Tea, Coffee or what?

A debate through Munazara's

Americans simply cannot imagine a world without Starbucks and well, for that matter, a Tamilian cannot imagine life without his filter coffee, to start the day. But you should all know that before the medieval times, there was a happy and contended world without coffee. Slowly the new elixir permeated into the drinking habits of the middle easterners and soon became a world habit. But it created a furor whenever and wherever it was first introduced, being the subject of many debates and discussions, getting compared against all other popular drinks, alcoholic or nonalcoholic.

It is not just in South India that we have these long-drawn arguments and extended discussions on which one is a better beverage, Coffee or Tea. Well, these were common in the Middle East too and while out there, they bring in other drinks into the discussion at times, the Qat (Khat) leaf which is chewed (or drunk as a kind of tea) as a stimulant, and sometimes, wine.

In Tamil Nadu, coffee habits got segregated on religious lines, with Brahmins popularizing coffee and the Muslims habituated to tea according to Chalapathy’s research. In Kerala tea is perhaps a bit more popular, while in Karnataka, coffee is. We have already discussed this at length in previous articles. However, I have not told you about the impact of this kind of an argument in the Middle Eastern literary circles, over time. Arabian and Hebrew poetry are testament to the fun ways used to bring out arguments over which is better. Let’s take a look.

In Middle Eastern literature, we find a special genre of debate poems called the Munazara. First seen during the 9th Century at Baghdad as a debate between Spring and Autumn, it became a popular genre thenceforth. It was quite popular during the medieval times, and one can still see such poems popping up, albeit rarely these days. Some of the most interesting ones studied by scholars cover diverse topics such as the difference between and Arab and a Persian (Asadi Tusi - 11th Century), coffee and Qat (Yemeni Jewish), various types of wines (Abu Nuwas), Coffee and tea (Persian Gulf-Bahraini), Coffee and Wine (Turkish), Night and day, painting and poetry, and many other interesting conundrums. In almost all these poems, the narrative or story comes to life through the dialogue between two main characters, in which the poet or other third or fourth parties join in. Sometimes obscure topics such as a debate between a ship’s captain and a ship’s rat, the poet and a worn-out overcoat etc. turn up in these collections.

It is a jolly discourse, at times occurring after the debaters or the arbitrator have indulged in some form of intoxication, who then go on to argue in a lighter vein on subjects which present no real merit when the parties are perfectly sober. We will look at a couple of these interesting debates starting with the Yemeni poet’s Hebrew Munazara between Coffee and Qat. Salom Al Sabazi was apparently the first Yemeni-Jewish poet to write in this genre. Dating back to the 17th century, the debate poem covers the merits and demerits of drinking one or the other. While Coffee, noting that Arabic coffee is usually drunk black, is familiar to our readers, Qat or Khat may not be. Very popular in Yemen, it is a leaf that is chewed, distilled as a tea or smoked. At one time, Jews were very fond of it until a Rabbi ruled in the 19th century that it is prohibited, and thus came about the maxim - qāt is the pleasure of the Muslims and grapes (wine or arrack) is the pleasure of the Jew.

Now Qat was ruling supreme in Yemen, till it was discovered around the 15th century. According to Yemeni tradition, Alī ibn Amr al-Sadilī, the patron saint of Mocha (d. 1418), discovered coffee and distributed it all over the country, and coffee was sometimes known as Sadiliya. Other Yemenis believe it came with Sufi saints, and the name Ahmad ibn Alwān of the 13th century is often mentioned.

The discussion or friendly debate is supposed to have taken place between knowledgeable people, and I will quote the major excerpt from the translation provided by Yosef Tobi, acknowledged with thanks.

Qāt said: There is no pleasure like mine, all desire my branch, as I dwell humble in the garden. So many youths desire me, the lucky one shall delight in my branch, The famous, the graces of the pleasant.  The fātihah was composed for me and the dikr and the oath for God.

