Review of Coffee and Coffeehouses by Ralph S. Hattox

Coffee and Coffeehouses, The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East by Ralph S. Hattox, University of Washington Press, 1985, 178 pp.
Coffee and Coffeehouses reads at times like a dissertation. The author, Hattox, apparently didn’t think his book would reach an audience beyond scholars of his subject. Thus he writes, “The greater part of the works cited in this book have been published, and will be familiar to many.” I can safely say that I’m not familiar with a single one of the books cited. Most of the citations are to books published by academic presses and in many cases they are written in Arabic. Coffee and Coffeehouses was probably well-accepted as a dissertation. It contains historical research sufficient to drive the author to make distinctions upon distinctions.
There is still much that is interesting in the book. The basic story is that coffee originally comes from Ethiopia, but was popularized in Yemen in the 15th century by Sufi mystics. From there the use of coffee spread to the Middle East, Europe, and the rest of the world. The story of coffee and coffeehouses is then one of conflict as various muslim leaders and lawyers sought at times to ban the substance or the establishments in which it was purveyed. Though at times the opposition was due to the natural effects of the coffee bean, more often it seems the problem was that coffee got a bad reputation as illicit activity went on at the coffeehouses. Even so, the coffeehouse performed a valuable function in middle eastern societies giving people a place to have conversation, play chess or backgammon, or simply to get out of the house.

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