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Sunday, June 19, 2005

In the Aroma of Fresh Brew ... Memories of Ethiopia

The Seattle Times -- There's salvation in those beans, is what she practically says. "My best friend is my coffee," Alem Abate laughs, and with good reason: Amid life's unpredictability, the very act of having coffee has been a soothing constant.

Abate sits on a small, padded stool in her Ballard apartment, sharing conversation and freshly made garbanzo bread with family and friends. Before them, a potpourri of ceremonial implements — a clay pot called a jebena, demitasse cups resting on a grasslike mat, coffee beans sizzling on a portable burner.

For most of us, meeting for coffee is no more than a standard social option, but for Abate and fellow Ethiopians, it borders on sacred. That's why these five women and girls have gone through the trouble of donning traditional white dresses. They're striving to keep their custom robust as it filters into fast-paced American life.

Both social and spiritual, the so-called Ethiopian coffee ceremony is structure without rigidity, more community than formality: You sit, you talk, you enjoy a drink — a natural progression in a country believed to be the birthplace of a beverage now marketed throughout the world.

In Ethiopia, be it good news or bad, it's discussed over coffee while incense burns and crackling beans are pan-roasted to a rich, dark brown, then swirled before guests so each can take in the smoky aroma up close. In the most traditional homes, this happens three times a day, beans hand-ground and poured through a jebena's long, narrow stem into boiling water.

Stories are told, problems addressed, news dished, mourners comforted. Among neighbors, invites are extended and routines fixed: In the morning we have coffee at my house, in the afternoon at their house, in the evening we go to yours.

Over the span of an hour or two, three cups are poured: Abol, tona, baraka. The third beckons good luck. But caught up in the rapids of life in the U.S., Puget Sound's 20,000-plus Ethiopians struggle to echo such bonds with any regularity, making do at weekly events held at local parks or community centers, or whenever friends like Abate, Denbernesh Debeb and Yabundej Tesfyae have time.

"We are like family," Tesfyae says. "I haven't seen [Debeb] for three months."

Coffee that has been freshly roasted is poured into demitasse cups resting on a grasslike mat.

There is much to discuss this weekday evening: Violence has broken out in the homeland, where security forces have killed protesters decrying the ruling party's refusal to concede elections many insist they have lost — isn't it terrible? Oh, but this bread is so good — Alem made it special just for us.

With her two school-age daughters serving her guests, Abate puts a modern spin on tradition and pulverizes the beans in an electric grinder. The family cat, Scout, pads into the room, and Abate thinks of her grown son, who has served time in jail, and says wistfully: "I lose a son. I bring home a cat."

Debeb and Tesfyae reassure her. "You didn't lose him."

"I lost him."

That's why, every morning and most evenings, this single mom repeats this ritual with her daughters: Children without cultural grounding are doomed, she believes. It's crucial they keep the faith.

Tona: The second cup

Legend holds that an Ethiopian monk first experimented with coffee roasting and brewing a millennium ago, prompted by a goat herder who saw animals turning unusually spunky after eating coffee berries. From there, coffee spread to the Middle East and eventually throughout the world.

Ethiopia, the leader in African coffee production, now boasts more than one million coffee farmers; the country consumes half of all coffee it produces. The rest accounts for 60 percent of all Ethiopian exports. "They say, 'Don't worry — if the coffee doesn't sell, we'll drink it,' " joked coffee consultant Willem Boot at the Specialty Coffee Association of America's national convention in April.

Back home, coffee is the sound of visitors calling, and kids grow up pretending at coffee the way kids here play house. So while it's not part of her daily life anymore, Menkeli Kanaa, an eighth-grade teacher at Seattle's Hamilton Middle School, still has a ceremony anytime she has people over for dinner.

When she first came here, it took Kanaa a while to get over the sight of people eating and drinking in their cars.

"We don't drink coffee running," she says. "I thought — what is wrong with them?"

Occasionally, Denbernesh Debeb conducts ceremonies by request at Blue Nile, the Central Area neighborhood market she's run for nearly 10 years. The spices, traditional music and English-Amharic dictionaries aren't all that set it apart from your local 7-Eleven: Nearly anything one needs to get serious about Ethiopian coffee socials is right there too — jebenas and long-handled pans, traditional snacks in sealed baggies and green, unroasted beans.

"These I picked myself, in Addis Ababa," Debeb says, holding up a bag of beans in corn husk green.

She pours some beans into a pan to roast atop a portable burner that she now ignites. Tipping and swirling, she steps outside with the pan to ruffle drapes of steam into the misty, gray morning.

Just outside the store is a long patch of grass she jokingly calls "Blue Nile Park," where friends gather to roast coffee in the summer. When people drive up and smell the coffee, it's as close as she gets to memories of home, a place where the doors are always open and neighbors are always welcome.

"You have to live your life here," Debeb says. "But we miss all that."

Think of it as cultural dehydration. When she's down, Debeb puts on her white dress and roasts beans; she doesn't drink coffee much, but she loves the smell. "I have friends, they call me in the afternoon. 'Denber, do you have time? Can you come over and have coffee?' I say, 'You mean, close down the store?' They say, 'There is no one to have coffee with.' "

Hamilton Middle's Kanaa once had a job serving recently arrived refugees, and "they didn't understand how pressured we were for time here," she says. "Whenever I went to pick them up, they'd say, 'No, come in and have coffee first,' and the appointment was in 15 minutes or whatever."

Baraka: The third cup

For men, it's even trickier to replicate the custom, since coffee roasting is a woman's bailiwick. "They have never been in the kitchen in our country," Blue Nile's Debeb says. "It's very hard for them."

As if to prove it, she motions at a car pulling up outside her store. "Watch, I will ask this man and see if he has ever made coffee," she says. It's Ghezahegn Abebe, who runs The Souk, a Northgate area market.

She asks him: "Do you ever go into the kitchen to make coffee yourself?"

He hangs his head. "No. My wife will kick me out if I even try."

Instead, many men congregate outside local coffeehouses in Northgate, Oak Tree and the Central Area, filling up on store-bought brew. "We know each other from the homeland," says social-service worker Gabriel Menes, among a group of northern Ethiopian guys who meet weekday mornings at the Starbucks at 23rd Avenue and Jackson. "Here, there's no time to do it at home. The women leave early for work. ...

"Some people get lattes, but mostly, it's regular coffee."

The tradition's role as cultural and spiritual oasis is what makes parents like Alem Abate anxious to hold on. She feels responsible for her son's fall from grace and aims to ensure things go differently with daughters Yordanos Kasahun, 16, and Meron Kasahun, 11.

"What we're doing now — she didn't do that with him," says Yordanos, a Ballard High freshman, voice breaking as she translates her mother's words. "That's why she's trying to raise us the best she can."

"If we stopped doing this, nobody would know about it," says Meron, a fifth-grader at Seattle's Adams Elementary.

Both are fiercely proud of their heritage and what their mom has gone through to get them here. "It's where I'm from," Yordanos says. "I wouldn't want to forget it. I want to teach the next generation."

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