Coffee answered him eloquently: My star has risen before yours, While I am served in cups, as a fine beverage every morning, Often the generous and the bountiful Come close to me, proximate, He who tastes me will be grateful and bless, And the fātihah is the best verse

Qāt said: My name is renowned, among people of pleasure it is known, I have a garb and appearance sounder than yours, My Sheik Radwān diffuses fragrance, and so al-Ahdar is my celebrated Sheik. In the day of delight and rejoicing, my turn at noon will happen, and I shall entertain of an evening with people of grace

Coffee answered him: Hold! I have a recognized Sheik like yours Al-Sadilī is my esteemed Sheik, the luminosity of the mosques and the retreats My pleasure never ends He who tastes me stopped there Every time my pleasure is served And I am content in the place of nobility

Qāt said: Cease rebuking Excess anxiety is not needed, I have a contract, I have a binding pact, One and all wish for my banquet How many gatherings I have, I am related to every matter, (Mount) Sabur said: My branch has increased If mind is turned to it, and much more

Coffee answered him: Hasten, comprehend my words and listen, my statement is a lesson for the body He who has delighted in my bliss is content, I have collected all four humours from the Excellent Doctor (God). The yellow bile and the blood, the black bile and the phlegm, No one shall see any pain from me

Qāt said: My pleasure excels I am recognized everywhere.

(Now) Tobacco came to give evidence against Qāt, He told him: Why you are stubborn? The Devil, your Sheik, has not come. Who trusted you and let you come to town Ibn al-MuΜayyad has shouted at you And let you be burned in al-Amad. Tobacco turned away and spoke no more

Requesting the judgment of the adherents of al-Sadilī, Wine enters eagerly - He says: Why you are in a quarrel? All is right and has good life, you have got payment in advance, you have been forcibly taken by God’s Will, your pleasures suit each other, On the day of happiness we shall all assemble, we shall dispel worry and sorrow….

And thus, the quarrel between qāt and coffee ends with the intervention of wine, making peace between the two parties.

Now while Wine is the peacemaker between Coffee in Qat in Yemen, it was the protagonist in Istanbul. The rapid increase in coffeehouses and coffee consumption in the 19th century caused discussions about whether coffee is permissible among the ulema. In fact, from time to time, drinking coffee and running a coffee house were prohibited. Coffee, which is frequently discussed in daily life, has been handled in different ways in the poetry which is connected with social life; wine has been compared with coffee. Kahve vü Bâde by Nagzi is an original work written during the period when serious discussions about coffee and wine were made between the ulema, on the power front and in the literary environment.

Now we come to a more recent Bahrini Munazara attributed to one Abdallah Huseyin Al-Qari of Manama and dated to the 1930-1950. So, we drift off to Manama, the capital of Bahrain, a period during the death throes of pearl fishing and the oil boom in the Gulf, on a balmy Thursday evening. It is weekend time, and the author is lying in bed and ruminating about the vagaries of life. Nearby him, the coffee pot is steaming and the tea kettle bubbling away. He is suddenly accosted by the male tea and the female coffee characters, who request him to judge a dispute between them.

Coffee, the lady starts first, accusing tea to be Persian in origin, an unwelcome guest and tyrannical in stature. She mentions that tea is always strutting about with his polished spoons, Japanese crockery and ceramic kettles. Coffee then claims to be the social counterpart of men while tea is slyly sipped by women within their harems. Tea is not happy of course, and retaliates by stating that coffee is as dark as a Malabar slave girl, and bitter in taste compared to tea’s robust healthy red color, delightful fragrance and a taste sweetened by sugar. Not only that, he soothes away men’s pains, helps him relax from work and stress, and is not only a drink which can waken men, but also put them to sleep.

Tea continues with the comments that coffee is for the uncivilized, wild men whereas tea is for civilized urban men, but hearing that Coffee refuses to back down and states that tea not only corrupts youth, it also leads to drinking of alcohol!

Soon the argument heats up and a slanging match ensues. The two now become combatant, with coffee mobilizing her army of cups, coffee pots, roasters and spoons to attack tea. Tea has no choice but to flee and seek the poet’s protection, which he gets. The poet calms them down, and brings about a reconciliation and marriage between the two who kiss, make up and pledge their loyalty to him.
Interestingly in the debate, the coffee pot is the Malabar lass and the tea kettle a heinous Persian. 

