Drinking coffee in the desert with Charles Doughty

January 16, 2016 5 Comments
Doughty painting

Charles Doughty: oil painting by Eric Henri Kennington, 1921

On 10 November 1876, having taught himself Arabic, a 31 year old Englishmen called Charles Montagu Doughty set off from Damascus to travel alone across the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula via Meda’in Saleh to join the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.  It was a quixotic act.  The British Consul refused to help him in any way (‘he had as much regard for me, would I take such dangerous ways, as of his old hat …  it was his duty to take no cognisance of my Arabian journey, lest he might hear any word of blame, if I miscarried’).  Doughty refused to disguise his Christian allegiance, and he was advised by Arab friends that he would be lucky to return alive.  But return he did, having come close to death several times during his two years of travel, and much later, in 1888, he published an account of his adventures in three large volumes as Travels in Arabia Deserta, .

Travels in Arabia DesertaI first came across Doughty in the early 1970s in the library of Caius College, where Doughty had started as a student in 1861 (he didn’t graduate till 1866).  On its shelves sat the six volumes and thirty thousand lines of what must be the most unread and unreadable epic poem ever written in the English language, The dawn in Britain (1906).  I often wondered then what sort of man this eccentric Doughty was.  Travels in Arabia deserta is also indigestible, being written in a deliberately archaic, pre-modern style (he thought the rot set in with English literature after Edmund Spenser) and sprinkled with untranslated Arabic words.  It also stretches to over thirteen hundred pages.  Even in my 1908 abridgement by Edward Garnett there are 607 closely packed pages.  In his preface to the first edition Doughty says, ‘The book is not milk for babes: it might be likened to a mirror, wherein is set forth faithfully some parcel of the soil of Arabia smelling of sámn [clarified butter] and camels’.  I’ve never succeeded in reading the whole thing.  But it does hold a bizarre fascination.  Like Finnegans Wake it’s worth dipping into every now and then for a strange view into an extraterrestrial world.

Bedouins making coffee in desert, 1906

Bedouins making coffee in desert, 1906

I was doing some dipping recently when I came across Doughty’s descriptions of coffee drinking among his Bedouin companions.  Coffee seems to have been invented in the Arabian peninsula, probably in its southern tip, in Yemen, in the mid-fifteenth century.  (There is no firm evidence of Ethiopian origins, as claimed by Doughty and others since.)  There beans were roasted and brewed just as they are today.  The practice soon spread, to the rest of the peninsula and then far beyond, so that even the British were gathering in coffee houses by the mid seventeenth century.

Doughty describes how coffee is made, at a place in the desert to the north of Meda’in Saleh where the caravan has halted.  First, a fire is made:

Coffee drinking in Arabian desert, 1904

Coffee drinking in Arabian desert, 1904

A few gathered sticks are flung down beside the hearth: with flint and steel one stoops and strikes fire in tinder, he blows and cherishes those seeds of the cheerful flame in some dry camel-dung, sets the burning sherd under dry straws, and powders over more dry camel-dung.  As the fire kindles, the sheikh reaches for his dellàl, coffee-pots, which are carried in the fatya, coffee-gear basket; this people of a nomad life bestow each thing of theirs in a proper beyt [home], it would otherwise be lost in their daily removing.

One rises to fill up the pots at the water-skins, or a bowl of water is handed over the curtain to the women’s side [of the tent]; the pot is at the fire, Hirta [the wife of Zeyd, Doughty’s host] reaches over her little palm-full of green coffee-berries.  We sit in a half ring about the hearth; there come in perhaps some acquaintance or tribesmen straying between the next menzils [camps].  Zeyd prepared coffee at the hours; afterward, when he saw in me little liking of his coffee-water [Doughty rarely conceals his disgust], he went to drink the cup abroad; if he went not to the mejlis [assembly], he has hidden himself two or three hours like an owl, or they would say as a dog, in my close little tent, although intolerably heated through the thin canvas in the mid-day sun.

It was customary to welcome any guests who wandered by one’s tent, and one could never refuse them coffee if they came in, so Zeyd’s behaviour is understandable, if extreme.

In a later chapter Doughty has another description of coffee-making, this time at dawn:

Coffee in the Arabian desert, c1910

Coffee in the Arabian desert, c1910

In every coffee-sheykhs tent, there is a new fire blown in the hearth, and he sets on his coffee-pots; then snatching a coal in his fingers, he will lay it in his tobacco-pipe.  The few coffee-beans received from his housewife are roasted and brayed; as all is boiling, he sets out the little cups, fenjeyl (for fenjeyn) which we saw have been made, for the uningenious Arabs, in the West [Doughty never tires in his denigration of the natives].  When, with a pleasant gravity, he has unbuckled his gutîa or cup-box, we see the nomad has not above three or four fenjeyns, wrapt in a rusty clout, with which he scours them busily, as if this should make his cups clean.  The roasted beans are pounded amongst Arabs with a magnanimous rattle – and (as all their labour) rhythmical – in brass of the town, or an old wooden mortar, gaily studded with nails, the work of some nomad smith.  The water bubbling in the small dellàl [coffee pot], he casts in his fine coffee powder, el-bunn, and withdraws the pot to simmer a moment.  From a knot in his kerchief he takes then an head of cloves, a piece of cinnamon or other spice, bahar, and braying these, he casts their dust in after.  Soon he pours out some hot drops to essay his coffee; if the taste be to his liking, making dextrously a nest of all the cups in his hand with pleasant clattering, he is ready to pour out for the company …

Then follows an elaborate protocol, since drinking coffee is primarily a rite of correct behaviour rather than a casual cuppa between friends.  Cups are offered to the right, and first to any ‘considerable sheikh and principal persons’ who may be present.  Only four sips are in each cups; a full cup would be an ‘injury’ or insult.  There is then often a ‘contention in courtesy’ between the drinkers about who should sip in what order.  Refusal to drink before another can be part of a process of reconciliation in a personal conflict, or a way of prolonging it.

