Poets Online Talking About Coffee: Yahia Lababidi

Your poems often deal with spirituality. Does coffee have a spiritual dimension?

Sure, sipping, mindfully, can be spiritual. Tasting, too. And becoming more awake, obviously. These are all things that one can do with coffee. So, in that sense, to really savor the flavor of a good cup of coffee can be both a centering and transporting experience. Coming from Egypt, my proper initiation into the caffeinated universe was Turkish coffee. There, how it is prepared, how much sugar to add, when to remove it from the heat, and how to consume it are near sacred ritual. In coffee shops across the country, possibly with a hookah close at hand, ‘Kahwa’ (coffee, in Arabic) is the impetus for wide-ranging conversations and meditations, from paltry politics to sublime metaphysics. Also, not uncommon, following this centuries-old ritual of drinking Turkish coffee is to submit to having your fortune read. That can be done either casually, or professionally, and involves having your consumed cup flipped upside down in a saucer, swiveled around a few times and set to cool, before the residual coffee grounds – fateful lines and shapes portentous or auspicious – might be deciphered for divination.

By the time I left Egypt, I might’ve consumed five or more of these mini cups of ‘rocket fuel’ to get through a work day. Worse, I was mixing potions, and would often start my day with a shot of home-brewed Italian espresso. All of which might explain why, when I made the US my home nearly a decade ago, I steered clear of that muddy, candied water sold at Starbucks. After such authentic riches, I could not settle for poor impostors. Fortunately, I did not have to. As an honorary Colombian citizen (my wife is half-Colombian) I soon made the rewarding acquaintance of Colombian coffee and was back on good, strong footing, again. Perhaps, it’s sacrilegious to admit this (at least, in family circles) but I also enjoyed Brazilian and Cuban brews for similar reasons. Still, with Prufrock, I found that I had to admit over the years:

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Which, prosaically, translated into, eventually, not being able to hold my coffee (palpitations, insomnia, etc…) And, addictive, extremist personality that I have, I could not settle for just a cup or two, so I went cold turkey. Well, that’s not entirely true. Rather, I eased into the world of tea, and eventually, sighed my way into the garden of green tea. And, in the interest of full disclosure, a further humiliating confession: I, now, begin my days sipping warm water with lemon. Ah, the indignities of ageing… Yet, strange to say, I have come to find another clarity in my decaffeinated daze. Which is to conclude that, even at this stage, coffee still offers me (at least, two) opportunities to practice spirituality: renunciation and longing.


Yahia Lababidi, Egyptian-American, is the author of five books in four genres. His sixth book, Balancing Acts: New & Selected Poems (1993-2014) is forthcoming from Press 53 Silver Concho Poetry Series, fall of 2016. Later this year, Lababidi will be featured in a new aphorism anthology, Short Flights, Thirty-Two Modern Writers, available for pre-order, here: Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit: James Lough, Alex Stein.
Russell Bennetts co-founded Queen Mob's Teahouse in 2014.

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