With many thanks to Clive Holes the translator, lets meet the gladiators.

Coffee starts - Sir would you please judge between us, between me and this tyrant so heinous, I mean this offspring of the Persian, a guest for whom all feel aversion, his vaunts and his boasts sting like nettles, his bright polished spoons and hot kettles, his saucers and Japanese crockery, and his red samovar – it is a mockery! HE doesn’t know me or my color, how burnt in the pan I turn duller, or when in the mortar they pound me, the Bedu (bedoins) rush in to surround me, my sitting room is furnished with carpets, where, patiently, each on the floor sits, they sniff me- their senses I’ve captured.  They drink but one cup, they are enraptured. But tea, into houses they slip him, so hidden veiled ladies can sip him, unauthorized men are forbidden, lest they espy what must stay hidden. With me though, there is always welcome, for all come they oft, come they seldom, if strangers drop in, they are permitted, nay! Honored, by all that’s admitted.

Tea retorts and turns to address coffee- He has fired himself upto full pressure, "D'you hear all her nonsense?" he spluttered, "Let me speak, that'll all be rebutted!"

The poet, I said "Go ahead then, speak freely, Don't be anxious, my friend, 'cos I really To you will be kind, sensitivities mind, For anger is Satan s work, merely!"

Said tea to coffee – Oh! You burnt one, all blackened and crushed, your good looks gone, You’re a slave-girl who hasn't been freed yet, A skivvy the Bedu still need, yet How come you 're so proud and so haughty? Loquacity’s truly your forte! Yellow one, shall I list your disasters, One by one to your Bedouin masters? You dullard! Your real name is coffee, To all who imbibe, catastrophe! A fruit you are not, nor a savor, Nor relief for the tired from their labor. But me, I give all relaxation, I'm a balm, soothing wounds and vexation, I entertain in every forum, they drink me with cheer and decorum, for pain I'm a cure you can measure, When fed up, I offer you pleasure. I banish the sleepy-heads sleep, the sleepless, I make him count sheep, your miseries cannot be numbered, who drinks you by ill-luck's encumbered, in you there's no profit or use, who drinks your drink, you cook his goose! 

But my crocks are fine, oriental, you’ve seen that - and these points essential – All love me, and love with abandon I strut like a mighty panjandrum. To make you, though, what a performance! The roasting pan first: prime importance! You 're pounded to bits in a mortar, Burnt brown like an Indians daughter. Your darkness disgusts, there’s no question, But rubicund, that's my complexion. My sweet taste, all praise and all hallow, You 're acrid, and bitter as aloe, I'm sweet, oh, so sweet! sugar candy! My ambergris fragrance is dandy, My red hue quite wins beauty's laurel, I shine like agate, or sea-coral. My folk are well-mannered and civil, But yours mostly wild like the devil. Oh! bane of the Arabs, no vain glory! You 're the dregs in your cup! End of story!

Coffee retorts - "Just pipe down! You are misguided, you are calves piss, by all men derided! For washing up you are upto scratch, but the black girl, and you? It's no match! With me, you in no way compare, but you meddlesome fool, still you tut tut. You are a Persian dressed up, just a cheap fake, Best keep that tongue still for your health’s sake, you slander me, claim I am a slave, when really it is you that is my knave. My virtues too many to list, may name is one everyone’s lips, while your name, you bird brain, is tea, time waster to all, unlike me! You are only raised up through my rank, for your name, it is me you must thank, I will make my point clear as I can, when someone bumps into a man, and wants to invite him straightaway, what words pritheetea, does he say?

With feeling he says "Come with me, Let's go home, dear friend, drink coffee! He doesn't say "Fancy some tea? You wrecker of youth’s probity! Through you many a young man's gone bad, Who once was a nice friendly lad, They even drink alcohol too, That's Satan's work - all 'cos of you! They’ve even erected tea houses in which our youth sit and carouses, they tipsily drink in a haze, because of you youth disobeys! Now come and see our funeral houses, that’s where bully, I wear the trousers.! Each man, wherever from who drops in there, to pour him a cup, we take great care. And look at our elders' posh guest-rooms With rich rugs and drapes they're all festooned, all puffed up, tea made as to speak then,

Said coffee "Clear off, treacherous heathen! Be quiet, don’t boast, the world may rise up, one huge host! I've soldiers, of that you 're aware, Whom I'll deploy now on the square!"

