You never know how far reaching your blog really is. There are days when I resolve myself to the idea that, despite my best intentions to turn "coffeecrush" into an internet phenomenon, on par with Dave's long box or Engrish, maybe I've just maxed out at seven readers - family and good friends all, humoring my usual delusions of grandeur. Then, out of nowhere -and during a particularly long period of blog-abstinence - I receive an email from a San Francisco-based artist named CW (follow that link... very cool stuff) about a post from nearly two months ago. He was questioning my translation of the Turkish proverb,"Coffee should be black as hell; strong as death, and sweet as love."
Sure enough, after a little Googling, I've discovered a plethora of variations on a theme (black as night/hot as hell/sweet as love; hot as Thora Birch/gayer than Paul Lynde/slightly less conniving than Joe Leiberman - and on and on and on) Lost in translation, I suddenly don't feel so bad for my befuddled take on the Middle East crisis, a world-view worthy of my altruistic grandmother - "Why can't they all just get along?"
But I digress. At long last, I've decided to find out for myself which version best applies to the brew at Habibi Hookah Cafe on South Broadway. Past the bars, past the train shop where Gary Coleman used to work, past the (ahem) "massage parlors" ("Innovative Therapy"... Like my dad says "yeah, that's not so innovative"), this place sits in the run down remains of a gas station, strobe lights around the parameter announcing it's presence to passers-by (and warning off epileptics). Inside, the espresso machine looks brand spanking new; a good sign, as the only kind of coffee I want in a place like this is Turkish, brewed directly in a metal ibrik, like campfire coffee on Mars.
I order my coffee and tell the proprietor that I may get something else later. Embarrassed, he quickly advises me that he can't serve any food inside. Apparently, as part of the city-wide smoking ban, not only can you not smoke after your meal, but if you are allowed to smoke, you don't get to eat. I, for one, think it's about time that the government step in to protect smokers from all that second-hand food. Little matter, as the main reason people come to a place like this is for the exotic, ornate hookahs. The proprietor asks me if I'd like to partake, and I decide for one night to lift my own personal smoking ban in the name of visceral experience.
Waiting for my order, I sat down and watched the other patrons; a mix of foreign men playing backgammon... and, as always, the "barely legal" crowd. I once made the mistake of going to a place called Marrakech Cafe on a weekend night, and I was shocked to find it packed with teenagers. I wondered if maybe, for "Generation Z", Sufism (the mystical arm of Islam) would become what faux-Zen was for Generation X. Are these kids enamored with the whirling dervishes, who get strung out on strong coffee and spin wildly around, all in an effort to become one with God? Are they embracing Middle Eastern culture as a slap in the face to their Bush-voting parents? Alas, eavesdropping on their conversations, it's apparent that it's all about the forbidden smoke.
My coffee and hookah arrive. In the tiny cup sits a substance somewhere between the states of "liquid" and "solid", which fits every variation of the proverb and more. Bean-remains float throughout the cup; when the drink finished, the grounds can be turned over onto a napkin and "read" by a fortune teller. Generally, they won't see sleep in your immediate future.
The server is tolerant of my ignorance regarding how to smoke - a hell of a lot nicer than I was as a barista. (Soy milk!? Heresy!) Once I get the hang of it - between the smoke, and the music, and the caffeine - I definitely start to feel a buzz. Nothing like the buzz you get from a certain OTHER substance smoked from a hookah (by which I mean unflavored tobacco. What did you think I was talking about?); but when I notice myself, hose hanging from my lips, saying "Haw Haw Haw! Jeeedy Jedi! JEEEDY JEDI!" under my breath, there's definitely something going on.
Then something strange happens. A man stands up from his table... and walks outside to light a cigarette. I wonder to myself just how far we've gone to demonize good ol' fashioned cancer sticks, when you can sit at a inside at a table and smoke "double apple" (one of the many sweeter-than-candy flavors) from something that looks like a hybrid of a sex toy and something you would administer an enema with.
When I left, I didn't head straight home. Rather, I rode my bike for a while to shake the buzz. The whole "hookah cafe" experience is an acquired taste. It fits with a very particular sense of aesthetics. But it's something every coffee lover should experience at least once, if for no other reason than to get a brief sample of a culture that we Americans know precious little about; even though it's fate is now so intricately entangled with our own.
About the Author
7 years ago