From One Coffee to Forty Years of Friendship
by Sean Monterastelli
More than just a simple drink, coffee holds an important symbolic presence in the making of Turkish social relations.
There’s a saying in Turkish: "Bir fincan acı kahvenin kırk yıl hatırı vardır." This means something like, "A bitter cup of coffee forms a bond lasting 40 years." But, like many Turkish sayings, the subtle nuances of the language are lost in any attempt at direct translation. A more complete meaning can only be conveyed through experience or story.
One such story is told by the Ottoman historian Resat Ekrem. Once, in a little coffee shop overlooking the Bosphorus, a Janissary captain announces that he will treat everyone present to a round of coffees. Noticing a solitary Greek man sitting in a corner, the captain amends his order to exclude the "infidel." As the coffee seller begins distributing the coffees, he makes up his mind to defy the captain’s will and treat the "infidel" to a coffee. The janissary captain takes notice and demands to know why his order has not been honored. The coffee seller explains that the coffee was not intended to be from him, the captain, but was an ikram or "one on the house"—an honor for any host and an excuse that no self-respecting Turk could ever argue with.
Fast forward a few years and the coffee seller has had the misfortune of being conscripted as a soldier and dispatched to the island of Samos to quell an uprising of the Greek population. He is captured and later brought to an auction where Turkish prisoners are sold as slaves to the highest bidder. When a fierce looking Greek man armed to the teeth pays five cents for his head, the coffee seller fears that his fate has been sealed and starts to contemplate what tortures await him. However, he is surprised when his buyer suddenly reveals himself to be that same infidel who sat in his shop by the Bosphorus so long ago. Before vowing to get him to safety, the Greek man reminds the Turkish coffee seller of how he had stuck his neck out for his sake and how that kind of honorable behavior should not go unrewarded.
The story illustrates how, more than just a simple drink, coffee holds an important symbolic presence in the making of Turkish social relations. The power of the bean is such that even the warring Turks and Greeks of old were amenable to reconciliation while under its influence.
Though it might be a stretch to expect the Turks of today to believe coffee capable of kindling friendships between sworn enemies, they still regard it as an important part of their social routine. An invitation to get a cup of coffee implies sitting down with two or more friends to have a long conversation and exchange the recent gossip. Though the same tradition might be said to apply to many cultures, Turks are quick to distinguish themselves from the rest.
Question: Imagine the aroma of Turkish Coffee; what comes to mind?
Response: A nice chat with friends. (A brief pause). Not like the powerwalking Americans, pounding double shot lattes on their way to the office for a long day of hostile takeovers!
To the Turk, especially one who has travelled abroad, the average Starbucks customer is more likely to arrive at a table with a laptop and a wireless headset than a friend. But walk into any Mehmet Effendi—probably the most famous of Istanbul’s traditional Turkish coffee shops—and you’ll find animated conversations at every table, old friends holding each other’s hands and beaming as if having been reunited after so many years. Step out and come back in a few hours and you are likely to find the same group of friends in the exact same position looking not the least bit bored or fatigued.
While Mehmet Effendi is the most famous cafe, it can be argued that a Turkish coffee is best enjoyed in the comfort of the home. As we saw in the story of the Greek and the coffee seller, the Ikram, or the complimentary offering, is no small matter in Turkey. Turkish people love to play the host, and while they may offer you a choice of beverage while you are visiting their home, they are probably expecting you to choose Turkish coffee. This is because the preparation of a coffee requires a bit more effort and is slightly more time consuming than the brewing of tea or the simple pouring of a juice into a glass. The extra bit of effort, in their view, goes a long way in demonstrating their commitment to the etiquette of hospitality.
If, god forbid, you were to decline the Ikram, the host would insist three times that you reconsider. Strangely, in this situation even the most reasonable of excuses are met with doubt or hesitation. Who, after all, wouldn’t want a nice hot beverage to drink? You may say that you’re not thirsty or that caffeinated beverages inflame your gout; the host would remain unconvinced. If by the third time you still refuse a drink, the host will try to resign his or herself to your will, but inwardly may still feel a little disappointed at having been denied the opportunity to serve a guest.
Of course there’s also the chance that your Turkish host may be skilled in the art of fortunetelling. Like diviners of candle wax in medieval Europe and the tea leaf readers of central China, Turks enjoy a long tradition of telling fortunes from the grounds of coffee. When the coffee has been finished, the cup is turned over. The remaining mud of wet grounds then slides down the sides of the vessel and collects in a pool on the saucer. The Falci, or fortuneteller, will then pick the cup up, spend some time ruminating on whatever shapes and figures emerge through the coffee residue remaining on the sides of the cup and begin considering the fate of the coffee drinker.
For the serious fortune aficionados, professional Falci offer their services for a fee, but for a fun way to pass the time, anyone can take a look at the grounds and make up a story. There is something of an unwritten manual that is simple enough for the amateur fortuneteller to follow. A road implies that a trip will be soon taken. A high-heeled shoe means a promotion is on the horizon. Inevitably, someone presiding over the overturned cup of a romantically inept friend will succeed in finding a heart shape and declare that true love is on the way.
In Turkey, there are as many different views on fortunetelling as there are interpretations of an up-turned coffee cup. Some Turks swear by the Falci as divine guidance to their problems—there’s even an app that allows you to send a picture of your coffee cup to a professional Falci who then sends you a text of your fortune. Friends will often use the coffee grounds as a pretense to counsel each other on their romantic or professional lives. The more conservative types, believing it unbecoming of mere mortals to try and divine the future, look down on coffee readings as a sacrilege against the all-knowing Allah. They may still enjoy drinking coffee, but would never dare engage in such mystical taboo.
One Turkish girl I interviewed said that she once had quite the gift for telling fortunes, but that eventually she had to stop doing it because too many of her predictions came true (she gave, as an example, the aunt of a friend who, during the coffee reading, was asked whether she had any health problems. Two weeks later she was diagnosed with cancer). Another girl swore that she would never go to the Falci again after five separate love affairs had each ended within weeks of the fortuneteller predicting they would go badly.
Although drinking a Turkish coffee is not exclusive to women, gathering for a fortunetelling session seems to have limited appeal to Turkish men. This is not to say that men don’t have their own games and rituals with coffee. In the Southeastern parts of Turkey, in towns near the Syrian border, an even stronger coffee called Mırra (the Arabic word for “bitter”) is drunk. Roasted until it resembles charcoal, boiled to a dense syrupy consistency, and often mixed with cardamom, locals of the region only advise a few sips to achieve the objective: to aid in the digestion of heavy meat dishes. During a big feast, a server boy may work especially hard to gain recognition by an Aga—in eastern rural areas, a wealthy landlord who is often responsible for employing or finding work for his kindred. If, at the end of the meal, the Aga finishes his entire cup of Mırra and sets it down on the table, it means that he’ll find the server boy a woman—usually one to marry.
One of the most heartwarming stories of coffee came from a colleague of mine. He had always hated the taste of coffee and so never drank it until his wife of two years told him one day that she was fed up with the lack of ritual in their lives. She then recalled for him her childhood memories of the enduring romance that existed between her two grandparents. They would wake up early together every Sunday morning, make coffee, drink it on the porch and talk to each other as though they still had many pressing matters to discuss, compliments to bestow, and limitless affection to show. My colleague was so touched by his wife’s vision of the two of them growing old together that he forced himself to get used to the taste and now toasts his wife every Sunday morning to their love, that it may prevail for forty years and more.