Said tea "Hmm ... That sounds like a warning, Your threats don’t scare me, ( said he yawning). You don't know that I'm in fine fettle, Oh brown-skinned one, roast on hot metal!"

At that coffee flared up and shouted, Her dregs all spilt out as she spouted, "Rally round all my cups, coffee pots! And the copper one, biggest I've got! The roasting pan too! Where's the ladle? He's won every fight since the cradle! I want to teach this headstrong fool, This despot’s son, despot so cruel, A lesson! Where's pestle, where's mortar? Where's the muffler and his supporter? To stirring-rod war's like a sport, Come gather round now, all report!"

They shouted back "Ma'am! Present all! We're servants at your beck and call, Who was it who dared challenge you? Oh grandest of dames, tell us do!"

She said: See this wretch! See this rogue here? He claims that to me he's superior! He needs to be brought down to earth, And have his nose rubbed in the dirt! I’ll smash all his cups and his crocks, And all of his porcelain stocks, Every samovar glass, and his kettle, His Japanese plates, too, I'll settle!"

When tea saw her army was huge, He hid, and from me begged refuge, And, swearing by God, he implored: "Send them back, pale or black, coffee's horde! From mortar protect little tea. The pestle's attack might smash me! And don't let pan strike as he could! If looks could kill, roasting pan’s would!

I called out – Don’t fear the ability, of coffee dear friend, of nobility, to harm you, majestic perfection, you have got this king’s royal protection!

Peace and marriage

I turned to her, joy on my face, Dusky maid, you of Malabar race, what is it that caused your reaction, why have you sent your troops into action, it is unpleasant, shame unprecedented, oh! Musky one, fragrant and scented, don’t let this strange man aggravate you, he is teasing, just trying to bait you, I’s like to wed you to this man though! Make you his, him yours, that’s my plan, so, don’t fight one another for ever, please come and make peace, be together!

Said she, Noble sir, I’ll obey you, god give you long life, And I pray too, that you’ll be content all your life, and we will serve you without strife,

So, acting on their joint concern, and sipping them both, each in turn, I wed them with them for refreshment, they made peace, I feel contentment, for me you see, love is a real mess, the newly weds laughed fit to bust! They kissed on my lips, the two mingled at the touch of each other they tingled!!!

I could not help but laugh reading the last section. Well, as you can see that my friends, may have been the story behind Chappi’s discovery – as they call it in Kerala - Chaya + Kappi = Chappi. By the way, there is indeed a drink called coffee-leaf tea, brewed from coffee leaves!!

As you saw, these poems exhibit a bit of ridicule and at times, subtle racism or anti-immigrant postures. Coffee calls Tobacco as an Omani vagrant while tea is an unwelcome guest from Iran, whereas tea describes coffee to be an enslaved black female. Tobacco on the other hand terms coffee to be 'a Singapore slut or a Malabar tart'!!

But the overall intent of course is to entertain the reader with a minor moral overtone.

Sālôm (Sālim) al-Sabazī’s (seventeenth-century) poem of the debate between coffee and qāt - Yosef Tobi
The rat and the Shtp's captain - Clive Holes, University of Cambridge
The Bodleian manuscript of Asadī Tūsī's Munāẓara between an Arab and a Persian: its place in the transition from ancient debate to classical panegyric - Firuza Abdullaeva

Translations quoted with permission from the authors/publisher, see below

Coffee – Tea poem - Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Language And Literature, By J R Smart, p.p 302-310, Chapter 20, The Dispute of Coffee and Tea, A Debate-poem from The Gulf - Clive Holes, University of Cambridge, Pub Curzon Press

Coffee – Qat poem - Sālôm (Sālim) al-Sabazī’s (seventeenth-century) poem of the debate between coffee and qāt - Yosef Tobi - Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 38 (2008): 301–310, Pub Archaeopress


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