Five Cool Things You Never Knew About the Arab Tea Ritual
By John Mason/Contributing Writer
1. Tea is not Just about Sipping a Drink
As part of my research as an anthropologist, I visited many people’s homes around the Arab World. Interviewing folks did not simply involve sitting down and questioning them. It almost always involved the traditional tea ritual. Tea preparation in the traditional manner inevitably added an hour’s time to the visit, which for an anthropologist meant more time for casual chatting and thus, more “data.” This ritual is not for everyone; especially, for those who are uninterested in long, drawn-out social chit-chat sessions. However, I found that tea is used around the Arab World as both: a relaxant in social situations, and a stimulant in others, often used to just stay awake.
2. The Tea Ritual is a Social Occasion
In a traditional Arab setting, Arab people prepare tea in a certain way, utilizing all the following components: a very hot brazier of coals, a stand for the tea pot sitting atop the fire, the teapot itself, strong black or green tea with loads of sugar, and serving decorative small glasses.
Sometimes they added a delicious mint flavor.
The time alone to prepare the tea helps create a feeling of comfort among the participants. It also helps to flatten out social differences, such as those between old and young, educated and uneducated, locals and visitors.
3. Preparing Tea is Part of Socializing the Young
I found in traditional Arab families that tea is part of a ritual of socializing young children into adulthood. Often, a father or uncle making tea would invite his son or nephew to pour the boiling hot water from one pot over the tea leaves into a second pot. We’d all be seated on a carpeted floor, encircling the tea-maker.
But the tea ritual wasn’t just about transferring boiling water from one vessel into another. The challenge became clear to me in a short time; it was to test just how high the youth could hold the pot from a sitting or crouching position to pour the boiling water without spilling it. This always caused great amusement, since young and old in the guest room of the host would attentively observe how much risk a young boy might take in pouring the boiling water. When a spill occurred, the onlookers would emit a teasing ‘tsk-tsk.’ Rituals such as those involving the tea ceremony help in social bonding and in nudging children towards adulthood.
4. Tea Making can have its Humorous Side
Sometimes I was invited to participate in the tea making ritual. In the Libyan Desert community where I did my fieldwork, my friend Ali who was the school principal would say to me: “Now, Mister John, it’s your turn to pour the water to see how good you are at it.” I would sometimes consent, missing the mark and spilling it just as the young boys did. This was always an ice-breaker and would ease us into conversation. The tea ritual was always a great segue to more serious interviewing. This example of how rituals can have mundane outcomes may also just be a case of how many times I observed the ritual — perhaps too many. This was my excuse for “reading too much into the tea leaves.” Ouch…
5. Hot Tea in Hot Weather—Why is that?
The tea ritual is just part of the story of how tea’s used around the Arab World. It also has a more mundane purpose. The way it’s prepared simply makes the tea taste better! As it turned out, at least as I observed the ritual, pouring the water from two or three feet above the teapot does several things. First, it aerates the water so that when it hits the tea leaves it enhances their flavor. Second, it creates a more frothy tea, each cup has a bubbling foam atop it that somehow makes it taste better.
Then, there’s the fantastic mint flavor that froths over the tongue. For these reasons, even in the warmest weather, hot, hot tea is drunk profusely.
Yummy, try a sip!
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and society, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing. The tea ritual was adapted from his book.