Coffee came to Istanbul from Damascus in 1554 and five centuries later Syrian cafes are popping up across Istanbul for a different reason.
As dawn broke in the imperial city of Istanbul one day in 1554, Shams of Damascus and Hakem of Aleppo arrived in the city after journeying for weeks with the aim of introducing the first ‘Kahvehane’, or coffee house, according to Ottoman historian Ibrahim Pecevi. They settled close to the silver waters of the Golden Horn and inaugurated the first coffee house in the Tahtakale district of the city.
Five centuries later in 2013, 33-year-old Ismail of Damascus arrived in Istanbul for a different reason. Unlike Shams and Hakem, who came to the city driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, Ismail came to Fatih as a refugee, who fled the brutal civil war that continues in Syria to this day, claiming the lives of over half a million people.
On a late winter evening in January, he pours a bag of coffee beans into the grinding machine at a Syrian coffee place in Istanbul's Fatih district.
In the middle of the cluttering and grinding sounds of coffee beans, Ismail recalls his time in Damascus, growing up within its fortified walls and eventually meeting his mentor who taught him how to brew coffee.
“I never wanted to flee and be a refugee, but I was forced to become one and leave my home,” he says.
A bearded man with a tanned face, dark eyes and a crew-cut, Ismail sits behind a coffee table with his broad arms folded and speaks in Arabic, his gaze resting upon the simmering Syrian coffee he has offered this reporter.
His mentor Zafar Ul Hakim, who was like a father figure to him, taught him the art of coffee making. He trained with Hakim for 13 years.
“I have been working in the coffee industry for twenty years, I have been involved in this work since I was nine years old,” he says, amid the banter of men and traditional Arabic music playing in the background.
"Sometimes, my mind goes back to those days, sometimes even in the middle of a long day with coffee making here, I think about him (Hakim).”
While working with Hakim, he says he took care of "all tasks”, and shifted to different coffee factories and spaces as he grew up. He picked up coffee bags, carried them from place to place, and tried to learn how everything worked inside the coffee factories.
He evolved with time and became skilled enough to manage one of the cafes in the city. “I had my own car and started my own business as a wholesaler of coffee too,” he says.
When he decided to leave his hometown and come to Istanbul, he was married and had a child named Saifuddin, who is now six years old. The war was at its peak and he ran along with his family amidst the deafening sounds of bombs and air strikes.
“Only I can relate to what I experienced while I was carrying my two-year-old child under the air strikes,” he says.
Istanbul offered him a new start, but he felt far away from where he belonged. Soon after moving to the city, he started working in a shoe factory. He didn't last there long and soon gravitated toward his forte — coffee making.
The heart of social life and politics and an escape from war
With tens of thousands of Syrian refugees flocking to Istanbul in the last seven years of war, Istanbul's coffee scene has diversified. More and more Syrian coffee houses popped up in the following years. Traumatised by the war, Syrians in the city began to find some solace while interacting with their fellow countrymen over coffee. They spoke of what they left behind and what they lost in the gruelling war.
“When the war started, everyone spoke of losing a loved one," Ismail says. "Sometimes, people even spoke of their family members being kidnapped or disappearing. Never heard back from them."
Many Syrians, he says, also try to avoid discussing their past and look forward to new beginnings.
“There are people who also talk about survival, and dream to carry on with this new life,” he says.
The evolution of different coffee styles and textures
Sometime in the mid-1500s, as Suleiman the Magnificent ruled the Ottoman Empire, the hue above Istanbul’s sky resembled attar of roses. To bring coffee to the Sultan’s attention, one of his staff ground the coffee beans and set to preparing the Ibrik pot. As the beverage burned over charcoal, it became the Turkish coffee we know today, a significant innovation in the history of coffee-making.
An old saying, "black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love", influenced Turkish coffee-making for years. From the introduction of the Ibrik pot in the Ottoman era, different methods emerged over time, enhancing the art of making coffee.
Ismail’s manager, Muhanned Khais, describes the ways in which the Turkish coffee market differs from the Syrian one.
Since Syrian coffee is roasted longer than its Turkish counterpart, it loses its caffeine content, he says, adding that the two coffees also differ in texture.
“The Turkish coffee has higher caffeine content than the Syrian one. Another difference is that the Syrian coffee is thinner in consistency while the Turkish one is thicker,” he says.
Khais and Ismail say the culture of sitting in cafes and drinking coffee for long hours continues to thrive within the Syrian diaspora in Istanbul.
“Even though there are bombs and bullets (back home), the Syrian culture never changed with war. We still sit together and consume the coffee and live through its culture,” Khais says.
A coffee-maker, prisoner and refugee
As Ismail comes across as a skilled barista, it's hard to imagine him having endured physical torture by the Syrian regime. But he was kidnapped, tied to a table and constantly punched by a lieutenant loyal to Bashar al Assad. “I was treated like a punching bag, with my legs and limbs tied as I lay on the wooden table,” he says.
He avoids talking about the days when he was detained by Assad's forces. Instead he talks about his insomnia and how he works for long hours until his body aches. “I need to feel very exhausted in order to fall asleep, and sometimes this is until 3am past midnight,” he says.
Ismail’s six-year-old child Saifuddin has shown the signs of distress. He constantly bites his lips. To help his family overcome trauma, Ismail says he has devoted himself to his children's wellbeing. He wants them to have a normal life.
“I don’t know what is going to happen to us next, we are working until we know what we will do as Syrians, so we just work as days go by,” he says.
And with that, Ismail walks towards the counter and resumes his work behind the coffee maker.