The Syrian “sin” of The Coffee House

Spare a thought for Syria next time you are in a coffee house reading a newspaper, or simply talking freely with a friend in one, because the origins of the coffee house – now more commonly known as a café – come from there and they were meant to be places where people could meet and talk freely.

Certainly this was the irony for me one day, sitting in a café reading a newspaper article about the war in Syria, and hearing about the suppression of freedom of association and expression there.  Worse, even down to small children being harshly punished for expressing themselves, as a recreation of a picture by Banksy emotively captures.

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Coffee houses themselves were banned from the start for much the same reasons.  It was the Sultan who first sought to ban them when two Syrians brought them to Istanbul, in Turkey, in the mid tenth century – and similarly when they came to England in the seventeenth century (more than 600 years later), Charles II sought to ban them too. Why? Because they were places where people from all walks of life could meet and talk freely, and so the monarchs feared people would talk about them.

So now the country which gave birth to these places, which in themselves probably led to that right to freedom of association and speech enjoyed by democracies nowadays, seems to have found itself tongue-tied through a ruling régime which supports the exact opposite.

I remember travelling in Syria myself back in the early nineties, enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of Aleppo market, the Kerak crusader castle, the perfectly preserved amphitheatre of Basra and the quirkiness of the stuffed animals in the windows of the taxidermy shops. All this combined with the sequestered beauty of certain cafés tucked away in secret gardens hidden behind the walls of villas in Damascus.

But fear was expressed to me, by the few local people I met, about being watched by the secret police. I never saw anyone, but then maybe I didn’t know who or what to look for either.

Now, sadly, it is all too clear that they were there – probably blending in with the surroundings of those coffee houses, and in the midst and mist of a dictator’s fears of a populace talking about their concerns. And so was sadly created a country with a lack of freedom for the people to happily do and be who and what they really wanted to do and be.

I have recently asked Syrian friends in London about it. Apparently a strange world exists – perhaps much like George Orwell wrote about in “Animal Farm” – whereby you can only get by if you belong to a particular family or families.

In a way, this sounds to me like a hark back to the Middle and Dark Ages in England and other parts of Europe when monarchs of all sorts were dead set on ensuring their dynasties on similar lines – and the concept of “patronage” was key.  Except here we are in the twenty first century, and a dictator would prefer we would all go to sleep and ignore the coffee in order to keep himself and his family in power at any price.

Well, hard luck Assad, as Hell will hopefully not freeze over – as the rest of the world will find a way to help you wake up and smell more than just the coffee…

That smell will instead be the highly perfumed one of an Arabic Spring coming to allow coffee houses to open again in Syria and hopefully let the people in freely – regardless of the family they are from, their religion, race or any distinction – and along with the right to share their views freely, as long as it’s done fairly and respectfully without harming anyone.

Ironically it takes an artist who hides himself from view in Western world to say it so simply to all in one image about attempts to remove the rights to speak and associate freely with anyone and everyone – but now we too can say it all along with a simple hashtag: #WithSyria

Woman with Balloon imagePostscript:

I fear what may have happened to those great coffee houses I went to in the market of Aleppo, as well as tucked away in the streets of Damascus.  One of the few, relatively open coffee house I went to was in Basra. Certainly I understand the market in Aleppo, once a World Heritage site, has now been burned to the ground.

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Bridging the Bohemian and The Bourgeois

There are so many good little cafes in the Borough of Camden that it is really hard to know where to start.  Taking it to the bridge – in combining it with a garden centre, antique shop and healthy organic food – is a novelty though, as my psychotherapist and healthy life coach friend and I discovered one sunny Saturday in May on our way back from languishing in the sun on Primrose Hill.

Just as you cross over the bridge from Primrose Hill to Chalk Farm Road tube station, a new stall has cropped up:  The Primal Pitstop

20140517_164019_resized 20140517_164029_resized You can combine their healthy cakes with the coffees from the cafe next door, and browse for a plant or an antique while you’re about it. And then simply sit out and watch the interesting characters cross over The Bridge from Camden to Primrose Hill and back again

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So what’s so unusual about this cafe then?  For me, I think it’s about the value of location and variety – as it combines an unlikely mix of things caught in the divide between the bohemian jumble sales of the Camden markets and the bourgeois jet set playing about on Primrose Hill – and a space to watch passers-by between the two.

