Yes, that is normal. It is a sign of respect.”
The plan became that Abera should go alone to buy the “respect” while I went back to the hotel. We’d meet again in the evening. But in the meantime I had to give him some money to buy the presents. I wondered if it was all a scam but produced the money anyhow.
“What are you going to get them?” I asked before handing it over.
“Green coffee beans,” he said. “That is what you always give. Two kilos should be enough. Don’t give them anything else! You’re only going to watch, not get healed.”