For decades, ephemeral layers at archaeological sites have been the bane of my existence. The moment I read, hear, or have to confront it at an excavation, my soul does a smh. How can we reconstruct anything meaningful in this ephemerality? To be honest, that frustration is simply a privileged standpoint of archaeologists who work in ancient cities, towns, or any mostly permanent settled space – which is where my training and research has focused. Ephemerality is a challenge and requires me to contend with materials and surfaces in a way I am only starting to understand.
It was early morning in the late fall of 2014, my friend Emily asked me if I wanted coffee, and if so, did I want her maternal or paternal grandmother’s recipe. It was about 6 AM, I had spent the entire previous day and night at a checkpoint trying to get in to Ramallah, and completely unsure of how to answer that question. She looked at my silence with pity and then announced: We will have my maternal grandmother’s coffee. I watched and listened to her as she proceeded to talk to me about how this coffee had to be made to her grandmother’s specifications. She helped me imagine the entire process and the materials used by her grandmother: the coffee grounds, the cardamom, the length of the boil, then the waiting, the number and duration of the re-boils, the bubbles, their color, and the aroma.
Earlier that month my sister snap chat an image of a cappuccino and sent it to my other sister. Waste of digital space, I told her. After 10 seconds it disappears, she retorted. This is ridiculous; I bet no one but my sisters use this silly app, I thought to myself. Turns out, I was wrong: over 60% of US 13-34-year-old smart phone users, use snap chat. Also, now snap chat keeps your image or video for up to 24 hours, allowing you a full day within which you might calibrate your own recollection time. Choosing how to recollect within a 24-hour experience seems to be positioned as a very long time in this 13-34-year-old statistic.
In my experience, how we recollect has never been something we have been able to calibrate. Over 20 years ago in Karachi, I heard a bullet go into a body and the body fall to the ground. I could smell the blood and gunshot residue. I watched as a pool of blood slowly fought its way into focus through the dust and dirt on the surface of the ground next to the car I was hiding behind. I must have been crouched behind that car for less than 10 seconds, looking at the blood pool for what felt like 500 years. My friend and I went back to the spot less than 24 hours later in an effort to try to understand what had happened; there was a fruit vendor selling fruit at the spot in front of the cafe, and there were no visible traces left of the blood, the body, or the gun residue. We stood outside the cafe feeling slightly uncertain of ourselves, decided to order a Nescafe, got back into the car, and silently drove away.
Mamhoud Darwish starts his prose poem, Memory for Forgetfulness. August, Beirut, 1982, with dreaming and waking up to only be in a nightmare of war. As he tries to push toward dawn, he evokes the desire for coffee:
I want the aroma of coffee. I want nothing more than the aroma of coffee. And I want nothing more from the passing days than the aroma of coffee. The aroma of coffee so I can hold myself together, stand on my feet, and be transformed from something that crawls, into a human being. The aroma of coffee so I can stand my share of this dawn up on its feet. So that we can go together, this day and I, down into the street in search of another place.
How can I diffuse the aroma of coffee into my cells, while shells from the sea rain down on the sea-facing kitchen, spreading the stink of gunpowder and the taste of nothingness? I measure the period between two shells. One second. One second: shorter than the time between breathing in and breathing out, between two heartbeats. One second is not long enough for me to stand before the stove by the glass facade that overlooks the sea. One second is not long enough to open the water bottle or pour the water into the coffee pot. One second is not long enough to light a match. But one second is long enough for me to burn.
As Emily made me coffee that morning, and the mornings that followed, I noticed that every day I felt I was getting to know her family. The making of coffee as a form of hospitality is one that, in its process, builds relationships. Every morning I would hear stories or even just an aside, that linked her to the coffee grounds, to the practice of boiling, to the copper vessel, and to the sensory impact of the aroma of coffee. I know how significant the everydayness of that exercise was for me in those days in order to ensure some feeling of safety and security. It was as if coffee attested to an insistence of sheer existence – as ephemeral as it may feel in a space of constant violence. Knowing you can have your coffee in the morning makes one feel normal. I began to recognize echoes of particular slivers of time in Karachi, Iraq, and Ramallah during times of violence and how they deposited in layers atop one another in my memory and recollection. I began to understand the experience of a war that I did not witness but gleaned an insight to through prose-poetry.
I want the aroma of coffee. I need five minutes. I want a five-minute truce for the sake of coffee. I have no personal wish other than to make a cup of coffee. With this madness I define my task and my aim. All my senses are on their mark, ready at the call to propel my thirst in the direction of the one and only goal: coffee. (Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness August, Beirut, 1982)
The link between coffee and poetry in the Middle East is not a light and frothy matter. Quite the contrary: it is the root of statecraft, politics, and links to landscape. In my current work in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I have been utilizing poetics as a way to encounter unfamiliar landscapes. The use of art, poetry, and literature to learn about a history of a place is not a usual methodology for archaeologists, but my usual training led me towards silent landscapes – and it has only been through art and poetry that the landscape has opened up to me. In Nabati Poetry: The Oral Poetry of Arabia, Saad Abdullah Sowayan discusses the manners in which poets engage themselves in some labor or crafting to aid in composition… or they make coffee. Sowayan goes on to discuss in detail the rituals in composition of both coffee and poetry: “The way a man makes his coffee is his numas, since it reflects his nimbleness, alertness, composure, tact, and taste. A man takes as much pride in his coffee making as he does in his poetic composition.” (1985: 96) This link between masculinity and the making of coffee is something that Darwish reflects upon as well, as he describes the interstitial moments of boiling: Swelling and breaking, they’re thirsty and ready to swallow two spoonfuls of coarse sugar, which no sooner penetrates than the bubbles calm down to a quiet hiss, only to sizzle again in a cry for a substance that is none other than the coffee itself—a flashy rooster of aroma and Eastern masculinity. Masculinity is, of course, far more complicated than coffee, but these claims and links make Emily’s grandmother’s recipes all the more significant and reflective of intersectional politics within the fleeting moment of dawn.
Over 15 years ago, another dawn in a different place and pushed into a different time, I stood with my friends Praveena and Peter on the Iron Age mound at Gilund (Rajasthan, India) and they pointed to various spaces in the trench and spoke of ephemeral layers. They had called me over from my trench to talk through what an approach to excavating ephemerality might be. We stood for a while talking about how we had no idea what to do with these layers. We must have stood there a bit longer than our director liked because he walked over. He took one look at it, looked at us, and then said: document it and keep digging until you find a floor or a wall, then call me. We all nodded at his wisdom and got back to work.
I don’t remember much about what I dug up during that season (I think I was working on a wall), but I do remember the ephemerality of the Iron Age mound. It was not a trench I worked in or on, nor had I experienced its time or the effort to reconstruct human events – but in its ephemerality it left a long lasting image within layers of my memory.
I also still remember the rose in cappuccino foam.