Probably one of the quirkiest and quaintest Starbucks outlets in the world sits in a villa on Sharjah’s Corniche, on Al Muntaza Street. When you walk in, you know you’re in a Starbucks – the place is 100% ‘on brand’ and yet it’s got a character that’s as unique as any independent coffee shop you’ll find in today’s world.
It’d give Naomi Klein a heart attack.
This is the Starbucks beloved of Sharjah’s corniche cruisers at night, home to young mums in the morning and packed with beach-going families through the weekend. A procession of four wheel drives perma-lines the roadside in front of the place. The Arabs discovered coffee and although they’ll happily gulp down Seattle’s finest, they’re not here because they want to be seen. It’s more ingrained as a social behaviour in the Arab World – the coffee shop has always been a core meeting place. The people of the region have, for countless generations, gathered in coffee shops. And therein lies the link between smoke-free Starbucks and the centuries-old tradition of the Souk Al Arsah’s very own, very traditional, coffee shop with its benches and argileh pipes.
Downstairs at the Sharjah corniche Starbucks is where the action takes place, the service area and coffee machines whistle and whoosh their steamy magic while syrups and creams are stacked ready to ladle on those delicious calories. Alongside the cakes and tills, window seats overlook the corniche, the Muntaza Road. Snaking up from the little coffee shop’s nerve centre, the stairs take you up to the first floor and its window and balcony out to the Arabian Gulf, as refreshing in the morning as it is magical at sunset. The view is to die for, the clatter and chatter are eternal.
Exploring the link between today’s Frappucinos and grande lattes and the coffee shops of yore is easy enough: a couple of kilometres down the road from Starbucks’ modern little marvel, you can visit the old coffee shop in the Souk Al Arsah in the ‘Heart of Sharjah’ area. Here the men would sit on benches, playing cards or the table game carrom or just chatter over argileh pipes. Custard glasses of hot, sweet chai suleimaneh or almost thimble-like cups of green coffee flavoured with cardmom, qhawah, would be consumed as the news and gossip were traded far into the night.
We get our modern English word ‘coffee’ from the Arabic qhawah, the first records of the drink made from the berries of the, originally Ethiopian, coffee tree go back to Yemen. The habit of drinking this mildly intoxicating infusion spread to the rest of the Middle East from there and eventually made its way to the hub of international trade, London, some three hundred years later.
For the Middle East, the ritual of coffee is vitally important – as a symbol of hospitality (qhawa is traditionally offered to guests, poured out of those ornate vessels into the tiny cups, a requested refill or two – not more – is polite and the cup handed back with a little wiggle or a forefinger over the bowl to signify the guest has had sufficient of the fragrant, green coffee) as well as a social lubricant.
So in a sense, Sharjah’s Starbucks is both a symbol of modernity and a throwback to the coffee shops of the souks. Whatever ‘brand’ of coffee is being drunk (and these days it’s more likely to be a large creamy frappucino with extra caramel and hundreds of thousands sprinkled over it!), the ritual of meeting and socialising over coffee remains as potent as ever. It’s as eternal as Sharjah itself…