How Cafe Culture Influences Social Mobility
The Middle East has an undeniable relationship with Coffee and its consumption, with it being ingrained in the culture in times of celebration to times of mourning. This connection to coffee has carried over to a relationship with the places that serve it as well, with coffee shops becoming the prime spaces for socialization and exhibition of class status.
In Tripoli, Lebanon, this phenomenon is augmented by the relative lack of some social lubricants such as pubs and bars due to the overall conservative nature of the city’s culture, and the abundance of other forms of social lubricants such as tobacco, tea, and coffee in café settings.
From cafes to coffee shops and coffee stands, this culture creates spatial properties that impact class dynamics in the city as well as gender relations and social mobility.
The History of Coffee in The Middle East
The 1200s were a turning point for Coffee in the Middle East. At this time, the Muslim community in Arabia began brewing coffee to aid in sustaining energy for long prayer sessions. By the 15th century, coffee was widespread in the Yemeni district of Arabia. Within the next 100 years, it spread to Egypt, Persia, Turkey, and Syria, and was enjoyed within both home and public settings. These public coffee houses were open to men of all classes and featured performances, chess games, and the exchange of news by word of mouth. These coffee houses were referred to as “schools of the wise”.
Coffee was, and still is, an integral part of the culture, with it being tied tightly with social customs from joy to grief. It is a symbol of hospitality, sophistication, and generosity, and is present in contract signings, marriages, funerals, and reconciliation settings. Asking someone to meet over coffee was closely tied to scholarly discussions, business, or news.
Coffee in Tradition
Coffee has a long history of being socially significant in the Middle East, with it being tied to customs and traditions dating back several centuries. Coffee accompanies people in their saddest times as much as it does in their happiest, with it being an integral part of funerals and celebrations alike.
One prominent example is the tradition of the “tlibeh” where a man visits a woman’s family in their home to “view” their daughter and ask for her hand in marriage. This situation is portrayed by the woman making and bringing out a pot of coffee to the potential groom and his family, thus making her encounter with her potential husband, traditionally meant as their first, one that is tied with the coffee she presents. Many families half-jokingly insist that the quality of the coffee served indicates how fit the woman is to be a wife, augmented by the carefulness and meticulousness needed to make a pot of Arabic coffee.
This tradition persists to this day, in its multiple variations, whether it is a formality for a couple who already know each other or if it is the first sighting of the potential bride. The coffee is a constant, it is the bridge that connects the host and the guest, a gesture of openness and welcome, to serve someone coffee is to give them the highest level of comfort in your home.
The city of Tripoli is the second-largest and second most populated in Lebanon. Its population is largely composed of mainly Sunni Muslims, with its sister-city El-Mina hosting a prominent Christian population. This has relegated the spatial division of El-Mina to include more bars and pubs, those that Tripoli’s cultural norms do not yet allow within it.
The city, though being the second largest in the country, behaves socially of what is typically expected of a small town, with interwoven social relations. The culture’s emphasis on the importance of family, in its nuclear and extended forms, as well as neighborhood relations, has made it possible for social circles to be wider than usually seen in the west. The elders of the city know its families well, women would gather in a home for a “sobhiyye”, the colloquial term for a morning gathering, and talk about their families and their neighbors, exchanging news, anecdotes, and gossip over morning coffee. This was and still is, how much of the news in the city travels.
Tripoli’s Urban Development and its Neighborhood Relations
The city of Tripoli was founded on two different poles of the city, in part near the harbor in the Mina district, where it became one of the most important commercial hubs on the Mediterranean, and another part deeper into the city by its river, where its historic Raymond De Saint-Gilles Castle was built, along with its surrounding old markets and squares. The city then grew to fill the gaps between these two poles, adding with it more upper class and upper-middle-class catered housing and commerce. This led those who are able to leave the old town and move to the newer developments, leaving the lower-income classes in the old town.
The old city effectively became an amalgamation of landmarks and old buildings, with a lack of investment by the government and virtually no amenities and resources for its people. In the old town, the youth and elderly had no other outlet, no gyms, no sports teams, no dedicated open spaces within reach, only cafes. Given the physical and virtual disconnect between the old/new cities, transportation between the poles was not easy nor reliable, so people had to make do with what is within reach.
Retirees and Teenagers would spend their free time in small neighborhood cafes where they could let off steam and engage with others, card games and hookahs came hand in hand with these cafes, as did an undeniable dependency on cafes for social relationships as well as cathartic relief by engaging with people who live in the same underdeveloped circumstances. Cafes became an outlet of frustration for locals who had nowhere else to let off steam, where their ideas and their protests were echoed by those who knew of their struggles and problems and lived them too.