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Fables of The Farmer’s Market

There’s something old, but new, at the little place I get my coffee from on Sundays down at The Queen’s Park Farmer’s Market.  It too, just like Eddie’s Coffee Cart in Paddington, is something of a guilty pleasure – except it’s when, at every other weekend and following a hard week’s work and consideration of another one ahead, I feel I need some counsel or philosophy and a rye “human eye” to help me feel OK about what I’ve done and look forward to where I am going to.

It’s the “chat with Chad”, the barista at this stall which calls itself “Brinkworth’s Coffee Stop”, which provides that for me.  Chad’s just great with his quick observation of how it seems you are this particular week, whether it’s healthier or happier – or not, as the case may be. He also has a unique ability to celebrate or commiserate with you.

Of course, if you are open enough to return the favour by checking out how Chad looks, and asking how things are with him, then you will equally get an insight into a world well away from the city – and one which appears driven (with luck) by happy cows and their caresses, but also loaded with equal stresses of the English countryside when they’re not (and especially when bad weather comes into play, as it has done with the floods around the UK this year).

I find this exchange provides quite a down-to-earth contrast to the ones I am more used to having with my fellow office-bound city dwellers during the week.  Indeed, I can’t help but feel sometimes though, in the chats with my fellow folk from the city, that I am just one of the cows in the equation – and just wish I had more of a farmer like Chad to be there to observe how I am, and move me to a better, grassier paddock when I look like I’m not happy and not ready to chew the cud which will provide the product to help him make the cheese.

This, of course, is probably just one of many fables from the Farmer’s Market which could be told and sold on any given Sunday.  I think it is worthy of investigation, and hope to have an insight direct from our farmer-cum-barista in an upcoming blog post – and a few photos of Chad, the Queen’s Park Farmer’s Market stall and even some of his cows too, of course….

PostScript

For now, however, I need to get in “the moo-ed” for work in another paddock with another city “people farmer” somewhere else in this coming week – as unfortunately I did not have a farmer like Chad to realise I could be good for many more hours of milking with one “funny farm” I have been working on for the past month, and so have been put out to pasture without even getting a chance to show the many possible ways to move the cheese like I know I am good at doing when not writing posts on blogs like this at the weekend.  So if you know someone seeking a supply chain architecture consultant, who is happy to help create or improve ways to make as well as “move the cheese”, then please leave a comment below and I will contact you privately to discuss.  Say, maybe you might even know one which will involve me working out the best way to combine (and perhaps even blend) good milk with great coffee (and perhaps cake) along with the places which provide all the friends you can make….

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Coffee A La Carte

For the last few months I have survived the rigours of the basin – Paddington Basin, that is.

One of the little guilty pleasures which has helped me start and survive the day has been this little coffee cart that catches a unique mix of care and office workers as they walk over the bridge from St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London, to the corporate head offices housed at The Point, Waterside and Merchant Square.

Carting the cafe

The little table and chairs add something – for those who have a little time to stop and chat

The cart is run by one Edmundo Aldo Guevara De La Cruz – or Eddie for short.  It is one of my favourite mobile coffee places – the other one being the VW Combi van with its couches which sets up under The Westway in Notting Hill – but it is the character of the barista, who markets himself as Mr Coffee, which makes me care for this cart in a way that no other coffee cart can.

Contemplating another coffee

Contemplating another coffee

Eddie brings some of the charm and great coffee to London which I experienced when I travelled to Peru back in 1998.  In short, while contemplating a coffee here at the start of the day, your troubles seem to slip away, as he cheerily chats to you about football, ladies and life – assuming you have a few spare moments to listen – or otherwise simply serves you “your usual” with a rye and cheery smile. 

Eddie's Coffee Cart - down at Paddington Basin

Eddie’s Coffee Cart – down at Paddington Basin

Indeed, on Thursdays in summer when the market is on and the sun is shining there at Merchant Square, your can almost forget all your office worries and woes as you watch the canalboats go down the canal while you lie back in a deck chair with a coffee at lunch-time. Well, almost…..

