Men and the coffee shop

Personal notes from a foreign wife

By Lois Cemal….

Having observed several coffee houses brim full of men who were apparently doing nothing, a visitor to Cyprus once asked me if it was the women who ran the country!  Although said tongue in cheek, such a comment reflects the misconceptions many have of the role of the kahve in Cypriot society. They’re not just a ‘guy’s club’ where the men can escape from chores or the nagging wife. Now, as in the past, the coffee house is the hub of village life where Coffee Housenews is shared and where men of all classes, married or single, young or old, can socialize.  Everyone is welcome and is free to express their opinion, tell a joke or just listen, all for the price of a strong cup of Turkish coffee, a glass of lemonade or a cup of sage tea.

For a stranger arriving in a village the kahve is the place where they enquire about relatives or get directions to someone’s house. The kahve is also where farmers start asking for animals, tools or fodder that they might be looking to buy or sell; it’s where the police hang the list for motor vehicle testing dates and where the veterinary department notifies the public of dog inoculation times.  Visiting officials or dignitaries make it their gathering point; during pre-election times there is no busier place than the coffee house. You could say the local kahve is still fulfilling its role as the news centre.  Little happens in the community that isn’t known there.

When my husband’s village near Paphos was destroyed by earthquake in 1952 and the colonial government of the time rebuilt it, the British engineers were well aware of the role of the coffee house in the little community.   While most of the villagers drew lots to get their new houses, the three coffee houses from the old village were given the most prominent places, all on the main road, each a stone’s throw away from the other.

Making chairsOften the patrons of coffee houses will toss friendly banter across the road to those sitting at a neighbouring kahve as they both spill out on to the respective verandahs in a jumble of chairs.  None of these white plastic patio chairs were found in the traditional kahve either.  The rush seated chairs were usually made of mulberry wood for strength and the twisted reeds make a healthy cool-in-summer, warm-in-winter seat.  A customer usually claims three; one to sit on, one to prop his arm over and one to hook his foot on a rung.  This last one also serves as the table for his coffee.  When the owner of the kahve cares about his customer, he might stop him sitting on a chair that someone has just left because he doesn’t want him to ‘catch’ the other person’s disease (such as haemorrhoids, which is why Cypriots never sit on a warm vacated chair but wait for it to cool).

Traditionally considered off-limits to women, some families even used to forbid their womenfolk to pass in front of the kahve lest they get oggled by the men from inside.  Some of my Turkish Cypriot women friends are, even today, uncomfortable about walking by and would never go or even look in a kahve house. I have been in many and sat with my husband, or have even sat on my own if I am waiting for something.  Far from being exciting, they are usually dark, dirty places with pictures of newspaper pin-ups stuck on the wall alongside posters of football teams and outdated calenders.  One coffee house owner used to rinse the cups in the bucket his donkey drank from (until his customers noticed and bought him some detergent and a new bucket!)  In some villages they double as a youth club, such as the one I visited recently while the auto electrician was working on my car.  As I went inside to order a coffee, two young boys of about twelve playing mini-snooker started giggling, so I asked didn’t they let women come in?  They assured me it was okay, yet my presence must have disrupted their concentration because the cue came down hard, making the ball jump off the table and hit me on my backside as I walked by.  The twelve years olds doubled Cyprus Whip Snakeup with guffaws and I joined the old men on the porch to be drilled on who, where, what and why of my visit.  Then the conversation suddenly became full of bad language as some ongoing personal argument was ignited so that I quickly finished my coffee and left.

Who says men talk about interesting things all the time?  One of our local coffee house owners is constantly complaining that all he hears is ‘how big the snake was’, a very popular topic as absolutely everybody seems to have had a close encounter with a deadly viper.  Bragging about the size of the rabbit that got away and other similar hunting exploits is another common topic but in a country with so many hunters it can hardly be avoided.

Men entering a kahve will probably be called over to sit by someone who is already there and who offers to buy them a drink.  Although a cup of Turkish coffee in our village costs very little, to pay for Kahvesomeone’s coffee is considered a gesture of generosity and respect.  In times gone by, when a learned individual like the village teacher or a doctor walked in, everyone would clamber to their feet, respectfully button their coats and ask to buy his coffee for him.  In those times of low literacy in Cyprus people waited for an educated person to read and explain the newspapers to them.

There is a saying in Turkish that one should never forget the kindness of even a single cup of coffee.  Cypriots value generosity and abhor those who are tightwads, calling them pinti, like the guy who lights up his cigarette before he goes into the kahve so he doesn’t have to offer his packet of smokes around.  It is also rude to choose an expensive drink when someone else is buying (such as a soft drink or Nescafe) as you might be putting him on the spot if the cash in his pocket is limited. Manners are important even in the kahve.

All coffee houses have card and table games and although gambling for money is illegal, friendly tournaments are played out for sweets or ice cream.  There is much bantering and Playingcoarse language as spectators form a close ring around the game where there is loud card thumping (made by hitting the table with one’s knuckles) or exaggerated throwing of dice and the slapping of the tokens on the backgammon board. I was surprised to learn that Cypriots still call the numbers on the dice out in Persian, like hep yek for double one and du sesh for double sixes.

Not all Cypriot men go to the kahve, while others go several times a day and every night as well. Regulars might consider the non-attenders as being hen-pecked or not ‘real men’, yet their own talent of sitting for long hours doing apparently nothing attracts the comments of ‘lazy’ by visitors and locals alike.  With the emergence of satellite television, computer games and cell phones into Cypriot society I guess the coffee house culture fails to compete for some men.  Or perhaps they just don’t have any snake stories to share.

Lois Cemal, a Canadian, has been married to her Turkish Cypriot husband for 37 years and they have 3 children together.  For the last 27 years she has raised her family in a village in the Karpaz, the panhandle of Cyprus, keeping goats and chickens, baking bread and making cheese and learning much about Cypriot traditions and culture

Visit Lois’s website for more eco information by clicking here