Café Al-Tall Al-Olya (The Higher Hill Café, for being atop a small hill) is one of the still-standing historically significant emblems of the city. An icon of the old city, many movies had their premieres projected on its walls, many protests and revolutions started from between its trees, of people standing up for themselves from the days of the ottomans to the days of the French colonization. The people of the city seldom had open spaces where they could manifest, so cafes, with their always-open doors and their sprawl into sidewalks and streets, played that role.
These same cafes exist now under the same names, they have been passed on generation after the other and many of them are as much a part of the neighborhood as its people. Café Fahim, Café Jenzarli, Café Abu Ahmad, all being true to the legacy and being named after whoever owns them. One café in the old town is a new addition, however.
Kahwetna — Our Cafe
The NGO ‘March’ has recognized the importance of cafes in Tripoli culture and has used them as a peacemaking tool. At the edge of the old city lie two rival villages, Bab Al-Tabbana and Jabal Mohsen, politically and religiously divided. These two villages and their loud and oftentimes deadly clashes are a big reason why many of the inhabitants of the old town have moved away. From random bullets piercing windows and the noises of bombs late in the night to casualties on either end that seem to only aggravate the rivalry, these clashes were hurting people’s relationships with their own homes and neighborhoods and exacerbating what is an already sensitive political climate in the city.
March’s efforts to de-radicalize and peace-build in the city started by seeking out and vetting 16 young men and women who had participated in the fighting in one way or another. Some were even part of radical extremist groups fighting on both sides in Syria and other parts of Lebanon (Raidy, 2017). They began by having them participate in a play that joined them in varying roles and addressed their common struggles. They then sought out to make a more permanent change.
They took over a heavily damaged building on the former front line of “Syria Street” in Tripoli, and revamped it. A few weeks later, a fully-equipped cultural cafe: “Kahwetna — Cafe bi Kaffak” (a play on words meaning Our Café, My Palm in Yours) was open. The café is equipped with a stage, sound system, screens, and anything needed to put on a show, effectively making it an outlet for people in the neighborhood at the border of both villages to come and release their frustrations and meet people from across the divide. This proved highly beneficial and successful as even people from the inner old town and the newer developments came out to see the people that they had been avoiding since the heaviest clashes in 2008. This was an impactful step for the people of both neighborhoods to come together and realize that they both are living under the same poverty, being taken advantage of by people high up in the political food chain. They were more alike than different. This experience was a true testament to the impact that cafes have on the Tripoli youth and the fact that they are integral for the growth of the city and its people.
Newer Developments and Café Prestige
In other parts of the city, café culture has manifested itself differently. While neighborhood cafes still exist in virtually all areas, they are overshadowed by the many higher scale cafes that have opened whenever a new development has, as well as they are still overwhelmingly male. For every Abdallah’s Café there is a Lilac Resto-Café, where class status is on display.
I remember as a teenager frequenting the new cafes on the street behind our new house, the one we moved into after the clashes had left our old home with a bullet through its window, and using that street as a way to meet new friends and build relationships with old friends and acquaintances. It was a new experience for me, coming from a neighborhood where I wasn’t allowed to visit the shop on the ground floor of our building alone to a neighborhood where I was free to roam from one café to the next, being too young to enjoy coffee but old enough to afford lunch at one café, dessert at the next, and a hot chocolate in the following.
I would jump from friend group to friend group. Each with their undesignated but well-known “spot”, I enjoyed them all because I had not had anything to enjoy before. I had thought of myself as an introvert but then came to realize that I was forced into introversion by the lack of mobility that I had in my old neighborhood. I was a teenage girl in a conservative part of the city where it was safer to not be seen, and where I avoided walking past cafes because of their overwhelmingly intimidating male presence. I had begun to fear outside spaces and the social implications that they carried until I started frequenting social spaces that were welcoming of me, ones where I was an active participant and not an intruder or an object to be gazed at.
Gender and Coffee
Though a lesser discussed subject in spatial fields — feelings and emotions are prime contributors to the processes of space production (Koskela, 1999). Women in these spaces oftentimes feel uneasy or unsafe. The male and female experiences with coffee were very different. In the historic areas of the old city, many small cafes are prominent, but they’re most notable in their exclusivity to men. Up until recent decades, coffee was an outwardly social experience only for men, where they would go to a coffee shop and meet anyone who walks in, thus expanding their social circles and meeting people of different social classes, since the experience historically was very simple and straight forward over small cups of coffee. This allowed men to further their social mobility and their access to people of different social circles. For men, having friends of different social statuses is an asset, where men of higher status especially those who pursue politics seem to value having interpersonal relationships with men of stature in lower-income neighborhoods. This importance is highlighted from a very young age where men and encouraged to widen their social circles because “one day they will need” their friends from different backgrounds.
