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  • Sarah Hamzeh

How Café Culture Influences Social Mobility: Case Study of Tripoli

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 13th century was a turning point for coffee in the Middle East. During this time, the production of coffee was maximized in the Arabian Peninsula to aid Muslim worshippers 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 the Levant. Coffee began to be utilized 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. The event is initiated 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.

Introducing Tripoli

The city of Tripoli is the second-largest and second most populated city in Lebanon. It is a predominantly Sunni Muslim city, with its sister-city, El-Mina, hosting a sizeable Christian minority population. This has relegated the spatial division of El-Mina to include more bars and pubs to accommodate the relatively larger Christian population.

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 cultural 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 can be divided into two distinct construction phases. The oldest part being in the El-Mina district, where it became one of the most important commercial hubs on the Mediterranean, and another part, deeper into the city with an evident Mamluke-era feel, by the iconic Abu Ali River, where its historic Raymond De Saint-Gilles Castle was built, along with its surrounding old souks and squares. The city then grew to fill the gaps between El-Mina and Old Tripoli, adding with it more upper and upper-middle-class catered housing and commerce. This led to a mass departure of many in Old Tripoli to the newer areas of Tripoli leaving behind a lower socio-economic class to remain in the old parts of Tripoli. This was exacerbated after the 1955 Abu Ali River flood that destroyed parts of Old Tripoli.

Old Tripoli 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 Old Tripoli, the youth and elderly had little to no outlets, only an abundance of cafes. Given the physical and virtual disconnect between the old and new parts of Tripoli, transportation between the two sectors 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 blow off steam and engage with others. Card games and hookahs went 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 vent their frustrations. The café became a meeting point for people of the same socio-economic status to get together and discuss the political, social, and economic realities they are all collectively enduring.

Café Al-Tall Al-Olya (The Higher Hill Café, for being atop a small hill) is one of the most historic, still-standing emblem of Tripoli. An icon of Old Tripoli, this café was known for its movie premiers to its center point of protests against certain Ottoman government policies to the brutal French colonial rule. The people of the city seldom had open spaces where they could gather, so cafes, with their always-open doors and their invasive nature onto the public sidewalks and streets, played that role.

Cafe Al Tal Al Olya

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, among others are all being true to the legacy and named after whoever owns them. One café in the old town is a new addition, however.

Kahwetna — Our Cafe

The renowned NGO, March, has recognized the importance of cafes in Tripoli's culture and has used them as a peacemaking tool. At the edge of the old city lie two neighborhoods, Bab Al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. The former is a predominantly anti-Assad, Sunni Muslim neighborhood and the latter is a predominantly pro-Assad, Alawite neighborhood located on a geographically strategic hilltop, both united by abject poverty and government neglect. These two neighborhoods and the intermittent deadly clashes that frequently was a result of a spillover from the neighboring Syrian crisis is a big reason why many of the inhabitants of Old Tripoli have moved away. The clashes created a severe and visible schism between the two neighborhoods which permeated across the city.

March’s efforts to launch peace-building initiatives in the city started by seeking out and vetting sixteen young men and women who had participated in the fighting in one way or another.

March went on to take over a heavily damaged building on the former front line between the two neighborhoods, and did a total renovation of 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 opened. 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 harmed by the violence to voice their frustrations and establish a common ground. This proved highly beneficial and successful as even people from the other neighboring areas and newer parts of Tripoli came out to an area that was considered a no-go zone. The café created an environment where people concluded that they were more alike than different. This experience was a true testament to the impact that cafes have on Tripoli's 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. 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 by myself 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 mainly due to the lack of entertainment venues in my old neighborhood. 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 relatively more culturally 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 and are still 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. 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 in lower-income neighborhoods, namely as potential voters. This importance is highlighted from a very young age where men are 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. The general perception of men from Tripoli is that they have a very rugged and “manly” reputation. It is perpetuated in the habits of toxic masculinity that often manifest in it. Young men of a higher class background tend to avoid such manifestations of physical altercations but surround themselves with men from different social circles as a “security net” in addition to it serving 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, it is more so a matter-of-fact reality that they cannot avoid. My female friends and I had attempted to enter a male-dominated café once during our teenage years to 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, 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 marked 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, the famous Greek legend, where 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.

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 and 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 piece, 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 eyeing her throughout the night. She wanted to introduce her to her son as 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, and 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. Some of these spaces remind me of a hunting ground where men actively seek out to get to know women, making women 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, Lebanon and the limitations that these spaces pose on many audiences. While women are frequenting 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. However, 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 the refurbished core. If the success of the aforementioned cafes is a precedent, then it is proof 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.

About the Author:

Sarah Hamzeh is a Landscape Architect, Urban Designer, Fulbrighter, and writer. She is passionate about studying people’s relationships with their cities.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Tripolicy.


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