In summer, some of the corporate head offices at The Basin offer the cheer of a deck chair - but, perhaps sadly, there's often no one there!!  However solely on Thursdays, when there's market and music on at lunch-time, it is an entirely different story

In summer, some of the corporate head offices at The Basin offer the cheer of a deck chair – but, perhaps sadly, there’s often no one there!! However solely on Thursdays, when there’s market and music on at lunch-time, it is an entirely different story

In truth, while it is great that some of the office shoguns have shown some sensitivity to the sensibility of relieving stress of their workers through providing a pleasant canal-side setting, one gets the impression that few care to be out of the office enjoying such a scene.

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The Dock of The Bay

For my friend, Antonio, who is “new in” to Sydney

So I am back here again at Quest Base Camp, after my little sojourn in the Southern Hemisphere – and in reflecting back on this quest so far on this (sadly) rather gloomy May day in old London town, am realising that  probably everyone has their Sad Café, their Home Town Café and their little café in the middle of nowhere.

It would be great to receive a few comments from my fellow bloggers – and other visitors to this site – on whether they have their own ones for each type I’ve noted to date, as well as hear about different types – as maybe that is the key to the “unusual element” that makes this quest interesting: recognising quirky elements of a good café.

Maybe I am just a frustrated café marketeer – or perhaps a café-a-holic – but it is not just a great coffee that makes for a good café (although that clearly helps). It’s about something more.

My first thoughts are that some of the keys are “good people , positioning and great atmosphere” – so that you see it and feel you want to sit down and “take the load off….”.  Otherwise you might as well just get a takeaway (although I do know some good and quirky places for that too – such as Peruvian Eddie’s coffee cart down in Merchant Square, Paddington Basin every week day morning in London, which does something mean with a Caffe Molinari coffee bean).

In stopping over in my second home of Sydney, on the way back through to London from Wellington, I had just enough time to grab a coffee at another café that has stood the test of time – and also fits another type too.  I think I’d call this one “the dock of the bay café”.

It’s called Rossini’s and is right down on the parade at Circular Quay, Sydney.  When I first lived in Sydney, way back in 1990, I used to either grab breakfast there on my way to work – and having travelled the 7 miles by ferry across Sydney harbour from Manly – or stop off there at the end of the day for a wine with friends or workmates before we each went on our ferry way.

Hot buttered raisin toast, and a cappucino, were de rigueur for me as a quick breakfast snack back then – before taking the train two or three stops down (depending on how much time I had) to where I worked down town on contract putting in a new car registration and licensing system for the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority.

Rossini’s is all about the setting. You can sit down, outside, and have your Otis Redding moment:

“sittin’ on the dock of the bay, watchin’ the ships roll in – and watch them roll away again”

The staff make you feel like royalty there, as they lead you to your table.  There is also something of a movie-like feel to it all as you sit there and watch the Sydney ferries dock and all the people roll off on their way somewhere.

You can clearly spot the travellers with their luggage in tow. The “new in” (as the locals refer to them) are those who have just come from the airport to there. It’s here that they get their first glimpse of the majestic Sydney harbour and its amazing icons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House all in one compact setting.

The best way to get a shot of these architectural icons is actually from Circular Quay station itself – but not many of the “new in” people may realise that though, as the train coming in stops on the other side of the station that does not look out across the bay.

So often it is only for the luxury of those leaving – heading out t’other way – that get the best view of this amazing spot as shown in the photo gallery below.

The Scene from Circular Quay Station

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For those that have the time though, I can thoroughly recommend a coffee and raisin toast at Rossini’s.  That way you can “sit and watch those ships roll in – and watch them roll away again….”

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The Old Home Town Café

Recently I had the opportunity to return to “the old home town” – Wellington, New Zealand.

It did indeed feel a little like the opening lyrics from that song made famous by Tom Jones – “The Green, Green Grass of Home” – as for me:

“The old home town looked the same 

as I stepped down from the plane…..”

Except there was no Momma and Poppa to greet me (as they had sadly passed away some years ago), nor anyone called Mary – however there was my best mate, Ross, whose 50th birthday I had come all the way from the UK to celebrate.

Many of the places we went to see together were very much in line with the sentiments of that song – from the old houses that I lived in when my parents were alive, to the student haunts we hung out at in our University daze. There even was our equivalent of “the old oak tree” – well, OK, it was a Narnia-style lamp post that was once the place that a cable hung from that was used to get the turntable to turn at the top of Woodward Street (and click on relevant link under The Gallery below to get the idea).

