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A History Rich and Bold

Associate Professor of English David Alvarez

September 20, 2012

Associate Professor of English David Alvarez has a story you can share the next time you join a friend for coffee. The favorite beverage of early risers and night owls fueled the rise of political dissent and democracy – long before it reached Western Europe.

Alvarez, himself only a recently converted coffee drinker, used his 2011 first-year seminar, “Coffee: Islam, Democracy, Globalism,” to delve into a history he previously only touched upon.

“I’d taught courses about the role of the coffeehouse during the Enlightenment, and I wanted to do more reading in that,” Alvarez says. “The Islam part was relatively new to me, however, so this seminar was a chance to bring all of those ideas together.”

The coffeehouse, he knew, grew in popularity during the European Enlightenment, creating public spaces where people of all stripes could gather and debate late into the night.

These new hotbeds of public discourse weren’t embraced by all, however. As a minister of England’s King Charles II observed, men who drank in alehouses would sing songs about their king. Men who drank in coffeehouses only complained about him. Many of coffee’s critics were also quick to point out that coffee and the coffeehouse weren’t English inventions – they were strange and dangerous imports from abroad. Had the defiant talk that often accompanied them been imported, too?

Alvarez and his students pored over old texts and records. They mapped coffee’s global trek, from discovery, to cultivation, to commoditization. They even conducted online interviews in coffeehouses around the world.

“At first the research was a bit overwhelming because Professor Alvarez could not simply tell us the answers, or even where to find them,” Emily C. Vincent ‘15 remembers of the class. “But then it became liberating as we could explore what truly interested us. We used discussion as a springboard to reveal interesting questions or tensions, and then researched to try to piece together answers.  We didn't just learn about coffee, but about politics, the environment, literature, religion, economics and the complex interplay between these disciplines.”

The answers Vincent and her classmates found didn’t quite fit the Western legend. Coffeehouses had been important hubs of discourse during the Enlightenment, but neither they nor the drink they served were inventions of the period. Conversation and controversy followed coffee wherever it went.

While the coffee plant is native to Ethiopia, the first records of its cultivation come from across the Red Sea, in Yemen. Sufi Muslims, followers of a sect of Islamic mysticism, brewed coffee as early as the 15th century to stay awake and alert through nightlong prayer sessions.

From Yemen, coffee spread to the Egyptians and Turks, where coffeehouses served it by the cup to any paying customer. These new coffee drinkers would sit together and talk – and talk, and talk – and their caffeine-infused conversations tended to wade into dangerous waters. Muslim rulers and religious leaders distrusted coffee and coffeehouses so much that they repeatedly tried to ban them from public life, but coffee’s popularity thwarted each attempt. In fact, Alvarez says that he best preserved records of coffee’s early history are Islamic theological documents debating its lawfulness.

When coffee reached England in the 17th century, so did the stories of Sufi mystics and Muslim freethinkers who drank it. These tales were part of a foreign mystique that frightened xenophobes – but also attracted many Englishmen, no matter their class. In coffee, the Muslim world had brewed more than a popular beverage. It had created a subculture.

“The coffeehouse was a place of political dissent, which is something the Enlightenment celebrates about itself, and traditionally something that has been understood as an exclusively Western idea,” Alvarez says.  “But what was interesting in what we discovered was that the first authoritative history about coffee makes it very clear that the model of the coffeehouse as a place of political dissent was borrowed from Islamic sources.”

Following his first-year seminar, Alvarez began using the research he and the class conducted to write about how coffee connected two different worlds. His first piece was featured in August at 3QuarksDaily.com, and he has since delivered a paper on the topic at Oxford University. He plans to publish more of his findings in the near future. The new direction in his scholarship never would have happened, he says, had it not been for students such as Vincent who helped connect the dots.

“Teaching and research go together at DePauw,” Alvarez says. “Working with my students led to discussions about the primary texts that we were experiencing together. If that hadn’t happened, I don’t think I would have made the discoveries I did. One of the nice things about the first-year seminar program is that you can explore things, and it was through that process that this discovery came about.”

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