May 30, 2023

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Ramadan: For Libyans, coffee is the hardest thing to do without

Espresso, Lungo or Ristretto? The only Arab country to be colonized by the Italians, Libya, like its former occupiers, is no slouch with the finer points of coffee. As Ramadan approaches, fasting people are preparing to cut down on caffeine levels during the day.

Like all Muslims, Libyans fast during the month of Ramadan, which begins at the weekend. From sunrise to sunset, they are forbidden to eat and drink, including coffee of course.

In the center of the capital, Tripoli, men, and very rarely women, meet in front of countless cafes, often small stalls equipped with high-tech machines imported from Italy.

“The coffee that Libyans drink at 4 p.m. in normal times, they drink at two hours after sunset in Ramadan,” laughs Mohammad Zourghani, who runs a cafe in the heart of the old city of Medina.

Inherited from his grandfather, who bought it from a Jewish Libyan in the 1950s, the 31-year-old’s small business is always full of well-trimmed beard. And Ramadan doesn’t bother him: after breaking the fast, his customers rush to “fill themselves with coffee as naturally as one drinks water.”

The tradition of coffee dates back to the 15th century in Libya. Beans grown in Yemen traveled from the Arabian Peninsula to Europe, particularly via Libya. Later, under the influence of the Italians, and after the Ottomans in 1911, Libyans adopted the famous espresso in addition to the thick Turkish coffee, which they called “Arab coffee”.

– Italian varieties –

“The older generation is still attached to Arabic coffee, but young people often order espresso or macchiato” (coffee topped with frothed milk), says Mohamed Zurkhani, while his staff pours the aromatic black liquid into paper cups.

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“Even in the midst of war, Libyans cannot do without their coffee,” ironically the young boss, referring to the armed violence that has rocked the country since the fall and death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi thanks to the 2011 revolution.

In Tripoli, life has resumed and the cafes are full. Sometimes we set up bar tables on a terrace or on the sidewalk, sip a “tassa” coffee for less than a euro, and tell each other about the day or lament the political chaos.

Hot drink menus abound in Italian specialties. As in Rome, Americano tends to be more full-bodied than anywhere else in the world.

On the terrace of another cafe in the medina, people of all ages chat quietly over coffee. Abdel Basset Hamza, bundled up in a down jacket and hat, ditches his luggage to order a quick afternoon coffee.

– Caffeine garlands –

“There’s nothing we drink more than coffee,” says the 63-year-old with a white beard, a latte to go well with.

“You don’t find coffee of this quality made this way with such machines” in neighboring countries, the businessman likes to drink the Turkish-Arab version of his favorite drink “every morning”, boasting.

So during Ramadan, “we think all day about the coffee we’re going to drink,” he says. And directly after sunset, he has a field day, even though he says he’s curtailed his consumption for his health.

Ali Khawaja, 24, an alcoholic since his youth, dreads coffee-free days like every year. But Ramadan is an opportunity to gather around the enchanting aroma of this drink.

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“All the iftar tables have coffee,” the meal to break the fast, says this young resident of Tripoli’s suburbs, wearing a leather jacket and hair carefully brushed to the side. After iftar, during the long nights of Ramadan, “we spend the evening drinking outside with friends”.