Conversing on Coffee with Usama Canon of Ta’leef Collective

I’ve been attending classes at Ta’leef Collective in Fremont for a while now. A couple of years ago, I was at one of their events when I found out that they were planning on building out a cafe in their facility. I ceased listening to anything further and was instead fixated on what I just heard. A cafe? At Ta’leef? I wondered what kind of cafe it would be and what kind of beans they would use. It was soon after that I realized that Usama Canon, one of the founders and teachers of Ta’leef, is a coffee connoisseur and is the kind of person to have definite opinions about the kind of beans he uses for his coffee, let alone for an entire cafe that would be associated with his organization. 

Here’s a bit more about Usama Canon from the Ta’leef website:

Born and raised in California, Usama Canon embraced Islam in 1996 and has been a student of the tradition ever since, studying various Islamic Sciences both stateside and abroad under some of today’s foremost scholars. During the last decade, Usama served as the Outreach Director and an Arabic Instructor at Zaytuna Institute, as well as a Muslim Chaplain for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Usama is the Founding Director of Ta’leef Collective, a community based non-profit focused on assisting converts to Islam and creating healthy social and sacred spaces.

The cafe is still a work in progress but last year, he had an Oud Bar built out at Ta’leef, a small cafe of sorts in which you can experience oud and coffee. I’ve been back quite a few times after my initial visit and have always loved whatever drink I got, from a pour over coffee, to Yemeni coffee, to the lavender mint tea that I took myself away from coffee long enough to try.

For a while now, I wanted to chat with Usama Canon about the Oud Bar, his vision for the forthcoming Cafe Ta’leef, and his own history with coffee so we sat down in the Oud Bar one day to talk. There was a lot about his journey into coffee and oud that I didn’t know before and I also got insight about the purpose of Cafe Ta’leef, which will represent so much more than just a a place to drink caffeinated beverages. Read on!

Picture of Usama Canon with a French Press and Oud Burner from the Ta'leef Collective's Tumblr, taken last year (not my picture).

We’re here at the Oud Bar. Can you first tell me How you went from Oudimentary, your oud business, to the Oud Bar here at Ta’leef? 

Sure, Bismillah. My journey with oud began probably around the same time I embraced Islam in 1996. As you know, oud is a very popular incense in Muslim cultures, particularly in the Arab speaking Muslim majority countries that I lived in for a period of time. I shopped for oud and sourced oud now for over 20 years and I’ve seen the highs and lows and ups and downs of that world. In my experiences, there’s a retail experience and then there’s the authentic traditional experience. In the traditional experience, I’ve rarely seen the incense and perfume be separate from the caffeinated or hot beverage as part of the whole experience. As someone who has been both a consumer of and producer or seller of both oud and coffee, it was like let’s merge those two to see what they look like. They say that you should figure out what you are the “only” of and I know that we are the only Oud Bar.

What has the reception been to the Oud Bar here?

It’s been really well received. Oud in general is still a niche market. It’s begun to make its way into the mainstream Western perfume world. Tom Ford has an oud. There’s others – Clive Christian and Serge Lutens use oud and Oolaboo uses oud – some of these mainstream perfumers. It’s become “hip” in the perfume world. But what we’re dealing with is still raw oud. It’s not going to be processed and we’re not using just the oud scent but actually using raw oud in our perfumes and also selling raw oud incense. We do have some perfumed woods and offer some mixes but in general we try to keep it really raw and authentic. 

Oud is still a niche market. Outside of places like the Bay Area, Seattle, Portland, some places in New York, high-end artisanal coffee is also still a niche market. When people think coffee, they think Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts as good coffee which from a connoisseur’s perspective, with all due respect to those businesses, wouldn’t really constitute good coffee. It’s been well received by people who appreciate high-end coffee/artisanal style coffee and people who are students of oud. 

A lot of our business is online. Given the location of the building that we are currently in, I think we are seeing the beginning and our hopes are within the next couple of years, to go mainstream: have a storefront in places like San Francisco, hopefully New York, Paris, and other places bi ithnillah. That’s our vision.

Oud at the Oud Bar

Tell me about coffee. Were you always a coffee person or did you undergo a coffee evolution in your life?

I think it was an evolution. My journey with coffee began with preparing my parents’ drip coffee for them out of a traditional coffee can of Yuban – they were Yuban drinkers and I knew the ratio of coffee grounds to water – either the night before or the morning of my parents going to to work.  That would be one of the many beautiful chores that I had. I didn’t drink coffee. I think the first time I drank coffee was sometime in the mid-90s maybe. I stayed up all night because I wasn’t used to drinking caffeinated drinks. 

