Professor Seeman, through his participant observation and his multitude of conversations with Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, analyzed the importance of coffee (buna) or, perhaps, more importantly, the avoidance of buna. He demonstrates through several examples of how coffee (buna) is much more than merely a drink, a cultural symbol, a commodity, or a social tool. Professor Seeman argues that buna represents the contradictions and limitations of the moral agency and freedom, internal conflicts, and complicated emotions associated with broken family relationships, as well as the power to influence social relationships.
His conversation with Tadesse and his fiancé illustrates the deeper complexity associated with coffee. When he talks about his gift (coffee) for Tadesse’s mother, Tadesse’s fiancé raises her voice in frustration about the drink. The conversation is continued with Tadesse, later on, when he tells Professor Seeman secretly that “I can’t stay here with my family all afternoon, drinking coffee and talking about who-knows-what.” (735). Later, Professor Seeman explains that the frustration and annoyance from both of them is an expression of the “whole set of morally inflected moods and dispositions that include ambivalence and regret alongside opportunities for moral integration, healing, or transformation” (736).
He also talks to Yossi who is impatient with his mother’s generation and their habits of drinking buna. He vents out his frustration, complaining that his mother sits three times a day to drink several cups of coffee while he is working. Professor Seeman explains that Yossi’s frustration stems from his identity as a member of a new, modernizing generation rather than the traditional, backward, and old generation. In a different context; however, buna stands for a medium in which elders and the older generation can challenge the independence and autonomy of the younger generation. His conversation with Sivan illustrates how the older generation of her family used their coffee time to make rude side comments about the way Sivan was dressed in jeans, humiliating her father. When she recalled the memory, she was enraged explaining how she stood up for herself by telling them that they were no longer in Ethiopia anymore. To her, the buna represents a force and authority that represses freedom and individuality. It represents the traditional, conservative culture of the past generations.
Professor Seeman explains that his interest in the topic of coffee as an ethnography started when he noticed that one of the first indications of a member of the Pentecostal church or the Messianic church was that they refused to drink coffee. More specifically, they emphasized coffee’s addictive qualities and how addictions are associated with demonic power and the worship of Zar. Professor Seeman compares addiction to “core-neoliberal values” such as freedom, autonomy, and choice, stating that they are on opposite spectrums. The discourse of addiction within the Pentecostal community emphasized not just the superficial reasons for economic improvement but rather, they focused on the “loss of control over one’s body, one’s self, and one’s social-moral world.” (735). In addition, addiction was taught as a religious problem because it was portrayed as an external power that was put up against God and His sovereignty. They also are the only ones to associate the avoidance of buna to biblical interpretations of violence and freedom. In another conversation with Tadesse, Professor Seeman learns that terrorism could also be interpreted as a form of addiction. Tadesse explains how he believed terrorists were motivated by the power of Satan because it was unlikely that an individual would wake up and have a sudden desire to violently kill. In a way, this theory could be applied to drinking buna. Since drinking coffee, addiction is a subconscious habit or action, the power of Satan could potentially be driving individuals to continue to drink coffee. Tadesse also explains how he believes nothing is forced or completely prohibited but he questions what certain actions may mean and that is why he decides to do one thing over another. It seems that Tadesse was implying that many people were not drinking buna because doing so would mean they would not be with God.
One statement that resonates with me is when Professor Seeman states that Pentecostal avoidance of buna or any addictive substance is just a “straightforward affirmation of these [neo-liberalist] values” (735). The statement reminds me of our discussion of witchcraft and how the tribes used witchcraft as a practical way to find immediate answers and solve their everyday problems. It also reminds me of our discussion of Christians using exorcisms to find tangible answers to why one is behaving in a “sinful” or “demonic” manner. Avoiding buna, in my opinion, seems to be a tangible and practical way to express these complicated sets of emotions and frustrations about broken family relationships, the desire for freedom and independence, and the desire to be a member of a modernizing society. Although others are also motivated to avoid buna because of its association with demonic power and possession, that is not the only reason avoidance of buna/buna is prevalent in Ethiopian society. Professor Seeman says, buna is much more than a cultural symbol or a superstition or a religious habit, as he explains through many anecdotes, buna is associated with a lot of emotions and perspectives, that make people want to avoid it because of their experiences.
Seeman, Don. “Coffee and the Moral Order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals against Culture.” American Ethnologist, vol. 42, no. 4, 2015, pp. 734–748., doi:10.1111/amet.12167.