It is also tied with a sense of belonging. Men from Tripoli have a very rugged and “manly” reputation, it is perpetuated in the habits of toxic masculinity that often manifest in it, especially in many men in the city resolving conflicts by physical altercations. Young men of a higher class background tend to avoid such manifestation of physical altercations but surround themselves with men from different social circles as “security net” but also as a confirmation and validation of being a true “Tripolitan”. Hanging out in the male-dominated cafes is alluring to men not only by providing them with a female-free environment where they can be more relaxed, in the same way that athletes take comfort in their locker rooms, but they are also alluring in the sense of family that they foster among their patrons. The café that you frequent becomes a part of who you are and validates your status and your masculinity.
These cafes have a transcendent quality about them in the sense that they merge with the street. Their layout is narrow and small but sprawls out onto the sidewalk and street, taking over the public space. Most cafes depend more on their “outside space” than they do on their indoor space, thus unintentionally enforcing walkability and physical mobility limitations on women. “The street was a space for men to inhabit, a space where they could spend time, observe and interact with passers-by, comment and flirt. Unaccompanied young women, in contrast, had a liminal and ambiguous status as marginalized, and potentially illegitimate and disreputable, passers-by” (Ghannam 2002)
The female experience with coffee was different, it was social but focused more on honing already existing relationships, drinking coffee on balconies with neighbors and relatives, thus in comparison, a woman’s social circles remained limited to her own neighborhood and social class.
This could be relegated to the fact that women were expected to not be seen by strange men and to remain in the home, as elaborated on in Daphne Spain’s book Gendered Spaces, 1992. This began to change once cafes with larger and more open architecture began opening in the city. The small and tight design of neighborhood cafes was uninviting and uncomfortable for women, imposing a sense of physical proximity that is not customarily allowed between different genders. “Mobility is a slippery term in the discourse around women’s freedoms in public space. Women’s voluntary decisions to limit their mobility cannot be equated with individual choice” (Abdelfattah, 2019).
Women’s decision to avoid certain male-dominated spaces cannot be mistaken for a collective decision, more so a matter-of-fact reality that they cannot avoid. Female friends and I had attempted to enter a male-dominated café once as a teenage attempt to assert our status as independent women who had autonomy and who were not afraid of male-dominated spaces. The experience was less than pleasant as we realized that the issue was not that we were braver than other women who “chose” not to infiltrate these spaces, the issue was the overwhelming sense of rejection from the space, like intruding into someone’s home without an invite. According to Koskela, 1999, much of the power which modifies women’s behavior can be regarded as being control through ‘consent’ rather than through ‘coercion’ (p. 121).
Once investment was being put in developing bigger and higher scale cafes in more developed areas of the city, women began to show up more in them. This has very much to do with class status as well since the inhabitants of the newer areas were of a higher education level and income bracket, which oftentimes comes with more of a detachment from cultural norms. Modern Cafes mark a transformative era for Tripoli where women shifted their social demonstration from only being seen during weddings and events to being seen out and about almost daily. Cafes became a tool for affirming class status and different cafes developed their own audiences and identities.
Cafes and Class
Cafes in Tripoli became the new Hydra, one goes bankrupt and two come back in its place. In a city where other social lubricants such as bars and pubs were culturally uncommon and unacceptable, smoking and drinking coffee in cafes was the most prominent way of social interaction and demonstrating social class. Cafes became the hottest new business venture, with very tactically calculated audience targeting. This was done in a number of ways, highlighted in my following comparison of several local cafes of different scales and varying target audiences, be it intentional or not.
The close-knit social circles in Tripoli meant that the owners of any new venture were well known and advertised, this is where the audience targeting begins, with people frequenting cafes owned by those in their social circle or those that they knew of favorably by name. Resto-cafes owned by prominent businessmen in the city became hubs for higher-class status demonstration, with cafes such as Sense Café, characterized by its slightly more expensive menu and simple food options, targeting more businessmen for meetings and prominent city politicians and elders for their afternoon get-togethers and not attracting younger audiences. The large and open layout of Sense, with its spacious back yard, green entryway, ample outdoor space that is gated and secluded from the sidewalk, and ample space between tables, provides a spatially appropriate distance between tables that allows for the sense of privacy that older generations appreciate as well as the ability to scout and watch other customers.