And then again, a lot of my exposure to coffee as more than just a drink that people consume to stay awake  but more living coffee so to speak, experiencing it in the truest sense, began with my travels. First in Morocco, you have a pretty strong, French-style coffee preparation that’s very popular using a Moka Pot stovetop espresso. They’ll often make that as a homemade latte and living in Morocco and ultimately marrying a woman from Morocco, I got exposed to that. And then being exposed to all the coffee traditions in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim majority world- getting into now light-roasted and sometimes spiced coffee, the likes of what they make in Western Arabia with just a really, really light roasted, almost yellow coffee with cardamom and then going east into Najd and then into Eastern Arabia, they’ll often put in cloves and saffron and then as you go south into Yemen, they are going to put in ginger and other spices and often sugar. 

That’s when I first learned how to roast, actually, in Arabia. Watching the bedouins prepare coffee on the beautiful, white sands of the coast of the Mediterranean, near a place called Al Arish in Northern Sinai in the Sinai peninsula, sitting out on these very Arabian nights-type vibe where you got a little fire for preparing coffee that they just roasted under the desert sky – those are my really authentic coffee experiences and that merges with [my experience with] the artisanal coffee scene that pops up in the Bay Area, New York, and other places I’ve lived or traveled to. 

Do you have a favorite roastery in the Bay Area?

Blue Bottle was the first spot to I think get on everyone’s radar as a notch above, setting a standard. Blue Bottle is still one of my favorites. But for me it’s more just the roastery, it’s also the ambiance of the coffee shop, service of the people, energy of a place that you go and that combination with the coffee. I think right now my favorite spot to drink coffee is Four Barrel because they offer a really great bean. Four Barrel is kind of like grunge a la hipster Mission. Not too grungy. Plus Bradley who is over there – if you ever want to be educated – he’ll spend time with you. He’ll educate you on coffee. 

Intelligentsia was my favorite roaster in the country for a really long time. I feel like they’ve been struggling, hurdling the whole corporate versus niche/artisanal. They still make great coffee but they have definitely blown up, bigger than some of the smaller roasters. I think Blue Bottle has had a little bit of an exploration of that but Blue Bottle’s beans I still feel are a step above the rest. I like Sightglass’s ambiance – I don’t think anyone can compete with Sightglass on the dopeness of the shop. Wonderful, wonderful spot. I’m not super geeked of their coffee, frankly.

If I was to vote for ambiance, I would say Sightglass.
If I was to vote just bean, I would say Blue Bottle.
If I was voting for all things considered, I would say Four Barrel.
I also like Verve a lot, if you’ve been to Santa Cruz.

Now tell me about Cafe Ta’leef. What’s your vision of that?

Ta’leef is a non-profit that I serve and so the Cafe Ta’leef is more to do with the organizational vision and development of Ta’leef, which is a completely different organization than Oudimentary, which is a for-profit company. Cafe Ta’leef is really an extension of the vision of Ta’leef Collective of attempting to create and nurture alternative sacred and alternative social spaces. When we say “alternative” we mean complementary to whatever offerings are out there. In terms of the sacred, it’s attempting to complement the offerings of the mosques and the schools that are out there for people who are part of the Muslim faith community or people who are friends with the Muslim faith community. 

And then in terms of the social – people who aspire to the type of moral commitments that Islam calls its adherents to or to people that have a similar set of guidelines, coffee shops are one of the places that people tend to feel comfortable because there’s no alcohol. There’s not a lot of super hip, super dope spaces out there where people aren’t drinking. For people who care about that, it’s about providing alternative social space where people who aspire to a particular kind of lifestyle can find an alternative to what is out there, especially at times when it’s the after-party period of the night where you’ve gone to an event or a gathering, 

Cafe Ta’leef, to put it short, is essentially trying to create a space for people in this community to explore the boundaries of safe sacred space and safe social space and the interplay and the intersection between those two. In other words, under one roof, what does it look like for us to be able to pray, to learn together, to meditate together, to advise one another to do good spiritually, and to also kick it in a completely safe, completely relevant, but a cool space. What that also is attempting to explore, especially with Muslim youth, is a type of social schizophrenia to where there will be literally two different modalities – a modality at home where I’ll be behaving one way and then when I’m out in public or at school with friends, in a different way – giving people permission to be authentic and to be themselves and be able to do all of that under one roof but at a standard better than what the mainstream offers.

In terms of the coffee, we want to be at least on par with any of the roasters we mentioned. In terms of offering complementary sacred space, we want to be able to offer a space that also encourages the Muslim community to do a little bit better in terms of the five senses experience when you come into our spaces. What do I see, what do I smell, what do I feel, what do I hear, and ultimately, what do I taste. 

Was Cafe Ta’leef always part of the plan for the Ta’leef space or did you see that manifest as the years went on?

