Coffee percolates through Iraq's cultural history

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Abdullah Saadi fingers the fine brown leather belt with holsters for thimble-sized coffee cups and a dagger. He is a keeper of customs, Baghdad's professional server of coffee.

He sits in a brick house behind an iron gate in the cramped warrens of Sadr City. The room is painted bright lemon in contrast to the gray street outside. His mother walks through the room, half-embarrassed, singing for guests, "I am the mother of the coffee maker." She thumps her chest and laughs at her son.

In Iraq, coffee isn't merely a matter of ordering a grande to go from Starbucks. Here, in a country where people blend modern and tribal identities freely, the beverage links people to their history, to their ancient hospitality. It serves as an entry to small talk when a man visits his tribal sheik's house, as a way to gather with friends and mourn in times of death, as an excuse to sit and argue and gossip.

"Coffee means generosity," Saadi says, explaining the delicate customs he presides over, keeping alive the old ways in the big city.

His late father, a porter, smashed coffee beans in a mortar and pestle and had his own special blend of spice that he offered to his guests....

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