An A-Z guide for a cup of coffee in Gaza

An A-Z guidebook for a cup of coffee in Gaza
6 min read
12 July, 2023

In Palestinian households, coffee is an everyday necessity with a long, rich, history rooted in a collective heritage.

From the traditional preparation and serving to the complexities of manufacturing and importation, Palestinian society and coffee have shared a connection through the generations.

More than a drink, coffee embodies togetherness during uncertain times, as a symbol of unity of a fragmented nation through seven decades of Israeli settler colonialism.

"According to the Ministry of National Economy, 6-7 tonnes of coffee are consumed in Gaza every day by the enclave's 2.3 million residents"

Historically in Palestine, coffee was an abundant and economically-centred part of life. The coffee industry in Palestine is known to trace back to before the Nakba in 1948, with local factories and businesses growing the beans and exporting products, when merchants enjoyed unrestricted mobility to cultivate, export, and import their coffee produce.

The connection between coffee and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip predates that, having unearthed tools for grinding coffee beans back to the Ottoman era. While the tools may have been lost, the traditions and methods continued through the generations.

Moving into more modern times, the coffee industry in Gaza played a role in influencing local microeconomics and throughout Palestine before the besiegement in 2006. The Israeli-imposed blockade severely crippled the industry, slowing exportations of local produce, like coffee, and imposing extreme restrictions on everyday items.

An essential A-Z guidebook for a cup of coffee in Gaza
Both traditional Arabic coffee and more modern forms of brewing are an everyday staple in the Palestinian diet [Getty Images]

Today, Palestinian merchants and coffeehouses in Gaza find themselves navigating a complex landscape shaped by political, economic, and military dynamics.

According to the Ministry of National Economy, 6-7 tonnes of coffee are consumed in Gaza every day by the enclave's 2.3 million residents and importing goods to Gaza is meticulously regulated and limited because of Israel’s blockade and the closure of all crossings.

To import goods is a constant struggle, with restrictions on Palestinians’ rights to free trade and travel– whether leaving and entering Gaza, travelling in Palestine, or internationally.

When shipments are held or rejected by Israeli authorities, rarely are merchants provided reasons as to why they can’t move their shipments, highlighting the level of control exerted over every aspect of the business.

The realities of importing coffee and products into Gaza are reflected in the prices. “Under the current airtight restrictions imposed on the trade possibilities of coffee and its business owners, coffee prices are soaring," says Abdallah Alsafady, a Palestinian coffee merchant and manager at Ristretto, a local cafe in Gaza City.

“To make the tough reality even worse, the Israeli ban policy is draconian. Israel often bans sugar as well. Sugar has become now among the hard-to-import products into Gaza, partly because of the war in Europe, but these policies predate the war long ahead,” says Abdallah.

Essential everyday items like sugar, spices such as cardamom, salt, tea, chocolate, various types of beans, and sugar — ingredients that often accompany a cup of coffee — have been included in the banned list before.

The list of commerce and goods that are permitted or banned entry into the Gaza Strip changes often and without reason. Between 2007 to 2010, Israel controlled the food imports into Gaza down to the calorie, allowing only the bare minimum to avoid malnutrition. When a cup of coffee does manage to reach the tables in the Gaza Strip, it will have been through numerous checkpoints to even get there.

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Still, the art of coffee-making in Gaza encompasses a rich array of traditions, ranging from a diversity of methods to both traditional and contemporary approaches.

For generations in Palestine, making coffee has been a manual process deeply ingrained in the culture.

In historic locations like the al-Zawiya Market, which dates back to the 1970s and resides in the heart of Gaza's Old City, guests will see coffee being traditionally roasted and prepared before their eyes.

In rural areas across the Gaza Strip, this practice continues, with hosts keeping the fire burning and the pot hot for as long as the guest remains.

Within the Palestinian community, there remains a strong preference for the authentic Palestinian style known as “Qahweh Arbayye” or Arabic Coffee.

The timeless method of preparing Arabic coffee, as also described by Asmaa al-Ghoul exemplifies the authentic craftsmanship and attention to detail that characterises Palestinian coffee culture.

"From rich history and tradition to the everyday uncertainty and struggle of life in Gaza, coffee has acted as a symbol of something greater than life in Gaza under Israeli apartheid"

The preparation process begins with a long metal frying pan known as "al-mahmas", filled with green coffee beans, and placed over a wooden stove.

The pan is carefully moved around for approximately 10 minutes until the beans undergo a beautiful transformation: turning dark in colour and releasing their aromatic essence.

The roasted beans are then gently transferred into a large clay pot, where they are ground using a wooden crank called “al-houn”. As the beans are prepared, a generous handful of cardamom seeds is added to the pot.

Cultural hubs and coffee shops in Gaza serve as vibrant spaces for social engagement and interaction, fostering a sense of community and pride in Gaza's rich coffee heritage and offering an atmosphere where people can gather, relax, study, read, work, and write.

The menus reflect local traditions, cultural connections and some Western-style items. While some cafes in Gaza have started adopting mechanical methods for roasting and grinding coffee, there are still visitors who appreciate the traditional practice of hand-roasting the beans.

The cultural significance of coffee in Palestine and the region is strong, with beloved writers like Mahmoud Darwish describing coffee in his poetry: “Conquerors can do anything. They can aim the sea, sky, and earth at me, but they cannot root the aroma of coffee out of me”.

These words resonate with the Arab world, underscoring the people’s deep-rooted connection to coffee, holding a place in the Arab identity, both culturally and socially. Even during the most difficult of times, coffee serves as a refreshing reminder of compassion and a powerful symbol of comfort and resilience.

In Gaza, coffee is a social event, intrinsically tied to nearly all occasions. During moments of celebration, like weddings, a large cup of coffee is served alongside sweets. One particularly popular dessert in Palestine to accompany the coffee is the renowned “Knafeh Nabulseyeh”, named after the Palestinian city of Nablus.

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In times of sorrow, a small cup of strong, black coffee is served. However, in Palestinian culture, it is traditionally frowned upon to drink sweetened or milk-infused coffee during funerals. On almost all occasions, coffee is also accompanied by a cigarette.

From rich history and tradition to the everyday uncertainty and struggle of life in Gaza, coffee has acted as a symbol of something greater than life in Gaza under Israeli apartheid.

It represents belonging, heritage and culture in Palestine, but also a reminder of the restrictions and limitations imposed on Palestinians by Israel. Still, for now, the joy of a simple cup of coffee will be accompanied by a collective yearning for a free future.

Mohammed R. Mhawish, a Palestinian award-winning multimedia journalist from Gaza City, is a freelance writer and researcher, and a guest author of the book 'A Land With A People'

Follow him on Twitter: @MohammRafik