Coffee-hooked Libyans brace for low-caffeine Ramadan days

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Italy left a deep cultural mark on Libya, the only Arab country it colonized: the national love of espresso. But with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan approaching, Libyans are preparing to go without it.

During the Islamic holy month, which is set to begin this week, observant Muslims everywhere are expected to abstain from eating and drinking from dusk to dawn.

During Ramadan, “we spend the whole day dreaming about the coffee we will drink”, said Abdel Basset Hamza, a shop owner in the Old City of Tripoli.

“There is nothing we drink more than coffee,” said the 63-year-old as he donned a hat and down jacket to step out of his luggage store to order a late afternoon brew.

The center of Tripoli has a multitude of cafes, from tiny booths to large halls, all equipped with sophisticated Italian espresso machines.

Although coffee is an integral part of daily life across North Africa and the Middle East, Hamza was proud that Libya stands out from its neighbors “you won’t find coffee of this quality made this way with such machines”.

As Ramadan approaches, the sidewalks outside the capital’s cafes become crowded with mostly male crowds enjoying their last drinks of the day before breaking the fast.

Mohamed Zourgani, who runs the Old City cafe that his grandfather bought in the 1950s, said that he does not expect business to slow down because of the fast, only to be concentrated in the evening.

“Usually the Libyans drink coffee more than 16 hours, during Ramadan they drink more than two hours, from as soon as the sun goes down,” said the 31-year-old with a good beard – groomed.

Immediately after people break the daily fast, he predicted, they will rush to “drink coffee as if it were water”.

– On every table –

Libyans have been drinking coffee since at least the 15th century, as beans from Yemen made their way along North African trade routes and into Europe.

But when Italy occupied the formerly Ottoman-controlled Libya in 1911, the country’s coffee culture took a new turn, with punchy espressos taking the place of cardamom-tinged Arabic coffee.

That said, old habits die hard, according to Zourgani.

“The older generation still loves their Arabic coffee, but young people mostly order espresso or macchiato,” he said as his waiters served the thick black liquid in paper cups.

“Even when the war is getting worse, the Libyans have to have their coffee,” he said.

The oil-rich country has been at war for more than a decade, since the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi, with several major battles raging there as recently as 2020 over its capital.

But Tripoli’s cafes still do a pleasant trade, with punters sitting at street-side tables, discussing politics and daily life while sipping a coffee “tazza”, a cup of espresso that costs less than a euro.

Some cafes even serve a local version of affogato, with the Italian dessert stripped of its traditional liqueur.

Ali Khawaja, a 24-year-old in a leather jacket, said he has been a coffee addict since he was a teenager, but Ramadan was an opportunity to appreciate the drink.

“The coffee is on every iftar table,” he said, referring to the fast-breaking meal at dusk.

“After we break our fast, we spend the evening drinking outside with friends.”

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