"Don't Let It Sink" : Making Coffee with Mahmoud Darwish

They can aim sea, sky, and earth at me, but they cannot root the aroma of coffee out of me. I shall make my coffee now. I will drink the coffee now. Right now, I will be sated with the aroma of coffee, that I may at least distinguish myself from a sheep and live one more day, or die, with the aroma of coffee all around me.

So begins a passage from Mahmoud Darwish's Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982. Under the terror of jets and shelling, the Israeli siege of Beirut, Darwish is making coffee. He takes it seriously, a refuge from the war and a brew to other thoughts. "Coffee should not be drunk in a hurry," he writes. "It is the sister of time, and should be sipped slowly, slowly. Coffee is the sound of taste, the sound for the aroma. It is a meditation and a plunge into memories and the soul."

Amid reflections and his war prose-poetry, Darwish offers his recipe:

Move the pot away from the low fire, that the hand may undertake its first creation of the day. Pay no heed to rockets, shells, or jets. This is what I want. To possess my dawn, I'll diffuse the aroma of coffee. Don't look at the mountain spitting masses of fire in the direction of your hand...

Making coffee is part of the effort under siege "to maintain the primacy of the quotidian [that] becomes a challenge to the bombs," according to the book's translator, Ibrahim Muhawi. "An ordinary task like making coffee turns into a meditation on the aesthetics of hand movement and the art of combining different ingredients to create something new."

With the electoral gains of the extreme right in the Knesset in Israel, we should expect nothing new in Palestine but a worsening status quo of occupation with a new idea of population "transfers" advocated in varying degrees by Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Livni alike. Together they may be proving what Pankaj Mishra recently called "the banality of democracy."

The other night on television at Kadima party's celebratory headquarters (in a hotel ballroom... this is not Barack Obama), a party member spoke about peace, "two states for two peoples." Al Jazeera's reporter noted that Kadima offered the same vague optimism under Olmert years ago. Also, the reported asked, wasn't Livni the public face of Israel's three week war on Gaza?

"The peace process is totally separate from Israel's response to Hamas rocket fire," the Kadima member replied. "It will be possible to make peace with the moderate Palestinian leadership while responding to terror from Gaza. No state would live with this. We will defeat terror and reach a solution in peace."

Some weeks ago, the outgoing Olmert was unabashed in saying that Israeli responses to rockets from Gaza would be "disproportionate." And still they talk of peace.

Instead, let's talk of coffee. Making it in Darwish's interpretation as a challenge to the bombs may be one of the few habits free from war and blockade for Palestinians in Gaza. For them such daily rituals, the mundane, may offer the briefest sense of security and relief from bombs that have stopped for the moment. That the idea of Darwish's recipe from Beirut in 1982 should resonate in Gaza City in 2009 is only another indictment of the failed "peace process" and all it entails. Of course coffee like everything is scarce in Gaza, one of many foodstuffs brought through smuggling tunnels because of the blockade.

Gently place one spoonful of the ground coffee, electrified with the aroma of cardamom, on the rippling surface of the hot water, then stir slowly, first clockwise, then up and down. Add the second spoonful and stir up and down, then counterclockwise. Now add the third. Between spoonfuls, take the pot away from the fire and bring it back. For the final touch, dip the spoon in the melting powder, fill and raise it a little over the pot, then let it drop back. Repeat this several times until the water boils again and a small mass of blond coffee remains on the surface, rippling and ready to sink. Don't let it sink. Turn off the heat, and pay no heed to the rockets. Take the coffee to the narrow corridor and pour it lovingly and with a sure hand into a little white cup: dark-colored cups spoil the freedom of the coffee. Observe the paths of the steam and the tent of rising aroma.

Darwish liked to smoke. The recipe continues:

Now light your first cigarette, made for this cup of coffee, the cigarette with the flavor of existence itself, unequaled by the taste of any other except that which follows love, as the woman smokes away the last sweat and the fading voice.

Now I am born. My veins are saturated with their stimulant drugs, in contact with the springs of their life, caffeine and nicotine, and the ritual of their coming home together as created by my hand. "How can a hand write," I ask myself, "if it doesn't know how to be creative in making coffee!" How often have the heart specialists said, while smoking, "Don't smoke or drink coffee!" And how I've joked with them, "A donkey doesn't smoke or drink coffee. And it doesn't write."

This morning in Damascus I tried to follow the recipe but the water was too hot and the coffee when added couldn't take it. It steamed over the rim of the pot, overflowing in heaps on the stove. So instead I followed a bunk Cairo recipe: adding the coffee first to cold water and letting the mix cook until its final boil with the blond mass of coffee on top.