When I picked up the phone that day and called the taxi company dispatch to ask for the driver of taxi # 1569, the last thing I expected was that fourteen years later I would be sitting in the witness box in a courtroom, looking at two people who used to be so in love with each other but are now sitting on opposite sides. Well, when I hailed a taxi that winter night, I should say. That’s when it all really started. Or rather, when I was sitting in the taxi and happened to turn around and look out the rear window, I should say. That’s when it really really started. When I saw that solo sini upside down on the back dashboard. (At the time, I didn’t know that it was called a sini, of course. It just looked like a simple porcelain cup with some paintings along the sides.)
Think about it, how often does a person actually turn around to look out of the rear window of a car? There has to be a specific reason. Not unless you think you saw something but by the time you realize it, it’s behind you, and you want to confirm. Or you were looking at something ahead of you, and you want to keep looking at it, but now it’s behind you. So you turn around to keep looking at it. But just to turn around without any reason, how often does that happen? Something told me to turn and look that night, and I did. And, years later, here I am, again turning and looking. Except this time there is nothing mystical about it. Just plain old subpoena.
It’s been so long since I met Tariku and Hiwot, but I still remember how displeased Tariku was with me, when he returned my call. For some reason, although his company fired him, they passed on my message. Didn’t want bad publicity I guess. That was fortunate, because the 1-800 number on the flyer that the waitress at Blue Nile gave me hadn’t worked. It just kept ringing and ringing, then disconnected. They fixed the problem since then, obviously. Otherwise the company wouldn’t have become successful enough for Tariku and Hiwot to fight over it in court.
“Who this?” Tariku had said, when I picked up his call.
“You called me. To whom am I speaking?”
“No you called me. And now I don’t have job. So who this?”
I heard some shuffling and tense whispering, then another voice came on the phone. It was a woman, Hiwot.
“Hello. Excuse me please. We are calling because you called taxi company and asked to speak with driver of #1569.”
“Oh yes! I’m so glad you called. I was calling because I wanted to ask you about something I saw in the taxi one night a few weeks ago.”
So I explained about the sini. It turns out that they already knew about my having gone to the store and bought up just about everything I could lay my hands on. When I had it all at home, I began to have second thoughts about giving it all away. The idea had been to give it all as Christmas presents to my brothers and sisters and parents and their kids, and some friends from work. Yes, next year Christmas. What can I say, I plan ahead.
I ended up inviting Hiwot to my home to teach me how to use everything. I hadn’t invited Tariku but he was part of the package, I guess. Plus, as the driver he was an indispensable element of the whole operation. His words, not mine. Little did we, or rather Hiwot, know how much would come to depend on those words.
The ‘operation’, it turned out, was this business idea of 1-800-Abol. Unwittingly, I became its first guinea pig/customer, in that order.
So, how does it all go? Well, before starting with the coffee itself, you have to set your stage. And really it is very much like a stage, because the whole room will watch everything you do from start to finish. All your equipment has to be set up before the show can begin. First, find a nice area, like a corner or a spot by a wall. Preferably where there won’t be much traffic passing behind you. Lay out the rectangular green mat with the fringe along its edge (this is a stand in for grass, since grass isn’t as abundantly available around there). On your mat, put down your rekebot – that mini single-drawer unit looking thing. On its top, which is slightly depressed like a tray, put out your rows of sini, right side up. The more, the better. Even if you are making it for six people, put out twelve cups. It’s all about the optics. Off to the side, lay out your incense holder, the incense in its woven container, the woven jebena holder, and your sugar, and your tray of whatever snacks you’ll be serving (which should be popcorn). Oh, I almost forgot, before any of this, normally you would get your coals fired up and getting warm-to-red-hot in the brazier out in the yard somewhere. But we’re improvising. And so instead of a real brazier with real red hot coals, what do we have? A single burner portable stove, of course! Great, now that you’ve got the stage set up, it’s time to wash the beans. You know how you wash rice? Basically the same thing. Just smaller quantity and a lot more rubbing and rinsing out and rubbing and rinsing out. Who know coffee beans had so much skin to shed? Try not to think of dandruff while you’re doing it, I challenge you. Now you got your clean beans, and the hot mini-stove, and the stage is set. Time to take your position behind the setup, on some kind of low stool (but not the ground!), put the beans on the flat iron roasting pan, and that on the heat, and start nudging them around with that long iron stick. If you’re efficient, you’ll have water boiling on the side, to have ready for when the beans are roasted and ground. Oh the grinding. Normally, you’d pound them to a powder in a small mortar, no kidding. But, again, we’re improvising, so we’re using an electric grinder. Where are we at now? Stage is set, main performer is sitting in place, beans are ground, water is boiled. Mix the latter and the former in the jebena (feeding the coffee down its neck by the spoonful, guess-timating the amount of water or, if you want to look amateur, measuring out the spoonfuls and the sini-fuls of water exactly), and set it on the mini-stove to start boiling. And then? Well, you wait. If it’s one white woman named Shelley and two Ethiopian people named Hiwot and Tariku, you just start of sit in an awkward silence until one of you feels compelled to break it, hopefully with something other than inane chatter. Thankfully, that was what happened.
“How long would this normally take?” I said. Of course, I broke the silence.
“The whole process?” Hiwot said.
“No she means how long for the coffee to boil.” Tariku said.
I wasn’t sure what I meant. So I went with what he said. “Yes, for it to boil.”
“Watch the neck,” she said.
She tapped her finger to the round top opening of the jebena.
“That’s the mouth,” he said.
“It’s the neck,” she said.
“Technically wouldn’t it be the mouth. Because earlier when I was putting gin the spoonfuls of ground coffee, you said we were putting git down its neck.”
“Yes, so the neck.”
“Well for it to go down the neck it must pass –
“The mouth,” Tariku finished for me. “Therefore –
“Okay fine, the mouth. That is the mouth. You two happy? Watch the mouth and you’ll know when it is ready,” she said.
“What am I watching for?” I said.
“Oh. It wouldn’t come through the nose?”
I pointed to the spout. I guess I could have said spout. But it’s always so embarrassing to use words people don’t know if you’re from different cultures.
Hiwot laughed. “That’s not the nose!”
“What is it then?”
She looked down, seeming embarrassed. “It’s not the nose.”
Tariku hesitated. “It’s the nipple.”
“Well, we don’t say that exactly,” Hiwot said, “We say it is the breast.”
This was getting really weird. “I’m sorry,” I said, and touched the top, then the long part beneath it, then the spout, “So, this is the mouth, and this the neck, and this the nipple? What is this, a Picasso?”
“In a way,” Tariku said, “And of course, the round bottom is –
“Let me guess, the butt?”
“No. It’s just the bottom.”
“Of course it is.” I regarded the warming jebena like a fourth person in the room. “Now that handle is looking like a woman’s arm when she puts it on her hip like this,” I put my hand akimbo, “when she’s angry about something.”
“Like a mother,” Hiwot said. She began to blink rapidly, as if she was trying not to cry. It got weirdly quiet again. A little tear rolled from the corner of her eye.
“I’m sorry was it something I said?”
“She just lost one recently,” Tariku whispered, “Her jebena.”
“It must have been very special,” I said.
Just then, out of nowhere, our little Picasso suddenly began throwing up her coffee all over the stove.