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Caffeine, the Middle East and why Coffee Can Make You Live Longer

Above: An Arab coffee shop. Credit: SDASM via Flickr.

How do you take your coffee? Maybe you enjoy a double shot of espresso topped up with a splash of almond milk? Or perhaps you start your day with a venti to-go cup of Americano? Or are you the sort of person who can’t function unless you drink so many mugs of instant that you feel like you’re gonna have a heart attack?

However you take your coffee (except maybe that last one), we’ve got good news for you. According to a recent study, drinking three or more cups of coffee a day can cut the risk of dying early by between 8% and 18%. The research took place across two separate studies, both of which lasted for 16 years and involved over 150,000 participants each.

However, the study didn’t confirm if the health benefits were down to the brew itself or the lifestyle of the participant. As Marc Gunter, a co-author of one of the studies said, ‘I wouldn’t recommend people start rushing out drinking lots of coffee, but I think what it does suggests is drinking coffee certainly does you no harm.’

Along with perking up all of the coffee drinkers reading, we wanted to share this news as a snappy lead into what this article is mainly about. Arabic coffee! While we’re not sure if coffee drinkers in the Middle East live longer, we’re assuming the black stuff hasn’t done them much harm – seeing as the Arab world has been drinking it since around the 1400s.

A coffee shop in Egypt, 1900. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The very modern practice of sipping fresh brews in cafes with family, friends or associates has been around in the Middle East since (several hundreds of years) before it was cool. After hearing that coffee can apparently add years to your life – or at least not kill you prematurely – we wanted to explore the Arab world’s relationship with the drink a little further.

Recorded knowledge of coffee in the region dates back to the 15th Century. According to De l’origine et du progrès du café (1836), a French translation of an ancient Arabic manuscript on coffee’s history, the bean grew throughout the Middle East and the Levant during the 1500s. It was consumed in a number of ways and even banned at points due to its stimulating effects.

As the decades passed, coffee became a crucial part of Arab life. It would accompany a family gathering, fuel political and business discussions, and be served at religious events. It is an enduring display of hospitality, and the ceremony surrounding the drink has continued to this day. For example, it is often sipped at iftars to break the fast during Ramadan.

Unlike the XL mocha frappuccino skinny soy lattes (with cream) you can buy in the US and UK, Arabic coffee has always been far more traditional. It’s usually served in small glasses and it is noticeably bitter, with much of the flavour coming from the cardamon it’s infused with. While methods of preparation differ from country to country, most coffee in the Arab world is boiled in a Dallah, a bulbous pot with a thin spout, and poured, unfiltered, into tiny demitasse cups.

A man sits in front of a whole shelf-load of Dallahs. Credit: Peter Dowley via Flickr.

This ritualised approach to brewing up easily translated to a more structured setting, and coffeehouses soon sprung up in places like Egypt and the Levant. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, these proto-cafes became places for people (but primarily men) to socialise, smoke shisha and right the world’s wrongs over bitter sips of coffee.

This environment undoubtedly evolved and aligned with the habits of other cultures, so it’s not a stretch to give a nod to the Arab world for the existence of coffee shops on the streets of the UK. That probably doesn’t mean we can blame them for all the Starbucks though.

Now there’s only one more question to ask: Will the news that coffee can cut the risk of dying early increase its popularity? Well, people in the UK might be less hesitant to have that second espresso at 4pm.

But for Middle Eastern cultures that have been drinking it for 500 odd years, it probably won’t make much of a difference to sales.

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