Yes, the latter was one of those – er – “iconic” places around Wellington that we made fun of at student graduation time. I trust you can get the idea from the captions and descriptions in my little “student gag-site gallery” below. 

Wellington student gag-site gallery

Some of the pub haunts’ names had changed, of course – such as infamous sports bar once known to us as “The Loaded Hog” being no more. Instead there’s a trendy pub in its place, which is a microbrewery making its own beers on site.  Microbreweries are a new trend now in New Zealand, given the horrendous prices on all other branded beers there – and they are springing up in all sorts of unusual places, from old garages to service stations.

The Civic Centre looked much the same though – apart from a silver ball that they have been suspended as a sculpture in mid-air over the centre of the square, perhaps as a complement to the pyramids placed next to the new town hall (known as the “Sir Michael Fowler Centre” – or “Fowl House” to the locals) 

The one trusty stalwart that has stood the test of time though – even from when I was there over 20 years ago, as mentioned in The Sad Café post – is The Lido café. 

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Something about this place has allowed it to survive.  Certainly it continues to sell great carrot cake and coffee, almost as I remember it (apart from the price now being staggeringly higher than I could recall it). 

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I could see how much some tinge of nostalgia had tainted my view – as really the café is quite nondescript when it comes to photographing it. Yet it still being there, after all this time – correction, those times – makes it my pick for “the home town café”.

It’s perhaps even unusual in that there is nothing unusual that makes it stand out aside from continuing to do what it does best:

serve great cake and good coffee in one of the most central locations in town.

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Sheesha Surprise!!

Further to my Right Royal Sheesha posting in January. The very next day after posting that story I was involved in a minor car accident where a car ran into the back of mine when we had to stop, relatively quickly, at a crossing which some school-children had decided to run across at the last minute.

As misfortune would have it, the car behind us was too close – with the driver not paying as much attention to the road as one ought to in such wet and cold days as we have had in this past winter in England – and that is what led him to run into the back of us. Fortunately neither my wife nor I were injured in the incident, and insurance from the other driver’s company (which ironically just happened to be a CCTV camera company) paid out.

My car, as a happy car - before the incident

My car, as a happy car – before the incident

The surprise was that the panelbeaters were located over at Park Royal, and so supposedly near to the unique sheesha café – as mentioned previously  – that I had yet to try out.

So as luck would have it – but not necessarily good luck (and so perhaps even needing me to say “Insh’Allah” – which translates to “God Wills It” – in the hope it will be good luck) –  it seems I was destined to head over to Park Royal at least.

It was just a question of whether or not to go to the sheesha café as, to be truthful, I had found myself a little hesitant to head all the way over to this place – as while there was something about its remoteness that intrigued me, I was slightly worried about smoking sheesha too, as I know little about it and its effects. It made me feel as if I was going to be heading into a foreign country where dyed-in-the-wool Westerners like me might not be welcome.

That was why I had tried to enlist my friend, Ismail, to come with me – as he seemed to know more about it than me, and he is originally from the Middle-East where smoking sheesha is a custom.

Indeed, it was from Ismail that I learned that the whole sheesha smoking experience is apparently something that is a relaxed early-to-late evening thing to do –  and is something that one will do with their friends and colleagues after the day is done, where you can all sit down, relax and talk about the day (or anything for that matter).  So it seems to me that sheesha just helps provide something to do to help everyone with relaxing, and feel comfortable chatting, while sitting together – and perhaps even the sheesha itself provides a talking point.

Unfortunately Ismail’s wife was very close to having their first baby, and so any such  excursion in an evening at that time was out of the question for him.

Nevertheless – or maybe “Malesh” (“Never Mind“), as they say in Jordan and other parts of the Middle East (and as I had learned from travels in Syria and Jordan many years ago – which is a whole other story) – the complications with my car seemed somehow to be leading me over that way.  So perhaps God was willing me to confront my fears?!

So finally, in mid-February – several weeks after the incident, when my car was repaired and due to be collected in the early afternoon from the panelbeaters in Park Royal – I thought that it ought to be fairly safe to head over then and at least see what this café looked like for myself.  Especially as my journey took me over that way.

Thus convinced by myself, it was around 4pm in the afternoon that I picked up my newly repaired car and made my way over there.

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The name of the café is Basrah Lounge. It is tucked away down at the end of a road to nowhere, on a side road just off the A40 heading out of London. Every other edifice leading up to it is tied in with selling cars or involved with various forms of light industry.  

