“The unspoken language of the Bedouin” is how our guide, Salaam, referred to the ritual of offering and serving coffee. Apparently, how a cup is poured — if it’s poured at all — and how it’s accepted can reveal happiness, anger, hurt, and can even answer a marriage proposal without the need for words. A serious insult can be delivered to a guest simply by serving them a cup with the left hand.
Wadi Rum, an area best known for its towering sandstone and granite mountains, which rise from the desert floor, has also been home to Bedouin tribes for centuries. While the dramatic landscape of Wadi Rum is, for many visitors, one of the highlights of a trip to Jordan, opportunities to experience a tiny slice (or cup) of Bedouin culture are increasingly being used to promote the area.
Explaining as she pours coffee beans into a mihbash (a large wooden pestle and mortar), Salaam tells us that in a traditional Bedouin home, hot coffee may be on the fire at any time of the day or night, ready to serve an unexpected arrival. A guest who arrives and finds cold coffee will consider the host poor, while a particularly generous host can be identified by the size of the mound of used coffee outside his home. The primary function of the mihbash is to grind the beans, but the grinding itself is often a signal to let neighbours know coffee is being prepared. “A bang on the side of the mihbash is the old Bedouin equivalent of a messaging service,” Salaam tells us. “It’s saying to the neighbours, ‘Come on over, the coffee is being prepared.’” A generous helping of cardamom is added and the brew is left to boil.
Even tribal disputes are settled over coffee. When there’s a problem that needs to be resolved, the sheikh will place a cup of coffee in front of his assembled community. The person who takes the cup takes on the responsibility of finding a solution to the issue. If he fails in his obligation, the shame that falls on him can last forever.
I leave the tent — the first of several we’re due to visit in the coming days — determined to stay on the right side of Bedouin coffee etiquette and avoid getting myself into trouble.
Follow Andy and Sam over the next two weeks as they travel around the Jordanian region of Aqaba, blogging and posting on social media as they go #NGTUKnomad