The cups are filled again, and yet again, until the elaborate choreography of manners is exhausted.

The coffee-service ended, the grounds are poured out from the small into the great store-pot that is reserved full of warm water: with the bitter lye, the nomads will make their next bever, and think they spare coffee.

Starbcks cups

This all sounds rather exotic and antique, and a bit different from my morning ritual with the Gaggia coffee machine.   It may seem a pity that we’ve lost any social performances attached to coffee drinking.  (Though I do remember Starbucks trying some time ago to inject some spurious ritual into their process by writing the forename of the customer on each paper cup and shouting out the name when the coffee was ready.)  But there is something strikingly modern in what Doughty says to sum up coffee-drinking among the nomads:

So much are they idly given to these tent pleasures, that many Beduins think they may hardly remember themselves of a morning, till they have sipped coffee, and “drunk” upon it a gallium [pipe] of tobacco.

Doughty doesn’t tell us whether or how he took part in this elaborate coffee drinking.  You can imagine him keeping aloof and abstaining, like the typical nasrâny he was.  To be fair to him, he goes on to describe with admiration the democratic assemblies of the Bedouin and their ‘mild’ system of justice, and during his two long years in the desert he seems to have retained just enough trust among his companions to keep himself alive until he finally emerged at Jeddah on the Red Sea on 2 August 1878.

T E Lawrence

T.E. Lawrence: oil portrait by Augustus John, 1919

Doughty was by no means the first Westerner to explore the land and lives of the nomadic peoples of Arabia.  But he did give one of the most detailed accounts of them, and he was a powerful contributor to what Edward Said called orientalism, that British fascination with the Arab world that continued with other eccentric people such as Wilfred Blunt and Gertrude Bell.  (Strangely, Said pays little attention to Doughty, and you wonder whether he hasn’t managed to read much of him.)  One of his successors was T.E. Lawrence, whom Doughty calls ‘my distinguished friend, Colonel T.E. Lawrence, leader with Feysel, Meccan Prince, of the nomad tribesmen’.  Lawrence had read Travels in Arabia deserta, several times, and called it ‘the first and indispensible work upon the Arabs of the desert’, recalling in 1921 how Doughty’s name had become legendary in the desert in the forty years since his journey: ‘it is rather shocking to learn that he [Doughty] is a real and living person’.

NW Arabia

Even before he went to the Middle East Doughty had a reputation for scholarship and oddity. In 1862, during his first undergraduate year, he reported to the British Association on prehistoric flints he’d discovered at Hoxne, near his parental home in Suffolk, and two years later he published a note in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London on the ‘summer motions of some glacier-streams in southern Norway’.  He travelled widely in Europe and north Africa, learning Dutch in Leiden and witnessing the eruption of Vesuvius in 1972.  After his return from Arabia he was less active, but his lesser poems testify to his mental curiosity.  According to his biographer, Stephen Tabachnick, ‘Doughty’s science fiction dramas, The Cliffs (1909) and The Clouds (1912), predicted the First World War and the use of the submarine, airship, mine, torpedo, and other technical developments’.

Dawn in Britain

The Dawn in Britain, Doughty’s huge epic, is an elephantine mash-up of prehistory and fantasy, in a style as turgid and frigid as icy mud.  Here is a short but sufficient sample taken from Volume 5, where he ventures into Wales (Doughty had at least a smattering of Welsh):

Ending that moon, they, to Caerwent, arrive.

Who lights, infirm, from wain, in rusty weed,

Worn, next his harness, but Caratacus!

Men joy, which see, returned their lord, alive,

From Roman field.  Wan is his royal face.

Lo, Caradoc, drooping, leans, on his spear-staff,

And Maglos’ hand.  They twain pass slowly forth,

With company and torches’ light, in the lord’s court;

For fallen, already, is Britain’s winter night.

Ten years later T.S. Eliot published ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and Ezra Pound started writing The cantos.   Poetry was going in a different direction, and The Dawn in Britain sank into ‘Britain’s wintry night’ and oblivion.  According to Pound, in his ABC of reading, Basil Bunting formulated a bilingual truth of good poetry, ‘dichten = condensare’ (write poetry = concentration).  For Doughty concentration was a constitutional impossibility.

Comments (5)

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  1. Ibrahim says:

    Interesting article, but Doughty, coming from the North and making his way down to Jeddah, did not cross the Empty Quarter at all. His journey took him from Damascus along the Hajj route through what is now Jordan to North Western Arabia. He visited the Shammari (my tribe) capital at Hayel and spent time there, as well as Kheybar in the district of Medinah and eventually made it to Tayef and thence to Jeddah by the Red Sea.

    Perhaps the author is thinking of Wilfred Thesiger, who detailed his time in the Empty Quarter in his book Arabian Sands.

  2. Ibrahim says:

    I don’t think the author of this article read the entire book. Doughty does, indeed, refer to his drinking coffee in several parts, with some very amusing anecdotes in each.

  3. John doughty says:

    He.s part my family an ive only found out i love read is work

  4. Armen Karayan says:

    About Doughty’s style, J. Middleton Murry says in The Problem of Style (1922) that “behind [Doughty’s] wonderful account of a strange land, you discover an almost fanatical austerity of feeling–a perfect harmony between the writer’s temper, the chosen land of his journeying, and his language. It is a masterpiece of prose. Yet a casual criticism would pronounce it artificial.”

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