Walk into Mukha and you feel the air is thick with whispers of conversations of the meanings of life. The wooden tables, the piles of books around the counter, the jars of Yemen honey and Kimya Shai, flower buds meant for you to steep in hot water to draw out its essence and drink them as tea. It has a Middle Eastern feel, with tapestries and Arabic calligraphy written on its white-washed walls.
Mukha is a cozy little coffee shop located at Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It is one my favorite coffee shops in Malaysia, for I feel that the place is one of the rare places that feeds the soul as much as it does one’s thirst for coffee.
I sat in this ambience and had a conversation with Abdul Rahman, the man behind this operation. He shared some insightful look into the café and the spirit behind the establishment’s success.
The Name and Inspiration Behind Mukha
The name of the café draws inspiration from Rahman’s Yemeni roots. The café is named after a place in Yemen of the same name, where coffee trading began in the 15th century.
“My family in Yemen would be the Yoda of coffee trading,” said Rahman of his heritage.
Rahman decided to open up a coffee shop because of his experience studying in Australia. There, the Australians take their coffee pretty seriously. Even their 7-Eleven would serve what may seem to be good coffee to the untrained tongue. Inspired by both his Yemeni coffee trading roots and Australia student days experiencing their café culture, he decided to open up Mukha, creating a fusion of both western and middle-eastern cuisine.
Pioneers of the Coffee Culture in Malaysia
I remember Mukha as one of the first few cafés which opened in the Klang Valley. Soon after cafes started mushrooming in all corners of the valley. It is usually difficult to set yourself apart following such trends but being a pioneer with a distinct identity may be one of the reasons why Mukha has a strong following up till today.
Rahman mentioned that one of the most gratifying thing about running Mukha, is the fact that it has become a base for him to run events and community projects. This engagement may be one of the key factor setting Mukha apart from their competition. Although coffee shops are all trying to establish their own niche or image, very few manage to pull off the genuine effort done by Mukha.
Setting A Culture, Beyond Malaysia’s Eating Habits
Mukha is one of the few café or restaurants I have heard of that organize events, and sell books at their store.
Rahman is also a member of Peace Meal, a non-profit organization that focus on bringing cultural, intellectual and spiritual understanding of Islam through interactive programs in third spaces to youth in the Klang Valley, Malaysia. Peace Meal has organized events like poetry performances, and youth relevant lectures at Mukha’s space.
If you take a peek at their counter, you can find books like “Purification of the Heart” by Hamza Yusuf, which talks about fixing our soul to be upright. I would recommend this book to anyone, who would like to take a minute to look into their own hearts. Other books like “Lost Islamic History” and “Being Muslim A Practical Guide” are definitely on my too read list as well.
These small efforts in my opinion definitely sparked a wave of intellectual conversations in how to approach Islam among the urban youth in Klang Valley.
I asked Rahman, if this was something that he intended to do from the very start, to set a culture within the Malaysian youth community beyond our eating habits.
“This was not in the initial planning board. It all just happened to fall into place as I love supporting causes that spread love and knowledge,” he explained.
Mukha also leaves out small cards with Islamic inspired quotes. For example; “Do not forget to smile” or “After hardship comes ease”, are some of the quotes meant to make somebody feel good, after a rough day at work, school, home, and etc. These little gestures from the café is definitely what gives the place a soulful vibe.
The Diverse Crowd
Perhaps it is due to their variety of activities offered that draws a diverse range of people to seek respite in Mukha. You’ll usually see the urban youth but they have successfully managed build a reputation as a space for Islamic events are held and yet at the same time, a cool place for people to generally hang out. As mentioned above, Peace Meal from time to time, organize events at Mukha’s space. One of the most recent one I attended was a talk by Zain HD, Peace Meal member, on his journey to study Arabic in Tareem, Yemen, and why he decided to stay even after the war.
These events events plus performances by local artists definitely gives Mukha a community-vibe.
Striking such a balance is an incredible feat on their part, and something which many other Islamic organizations can learn from to attract youth.
Part of the pulling factor for urban youth to hang out at Mukha is because of their laidback environment with a style that the café portray itself as. As Rahman puts it,
“Just imagine being at your auntie’s place, that homely feel, with a bit of swag” he says.
The Gratification of Running Mukha
“We may not run big charitable events but we like to focus on small, simple, consistent, and impactful efforts,” said Abdul Rahman.
Mukha is very conscious of its role in the Taman Tun Dr Ismail neighborhood. In the past, they have went around the neighborhood looking for missing cats, given away free coffee compost to people, free mask during the haze, and even running a campaign to help the Cambodian refugees.
Rahman feels that these small efforts connect people through inculcating love and care for the members of the community. He has witnessed his own friends benefitting directly with the existence of Mukha.
“I’ve even had friends who have met their soulmates in this coffee shop. They went on to get married. Who would have expected that!” laughed Rahman. He feels grateful for being able to be a part of such wonderful stories, no matter how small they are.
“For me, my wife and colleagues are my constant source of inspiration. They give me ideas on what events and community projects to run in Mukha,” said Rahman.
Suspended Meals: Expanding on Community Efforts
Mukha is not just a pioneer in Malaysia’s coffee scene, but in the social business scene too. Social business is becoming more popular globally and in Malaysia. Concepts like suspended meals, where customers can buy a meal for someone who needs to claim it later, is on the rise.
It turns out they Mukha has already initiated something similar during Ramadhan. They were approached by Etiqa, the insurance and takaful arm of Maybank Group, to prepare food for Terawih goers in the Masjid.
“All community efforts are commendable, but I think it is better if we focus on making real impact in our efforts and not just to do something because there is hype around a certain cause,” notes Rahman.
In terms of suspended meals, Mukha for example may not be able to create a direct suspended meal concept daily. This is because they need to take into account that people who are in need of suspended meals do not usually find their way around Taman Tun, which is an estate with more high income residents. So, they would rather figure out different ways to give a positive impact to the community.
Advice for Budding Entrepreneurs
I asked Rahman to share some advice for budding entrepreneurs out there who might want to set up a café or any kind of business venture.
He shared this quote a teacher of his, taught him just the day before.
That the Prophet S.A.W had said:
“A trustworthy, honest, and truthful businessman will rise up with the martyrs on the day of resurrection.” If we were to internalize that, whatever risks or hardship one may go through in running a business, seems to be minute, as compared to the reward.
Mukha Café, certainly has a lot to offer to its patrons. Whether you want to find a corner to chill out on your own to read a book, or you want to enjoy a good cup of coffee with some friends while tasting some of their delicious Mediterranean food, Mukha should definitely be on the top of your list, even if you’re visiting Kuala Lumpur for a week.
What do you think? Are there any other cafés you know out there with the same kind of spirit like Mukha?