You would not expect anything other than a quick snack or lunch bar at most to be there.

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An entrance in between what looks like a warehouse and a fast food takeaway outlet, complete with delivery bikes, is the way into where the lounge is found. Some plants at the entrance help to take away the industrial feel and suggest some form of invite into a more inviting environment

IMAG0540Unfortunately, while taking these few photos of the outside, a manager came out from the entrance at the right-hand side and confronted me on why I was taking them.

After telling him the story of how I had come to hear about it, he directed me to the way in between the two buildings – but he gave me the impression that I should not take any more, just to be sure.

So, my friends, I cannot share any more photos of the actual lounge itself – aside from saying that it is more like a Middle Eastern oasis of comfy couches inside, as they are all arranged in squares around where the sheesha pipe and bottles can be placed conveniently for sharing. It provided a surprising sight to see – and quite a contrast from the industrial world outside.  Television was available on some walls, but not in an intrusive way. What’s more, I was told that the seats are heated – and so everything has been done to make sure that the customer’s comfort is a premium consideration (including when the weather is cold).

The one thing I noted though, when I walked in, was that there was no one on their own like me – just a couple and a few small groups of people chatting away in their areas sharing their sheesha. The other thing that struck me was the menu, which had a broad variety of sheesha tobacco flavours on it.  It also listed a few drinks too.

It was the latter that led me to think that I could at least take in the atmosphere, as I had no idea which sheesha would be good. Indeed, I did not even know how I ought to smoke it.  Clearly this was not a place for sheesha virgins, like me, to visit.

This observation struck me even more between the eyes when the waiter came over.

“So what sheesha would you like?”, he queried.

“Er, I don’t know”, I replied, “can I just get a coffee?”

“No”, he replied, “This is a sheesha café – and we only serve people who come in here to smoke sheesha”

“Oh!”, I replied – surprised, “well can you give me a few moments to have a think about it?”

“I’ll just go and check with the manager”, he replied.  So he went up to the front of the lounge and disappeared through a door.  At this point, I contemplated the menu to see if there was anything I might be able to handle on my own.  There were a wide variety of flavours – and “Apple and Cinnamon” stood out as one I’d probably be prepared to try.

I then looked at the price: was that £15?  Ouch, sheesha is not something to take lightly!!  A lot steeper than the price of a coffee, irrespective of whether you are a fan of the double macchiato with a twist (i.e. two shots of coffee with a spot of milk in a miniscule-sized cup – for much the same price as a big mug of latte). This indulgence was more like the price that a Westerner like me might expect to pay for a whiskey liqueur coffee – and then some….

Then the waiter came back.

“Everything is OK if you want to stay”, he said -and I saw the man who had indicated the way in to me standing at the entrance to the door that the waiter had gone through. Clearly he was the manager, and he smiled at me and gave a wave in the air where you turn your hand back to front – and I gave one back.  I had seen the same type of wave on my travels in the Middle East, and I knew it to be one used when a man recognises a friend that he wants to offer something to.

However I realised that I was not ready to take in this experience on my own.  So I thanked the waiter, telling him how great it had been to come in and see the place, and that I realised it is “really one to come and experience with your friends rather than be on your own.”

I also asked him to thank his manager for allowing me to come in, and in doing so I gave a open-handed wave to the manager again – in a gesture of farewell, and which I trusted to be one of gratitude too. The manager waved back in the same way, and at that point I stood up and walked resolutely out.

Epilogue

I will head over to revisit Basrah Lounge again however, and hope to make it my first place to try sheesha – but just do it with friends who I know and can appreciate the experience, as well as the uniqueness of Basrah Lounge, as it would seem a shame to waste what is clearly special and expensive tobacco on people who do not know the best way to take it. After all, it’s clearly much the same as for those who truly appreciate coffee both roasted and made well – or tea, for that matter.

Postscript

Certainly the lounge is named well – as Basra is the name of one of the more unique places I visited in Syria back in 1993.  That city was the only one where I have been able to wander around an almost perfectly preserved Roman amphitheatre. But that adventure, my friends, is a completely different story – and one I may tell one day, assuming you like to hear stories about retracing the steps taken in bringing silk to the Middle-East and Europe (and everything and everyone that came down along the roads with that) 

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