I’ve always been, at least in the later part of my adult life, a connoisseur of coffee and I considered some years ago opening a coffee shop, for-profit, with some business partners. We ended up not doing that and so I’ve always wanted to open up a cafe personally but the vision for Ta’leef has always been about creating and nourishing healthy sacred spaces and healthy social spaces so yes, in terms of the vision it’s been there but explicitly as an achievable, deployable goal, it came about later.
As you know, that Cafe Ta’leef will God Willing exist in a sizable space, approximately 3000 square feet. When we first moved in here, there were people who said it should be a basketball court, it should this, it should be that. All things considered, we came to the conclusion that the most effective use of it, both in terms of achieving our programmatic envisionary goals but also in terms of consideration of noise and the popular demand of what our beneficiaries would want, we figured a cafe would make the most sense. The hope is that it would be a for-profit element for the non-profit. 

I’ve heard you talk about Cafe Ta’leef for 2-3 years now. I remember you saying that you thought the cafe would be funded sooner but it’s been taking a couple of years. Why do you think that is? Why do you think the community hasn’t been as behind the cafe as maybe you had hoped?

I think that part of it is that for one in the religious community, people tend to give to causes that they feel have an explicitly religious tone and also have a really clear other worldly return on investment. So if you tell me that if I build a mosque, I’ll be able to have a house in Paradise, it’s kind of a no-brainer. It’s a smart investment.

I think alternative programming tends to struggle being funded the same way mosques do unless the cause of that organization is really, really exclusively clear as to how it benefits the Muslim community. If you look at the social justice and the legal/political causes, Muslims are going to obviously see a clear benefit for themselves. Generally speaking, and if I’m being honest, I think there is a very, very, real negligence – it may be benign but a very, very, real negligence as it pertains to just the future of the community, just thinking about what does a project look like 10, 15, 20, let alone 50, let alone 100 years from now. 

I think that people with the money are often going to put that money where they can say “this is clearly going to a benefit me in my grave.”  Although I believe building Cafe Ta’leef has a really, really clear religious impetus, I think that maybe from the older generation who may have the means to invest don’t see the same significance that they would say in a mosque. When Dr. Umar [Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah] was here, he called it a communal obligation, a Fard Kifayah, dealing with the social stuff of the Muslim community. I think there’s room for improvement as to how significant and important our social questions and causes are. 

I think a lot of people would benefit from it immediately, people who may be closer to our age group or younger. Number one, they may be thinking well, I already go here or already go there, why do I need a coffee shop here and number two, they may just be thinking, once you guys build it, let me know, and I’ll come kick it. Which is, if we’re being honest, a little more consistent with the general millennial “Generation Me” ethos. “That sounds cool, why don’t you guys do it, and holler at me when it’s done”. That’s part of what we’re dealing with too. Also, 80+% of the people that come here under 40. Generally speaking, that demographic doesn’t have the giving power that some of the other that some other segments of the community do.

What are the next steps for Cafe Ta’leef for it to be open to the public?

There are two pieces. There’s funding and some final paperwork with the city. Within a couple of months the hallway, which is the first part of the buildout, will start and hopefully we’ll be done InshAllah by the fall. That’ll be the first part of it. We’ve now secured the level of funding to begin the first groundbreaking part, the construction, and that comes in phases as the city approves the different building permits. So, hopefully by 2015, there will be enough significant investment and buy-in to the project from people for us to be able to open the doors of Cafe Ta’leef. But again, that is pending funding.

On a more positive note, people are like that makes perfect sense, we’d love to do something similar to that and include that in our own mosque or own community center. Similarly, when Ta’leef was born and people were able to see the model and see the benefit, I think when Cafe Ta’leef is included in that, I really believe that would be Ta’leef 2.0. Part of my vision too is that even the Sunday night class we have would likely be held in Cafe Ta’leef, so a class with a coffee shop vibe.


French Press at the Oud Bar

I definitely want to thank Usama Canon for making the time to take part in this interview!

If you’re in the Bay Area, check out Ta’leef Collective and the classes they have to offer. Don’t forget to grab some coffee before at the Oud Bar!

Oud Bar hours:
Monday -Thursday, 5-8 and Sunday 5-10.
43170 Osgood Rd
Fremont, CA 94539
 between Seldon Ct and Sand Ln

To learn more about Usama Canon, check out the first episode of the podcast Diffused Congruence, which featured him as a guest.

6 thoughts

  1. OMA!!!

    How awesome that you got to sit down and talk with Br. Usama! I’ve been aware of him but not as in depth as most, but I do follow him on Instagram :)
    This was a great interview / conversation ma’sha’allah. Learned a lot.

    So many great projects or possibilities like the Cafe in the Bay Area or in LA, as far as the Muslim community.

    I am going to share this post with my cousin sis who lives down in El Cerrito – she’s a big coffee fan.

    1. Thanks for checking this out Tony! Yeah, I should scour the cafes in the Bay to find folks to interview :) I was thinking about starting to ask a few folks but let’s see if I can build up the courage…

  2. Mashaallah you guys in the Bay Area sound VERY blessed! Please make dua for us here in Perth, Australia. We are a very small community and definitely do not have initiatives such as Ta’leef here, I am inspired from afar :-)

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