The Timkat Coffee Club
It was twilight on the evening of the holiest of days: Timkat, “Epiphany,” in the small and ancient city of Gondar, tucked away amongst the mountains and plateaus of North Western Ethiopia. In the small neighborhood of dirt roads, small stone houses, and tiny tin kiosks, light bulbs were glowing dimly, children were playing their last games of the day outside in the street, and the sounds of chatter and laughter were coming from inside the small homes. I was squeezed into Birhanie’s tiny hut with my female neighbors, celebrating the remains of this important day.
I had seen Birhanie many times, washing her clothes in a large tin bowl outside her hut, drying chillies in the sun on the street, passing the time with the other neighborhood women. She was round, “wofram” as the Ethiopians politely call it without a hint of an insult—cheerful and motherly, always waving at me from a distance and letting out a friendly, throaty chuckle at the Farenji, the foreigner, in her midst. She lived alone, but I knew that she had grown up children far away in Israel. She missed them and occasionally they would phone a neighbor’s telephone and one of the children would be told to run and find Birhanie. She would come rushing in, breathless and anxious to hear that they were well. This was the first time I’d been inside her home and as I sat amongst the others, I watched her slap her knees and throw her head back in amusement at the novelty of my presence.
The evening and the atmosphere in the hut were warm. I was tired but content having risen before dawn that morning and processed with the faithful, tourists and partygoers alike to the ancient bath house of the seventeenth century Emperor Fasiledes. Holding a lighted taper in my hand, at one with the sea of white lights that filled the walled enclosure, I’d listened to the low hypnotic chanting of the priests at prayer. As dawn broke and the atmosphere lightened, I’d watched as the believers surged forward to jump into the green water of the baths. The sacred was over for the day, and the secular beginning to take its place. Family photographs were taken on the red carpets and young men threw lemons at their girlfriends in declarations of love and proposals of marriage. No lemons had been thrown at me but I’d been happy to pose with Ethiopians for their family portraits.
As the tourists returned to their hotels, preparing to move on to their next destination the following day, I wandered home, tired and ready for bed. It was not to be. “Buna, buna” my neighbours called from their vantage point across the narrow dirt road from the gates of my home, beckoning me in for coffee. Momentarily torn between the peace and quiet of my house and the noise and vibrancy of a local coffee ceremony, I accepted.
I was still dressed in the traditional Habesha dress that I had put on that morning in an effort to belong somehow to the celebrations. The others were wearing their everyday clothes—an assortment of long colorful fabrics and non-matching T-shirts and skirts. I guessed that, unlike me, they’d spent the day brushing their homes, preparing the spicy celebration dish ‘Doro Wat’, and receiving their guests, working as usual. Long and white with a brightly coloured hand stitched trim, woven through with gold thread, I was aware that the dress made me look slightly ridiculous. Too pale, and lacking the heavy traditional jewellery worn on such occasions, I was a mere shadow of the beautiful locals in their finery. None of us cared. I felt a rare moment of acceptance and my neighbors were delighted with their Habesha Farenji.
The room in which we were sitting was the only one in the tiny hut on the corner of the street. A small bed was screened off by curtains and we’d all squeezed into chairs near the front door: six of us and a young baby. Three months earlier, I had named the baby Yonas, having found myself in another crowded home on the evening of his birth, facing a room of friends and neighbours chanting “Sim, Sim, Sim” as I entered, encouraging me to give the boy his name.
As Yonas slept, my neighbours chattered noisily, swinging between loud laughter and more somber moments. “Ba ounet?,” “Really?” they asked in high pitched voices, marveling at the latest piece of neighborhood gossip. “Ayzosh” they consoled, using the word of comfort for every occasion from a cut finger to the loss of a loved one. I was bewildered, stumbling over my Amharic, trying to find the right words. I soon realized that words were not needed. The language spoken in that tiny room on that sacred night was the universal language of women all over the world—and despite my pale skin, western attitudes and slightly incongruous clothing, I was one of them.
My neighbors suddenly had an idea which, judging by their body language, clearly amused them. I was pulled from my seat and pushed excitedly onto the low stool behind a small table which held the coffee cups. As if I was not already enough of a spectacle, my sheruba, the white scarf covering my head was arranged behind my ears. “Tigray, Tigray” they cried, dressing me as a traditional woman from the Tigray region, further into the hills of the north. One of them rushed out of the hut and reappeared moments later with thick, heavy gold earrings and a necklace with which I was swiftly adorned. Satisfied, they stood back and looked at me, clapping and shrieking with delight. Their humor was devoid of any mockery, and what was a little gentle humiliation if it drew me into their circle?
The games over, Birhanie took her seat on the stool where I’d been sitting moments before, dressed like the Queen of Sheba. She lit the charcoal stove on the floor by the bed and soon began to roast the coffee beans over the hot coals. The aroma of freshly roasted coffee filled the hut and Birhanie wafted the smoke towards us, silently requesting our appreciation. In front of the stove was a small brightly colored machesha, an incense burner used at the traditional ceremony. Birhanie tipped in some hot coals and sprinkled them with crumbs of incense which sweetly scented the hut. The coffee was brewed slowly in a beautiful jebona, the traditional curved coffee pot of the Amhara region in which we lived. I knew from experience that this would not be a quick cup of coffee but I had all evening; nothing here was ever done in a hurry.
The chatter continued as we sat and drank the strong, sweet brew—three cups: arbol, tona, and baracka. Each cup was named, as legend would have it, after the three shepherds whose goats discovered the beans in the Kaffa region of the south in the year 800. I smiled to myself at the wonderful legends which surrounded Ethiopian culture, those which were told again and again, around the glowing stoves of coffee ceremonies all over the country. I had heard this story many times before, but expressed delight all over again, as though it was the first time. I drank all three cups—it would be impolite to refuse. Sometimes, a sleepless night was worth it.
I cannot count how many times I had witnessed the age old Ethiopian coffee ceremony, but it had never before been like the one in Birhanie’s home. I asked myself why. Perhaps, in the lobbies of international hotels and the dining rooms of tourist restaurants, an important ingredient had been missing. Maybe it was my traditional dress and heavy Tigray jewellery which made me feel like an Ethiopian that night. Perhaps it was the warmth of female friendship with its chatter and laughter that transcends all barriers of language and culture, or the age-old stories exchanged over coffee that I might never have known. Or, maybe it was precious time away from overcrowded buses and travel itineraries, time to absorb the local traditions and immerse myself in this ancient culture. Who knows? I would reflect on that later on that night as I lay in bed, inevitably unable to sleep.