Syrian addiction or a story about Arab coffee

There were few instances when I was happier than when I smelled the coffee, imagined its strong black taste, and felt the energy and power that it was going to bring. One of those moments was the morning of my arrival in Damascus.


After two days and nights without sleep because of a different trip came the night of our departure for Damascus that was spent on airports and planes from Bucharest to the Syrian Capital City. Altogether there were about 70 hours without any sleep. So caffeine was by now more of a necessity than a pleasure.


We finally reached our hotel – after some adventures that we later came to realize were perfectly normal for our hosts – got the check-in completed and were now waiting for the rooms to be ready. The entire lobby was engulfed in a strong coffee smell coming from a source I could not identify. Yet.


But when a gentleman donning one of those costumes that you can see in the frescoes depicting the Old Ottoman Empire passed me by with a big golden ibrik and a palm full of little ceramic cups, smaller than a shot glass, I identified the source and acquired my target.


I stared at the guy, but although every cell in my body was craving caffeine, I didn’t dare ask. He went up and down the enormous luxurious lobby offering coffee in his little cups to all the men.


“He’s probably only serving men,” I say to myself, under the influence of all the things we read online about the country and not having spent enough time in here to discover its real customers – and let go any hope. Or not.
Cause right then, our guide appears next to me with one of those tiny cups full of the black liqueur.
“Can I have some coffee, please?” I ask without any real hope.

“Offcourse,” he replies with a huge smile, happy to be able to wash out some of the misadventures of our arriving in the country, and waves the coffee seller.

And with large theatrical moves, the black liqueur is being poured into one of the cups—about two mouthfuls of it. I watch in disbelief the small amount of the coffee, thank with a forced smile and tell myself that this is better than none.


Seeing my reaction, the guide warns me that the coffee is very strong and both men stare at me, waiting to see my reactions.


Very indeed, I think, very good, I think and with one move I empty the cup.
It is then that I feel the particular aroma, one that I haven’t tested before in a coffee – and I have some long experience in preparing the miraculous potion.

Hell, the guide says. Now, imagine that all this conversation was held in English, and hell is hell, the devil’s realm. He sees my confusion and tells me that the aroma is given by a condiment that they call hell and that is used to prepare the coffee in a traditional way. Under the same tradition, this coffee is offered to you in all shops you step foot in, even if you will not end up as a customer and buy anything.


I don’t know how they define strong, but I can assure you our definitions are way different. I needed more coffee and I managed to get three more cups using all kinds of tricks, summing up four coffees. I don’t have to courage to ask for the 5th one cause the worried look on the man’s face with the ibrik cuts short my enthusiasm.

But it can not cut my addiction to Syrian coffee. An addiction that will grow into a serious investment in kilos of coffee with hell. And in long hours of research to find out the name of the condiment they use and a way to get more of this coffee without making another trip to Syria.


Cardamom. This was the name that we use for the condiment that they call her. Third, price-wise, spice in the world after Saffron and Vanilla is used mainly for coffee for its health benefits.


You have to try it and see which reaction you will have: hate it or love it. Like I was told, there is no middle way with cardamom. I loved it. Years later, I still have a pack of grounded cardamom that I used for my coffee in days when my thoughts go back to the dark-yellowish Siryain steppe with its endless roads, shepherds, and ageless ruins.

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