Coffee is one of the world’s most popular drinks, due in no small part to the spread and influence of the Arab Culture from the Arabian Peninsula.
While the coffee bean has its origin in Ethiopia, it was in Yemen, a country on the southern rim of the Arabian Peninsula, where the roasted Ethiopian coffee beans were first brewed in the 11th century.
The introduction of coffee to the Arab World was not without controversy. Many Muslims feared that the mood- (and even mind-) altering effect of the brew violated Quranic proscriptions against ingesting such substances. Some religious leaders even banned coffee for this reason.
But this an uphill battle. By the time that leaders had gotten around to trying to ban coffee, it was already ingrained in society. Coffee houses had cropped up and become the focal point for local communities and neighborhoods. As importantly, people loved to drink it!
As Islam and Arab Culture spread out from the Peninsula and around the Mediterranean, coffee went with it. The Arabs, however, worked hard to maintain their profitable monopoly on coffee.
Legend has it that Arab traders made sure that the beans exported from the Peninsula were infertile, forcing Europeans and others to depend on the traders for their supply of coffee.
In the 1600s, however, that monopoly apparently ended when an Indian smuggler taped some fertile coffee seeds to his stomach, ending Arabia’s exclusive control over the trade.
Today, ironically, most coffee consumed in the Arab World is from countries outside of the region.
Tea in the Arab World
Tea is not drunk nearly as widely in Arab countries as is coffee. Nevertheless, it is very popular in the western parts of the region.
Tea, in fact, has something of shady relationship with the Magreb. The countries of this part of the Arab World – Tunisia, Algeria, and especially Morocco – were all once colonized by France.
The colonial French governments, like all colonial governments, were very interested in finding large revenue sources both to fund and to justify their rule over the Arabs. Particularly in Morocco, the French found that source in the now famous mint tea enjoyed by virtually all Moroccans.
Although mint tea is strongly associated with Morocco today, none of the three main ingredients of the beverage are indigenous to the country. The green tea was imported from China, the mint from Europe, and the sugar from the West Indies.
French traders made their fortunes supplying Morocco with these ingredients, and the government wasted no time in taking its cut in the form of very high import duties.
Some commentators have even compared the mint tea trade in Morocco to the opium trade in China – in both cases the crops were in very high demand, very profitable, and controlled exclusively by foreigners. More importantly, in both cases the substances were used to control and exploit local populations.
Of course that comparison cannot really be taken too far, since tea is hardly addictive and does not create the wasting and misery caused by opium.