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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

The Arab Coffee-House, Kaffane, in Jerusalem.

It is perhaps not entirely uninteresting to read a description, or sketch rather, of an oriental coffee-house, as this will give us also some idea of the state of civilization among the Mahomedans. Near the Bazaar, which is at present used as a corn-market, on the corner of the Souk, the market where there are shops for various kinds of goods, stands a large and old building, through which there is a passage-way, which, as it passes through a number of houses, shortens the distance considerably to pedestrians, as it enables them to dispense with a long circuit on the outside. This passage forms also the coffeehouse in question, though it is in a very miserable condition. It is, at the same time, a large and very old structure, resembling greatly a ruined church, has a high cupola, and pillars and boxes on both sides. In the centre is a hearth, on which there stand large copper urns filled with boiling coffee. Close to them sits the landlord squatting on the ground, who has near him a quantity of very small coffee-cups, piled up one on another, and a row of the so-called argile,* as also a pair of iron fire-tongs, called masha, with which he is ready to serve every one that smokes with a burning coal. On the sides are a sort of benches, which are covered with narrow straw mats, and which serve the guests as seats. The passage is so narrow, that those who pass through often knock the coffee-cup out of the guest's hand, and not rarely scald thus both lips and chin, or crush with their feet the pipe-bowl of some smoker; or it happens that the passer-by is thrown down through means of the long tube, which gets entangled between his feet or legs, and pulls down to the ground at the same time the smoker from his elevated seat. All this causes naturally many curious scenes. In the corner of a side-box sit usually some Arnaut soldiers, playing draughts and dice, with looks and gestures well calculated to excite the fears of the bystanders. The games often cause them to quarrel and fight among themselves, and thus all present are in danger of their lives.

* This is a tobacco-pipe, to which is fitted a vessel containing water, through which the smoke is driven, before it reaches the mouth, by means of an elastic tube, rolled up in a coil, several yards in length. This produces a constant bubbling and boiling noise in the water during smoking.

In the background you hear the neighing of a wild horse, the bleating of a sheep or a goat, and the braying of an ass, which some of the guests have brought along with them; and thus the coffee-house serves also as a sort of stable, and the landlord acts as hostler, taking care of man and beast in the same moment. At the entrance there is hung up in a bag a very young child, perhaps but a few months old, screaming with all its might, being left there by its faithful mother, an industrious Bedouin woman, whilst she attends to her business in the market, and wishes to spare herself the trouble to carry it in her arms. Near the door, on the bare earth, sleeps a tired Bedouin, covered like the drunken Noah in his tent, with his face turned to the ground, and who attracts the attention of all present by the harmonious sounds which he makes in his sleep. On the other side lies a small hillock of charcoal, from which the fire is fed, and on which sits a Bedouin woman with her dear half-naked boys. The attention bestowed on the guests is very simple, and is confined to coffee without milk or sugar, the argiles, and at most a glass of cold water in addition. In the month of fasting, the Rhamadahn, this passage, as is also the Kaffane, remains closed during the day, as a token of penitence and fasting; but during the whole night it is so thoroughly crowded that one is scarcely able to squeeze his way through. The other parts of the year it is closed at sundown.

The Kaffane, answers also as an exchange, and many a trade is driven there between the Arabs and Bedouins.

If we now cast a look on and contemplate the most forlorn condition in every respect of the Holy City, we cannot avoid asking with the prophet, "Is this the city of which they said, She is the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth?" (Lam. 2:15.) For all that, this very miserable condition is the greatest consolation the believer can have, "for the word of our God will stand for everlasting." (Isa. 40:8.) And we see quite clearly that his words are being fulfilled when he said, "As I have brought over this people all this evil, thus will I bring over them all the good which I have spoken concerning them." (Jer. 32:42.) "For the Lord hath comforted Zion, he hath comforted all her waste places, and maketh her deserts like Eden, and her plain like a garden of the Lord; joy and gladness are found there, thanksgiving and the voice of song." (Isa. 51:3.)

Jews and Muslims in Palestine