Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In an Ethiopian home

We doff our shoes and enter the one-room Harari house. My guide, Sisay, has invited me to the family home of his girlfriend for coffee, Ethiopian style. Ethiopia is the home of coffee, and the traditional way it is served throughout the country is dubbed a ceremony, such is its deep infusion in the culture.

Sisay's pretty girlfriend welcomes me at the door. As soon as I enter, however, I am floored by her sister. She is stunning: a handsome woman in her forties with orange-painted nails against dark chocolate skin and dyed henna corn-braids. She wears a full-length yellow and black deria, the light cotton traditional dress of the Harari women, and bronze, silver and metallic blue peacock feather earrings. My inner photographer wants to expel everyone else from the room, including her husband, and do a complete shoot just with her.

I regain my senses in time to collapse onto the floor. The protocol of making oneself at home in Harar is to stretch out on a rug and prop oneself on one arm on a pile of cushions. I do as I am told.

Sisay's girlfriend prepares the coffee. She rinses some pale green coffee beans, locally-grown and organic, and tosses them onto a tin charcoal stove to roast. With what looks like a small woven basket lid she fans the glowing coals with one hand, then shifts some of them to a bowl-shaped burner and sprinkles incense over them, disseminating the smoke with a little tin can-like chimney. Sisay plucks and passes me a handful of chat leaves.

Chat, or khat, is a controlled substance in many countries but is legal in Ethiopia. It is a plant with an amphetamine-like stimulant that produces a mild euphoria when chewed and makes one more talkative. It also purportedly aids digestion.

Chat has been a social ingredient in the horn of Africa for centuries. The World Health Organisation considers it a drug of psychological dependency – though less so, and less harmful, than tobacco, marijuana or alcohol – and the bustle in the local chat markets from first thing in the morning appears to confirm this. Still, it seems the worst that can be said of chat, apart from the inelegant clamour for it, is that it competes as a crop with coffee and staples such as sorghum and millet, and farmers are switching to the more water-intensive crop because they can make a greater profit exporting it to countries like Yemen.

Sisay gives me a handful of peanuts with the chat. The peanuts help to grind the leaves and mask the slight bitterness. I pack the mix into my cheek and chew as the coffee beans, now fragrantly roasted to a dark brown, are scraped off the stove into a mortar and pounded with a pestle. Our young host places an earthen coffee pot, called a jebenna, onto the stove, pours the ground beans in with a cupped hand, and tops the pot up with water. Everyone else indulges in the chat. I still don't notice any effect so work through a second, and then a third, handful.

Yet another beautiful girl enters. What is going on? She is the neighbour, come to join us for coffee. She lounges on some cushions on the opposite side of the room. Drugs, incense, beautiful women... I think I'm enjoying this.

Sisay packs a shisha bowl with apple tobacco and passes me the snaking pipe. Shishas, or hookahs, the glass water pipes for smoking tobacco, are actually banned in Ethiopia, but the ancient historical trading junction of Harar has gained semi-autonomy in recognition of its cultural identity, and the local administration allows shishas as a cultural Muslim practice. Which I'm happy about. I love it. The smoke is sweet and smooth, inducing not the slightest inclination to cough, with a flavour reminiscent of anise that slightly numbs the tongue.

The aroma from the coffee as it is poured into small cups is not bold or harsh but gentle, the subtlety best appreciated from the lip of the cup. I sip. It is smooth, and velvety like dark chocolate. The consistency is more akin to cocoa, as the finely pulverised grounds are part of the brew, than to a filtered espresso. It is served with or without sugar, and if sugar is taken it may be stirred or not. I opt for sugar unstirred, which allows a layer to develop in the bottom of the cup and each sip to get progressively sweeter.

Smoke from the charcoal, incense and tobacco fills the air. The home is warm and cosy. I start to feel mildly relaxed and happy from the chat, though I continue to chew as the effect seems short-lived. This might account for why the Harari chew chat steadily for hours. In any case, part of the effect is that it stimulates chewing, as I was to discover hours afterwards when I was still, to my annoyance, working my tongue uncontrollably.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony consists of three servings: the first is called abul, the second tona, and the third is berakha. Typically the grounds in the bottom of the pot are not replenished, so the third serving is the weakest. It is usually for children. Sisay fires up another shisha, which I eagerly await. Videos of traditional music play on the Ethiopian equivalent of MTV as we all lounge and sip our way through the coffee ceremony.

To finish we have ashara, a tea made from the roasted husks of the coffee beans. This is not part of the ceremony, but simply a nice treat. It is unexpectedly delicious, and florally aromatic in a familiar way that infuriates me until I finally pinpoint what it reminds me of: jasmine.
I am drunk with stimulants. Coffee. Ashara. Tobacco. And a countless amount of chat. I think I've had too much. I feel a bit anxious as we get up to leave. Ethiopians are not big on long goodbyes, so I thank them, take a last appreciative look at my beautiful hosts, and disappear unceremoniously out the door.

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