Those younger audiences that are alienated by spaces such as Sense, prefer to attend to more informal spaces that provide less personal space and more opportunity for direct social interaction. Rassif Café has proven itself to be a staple in the Tripoli social scene, with its audience ranging from families for brunch to teenagers and young adults in the afternoon. It has become a consistent social hub for Tripoli’s young adults by providing a sense of family in its interactions. The waiters begin to develop personal relationships with the patrons and friendships that connect them and make Rassif part of a daily routine.
With the prominence of Rassif, comes a sense of intrusion to those who are not used to its dynamics. When outsiders visit it is always noticed and pointed out. Once walking in with my out-of-town friend, she noticed a group of people at a table turn in unison to look at us walk in, intrigued, she asked why that happened, I told her it was because she was an outsider.
This is not an unwelcoming crowd, but one that likes to know their surroundings. People in Tripoli are raised to be sociable and to know everyone around them, there is a sense of urgency in the creation of bonds and relationships with people, a sort of preconditioning for networking.
The patrons of Rassif are ones from the more progressive side of the city, with it being perched, along with Sense Café and many others, on the busiest new development stretch in the city. Its audience is more those with private school/university education, those who come from more middle and upper-class families and have more resources. Physical mobility plays a large role in who the audience for Rassif is, with its accessibility during its peak hours being only possible via car or those who live in its immediate vicinity. The lack of public transportation in the city plays a large role in social mobility, especially when tied in with cafes and their influence on socialization.
This does not however negate the fact that some people with the means to attend these cafés actively avoid them. With such a tight-knit social surrounding that could be perceived as judgmental, many people are not comfortable being seen in public spaces at all times, especially women.
Women in Tripoli are often pushed to present their best at all times, especially when in a public space, driven by the concept of “you never know who might see you”. This phrase can be applied to many social situations but is prominently used to deter young girls from misbehaving and ruining their “reputations”. A big reason why young Tripolitans prefer to attend spaces with equally young patrons, spaces that seem alienating to older crowds, could be the unspoken rule of secrecy, as many parents do not approve of their daughters dating at young ages, if at all, and the community understands and protects its young women in a seemingly large but tight circle.
Another application of “you never know who might see you” is used encouragingly for women to present themselves favorably to attract potential suitors. The times in Tripoli have changed, with the concept of Tlibeh, mentioned earlier in this paper, being less so the norm and shifting towards “viewing” potential suitors in public spaces. Cafes like Rassif provide a sort of safe space, with its young progressive audience that seems to be shedding the norms and shaking up the narrative of traditions, for women who wish to not engage in these practices, but there is no escaping some customs.
Across the street is another café, Rawand, that is filled with a more diverse array of people. Its more open, multi-storied layout allows for maximum visibility. It allows for the demonstration of class and status, and for mothers to scout potential wives for their sons. Sitting at Rawand in 2018, my friend was approached by an older woman who had been staring at her throughout the night. She wanted to introduce her to her son, he was looking for a wife. Another friend was told by her cousin that his friend would like her number, “We have never even met”, she said, the response was “We sat beside you at a café last week and listened in on your conversation, he liked what he heard”.
I bring up these two examples to show how the progress of these spaces to include women while being a step in the right direction and is liberating and conductive of social mobility for them, is still limiting and exclusionary to women’s privacy and independence. Some of these spaces are now used as a hunting ground for women, making them passive targets instead of active participants in public space, thus alienating many of them from public spaces that are meant to be freeing.
In Conclusion, while this is a surface-level analysis of Cafes and their social influence, these examples play a large role in understanding the social interactions in the city of Tripoli and the limitations that these spaces pose on many audiences. While women are patronizing the modern cafes in the same volumes as men, it is still a different condition for them where they are being seen, viewed, and judged constantly. This is rooted deeply in the culture and while cafes are playing a role in alleviating it, many actions should be taken internally to resolve it. Cafes are a space for the exchange of information and ideologies, they are spaces for poets, writers, and everyday people to interact and educate each other. They are helping the people of Tripoli become more open to their surroundings, and bit by bit they are shedding their exclusionary atmospheres, but development cannot only be in new areas. For change to be effective it mustn’t be limited to a shiny new crust, but also to a refurbished core. If the success of the aforementioned cafes is a precedent, is proves that the old city needs more cafes where women can be comfortable and experience the same sense of freedom and mobility. The movement for accessible and mobilizing spaces for women should be intersectional, crossing all boundaries of race and social status.
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