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The History and Cultural Significance of Iraqi Tea

posted on: Jan 26, 2022

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By: Arab America Contributing Writer / Aseel Ferman MA. PhD. Applied Linguists

Iraqi tea is one of the most important hot drinks served in almost every Iraqi house. People are
keen to serve it after main meals or afternoon hours with biscuits, cookies, or cakes. Most
Iraqis, if they do not drink tea in the morning after breakfast, are subject to headaches and
dizziness throughout the day. Red tea has occupied an important place in people’s lives and has
become proverbially known for social judgment and a symbol of contentment and acceptance
of the reality in some situations among Iraqi women who support their husbands in times of
adversity.

The date of tea entry to Iraq

According to the historical sources, the story of tea extends back more than 150 years, since
the days of the Ottoman governor, Midhat Pasha, the governor of Baghdad, at the end of the
nineteenth century AD. During that time (Coffee Shops), later turned into a place where tea is
served, were established; according to the Ottoman designation, (chai Khaneh) is the place
where tea is served.


Many believe that it came with the British occupation of Iraq in the years of World War I
between 1914-1918. But the truth is that it existed before the occupation, although it was not
popular, and its presence was limited to some well-known cafés at the time. However, some
customs, rituals and names of tea accessories were taken from the British and Indians who
were soldiers in the British army.

Serving Tea

Iraqi tea is served in a small cup made of glass called “Istikan” and this word means “East Tea
Can” in English. When the Indians came with the British occupation to Iraq, they called the cup
of tea “Pyaale” and this word is still used in northern Iraq.


As for the word “Istikan”, it has an English synonymy, as the British soldiers who were in India
during the British colonial days of the Indian subcontinent, when they were returning on
vacation to Britain, they took with them the Indian tea Pyaales as gifts… and since the English
were taking tea with a teacup, they used this word to distinguish between the Pyaale and the

English cup. The traditional British, called the mug “East Tea Can,” which is a three-syllable
designation that explains the origin of tea mug “East tea can”.


Thus, English soldiers brought this word with them to Iraq. Nevertheless, everything related to
tea was a new thing admitted to Iraqi`s social life at that time; so, the word “Istikan” attached
to social life in Iraq for ease of use.


It is said that the word (Istikan) means a small bottle. All the Arabs use the word (mug or cup)
for the bottle into which the tea is poured, except for the Iraqis, who use the word (Istikan).
Hundreds of years ago, the small cup made of glass was manufactured in Russia in a region
called (Astrakhan), and the Iraqis changed it to (Istikan). In the same city there was a sugar
factory called Al-Qand and now the word is used to refer to (Sugar cone). To use it with tea,
they found these beautiful glass mugs, so they brought them together with beautiful small
dishes in which tea was placed with sugar, then they brought with them from the same area
(the Samovar), so rich families took it as a tool to prepare tea. The middle class used two
vessels to prepare tea, one for boiling water; they keep its English pronunciation (kettle) and
used the word (the ketlee); the second vessel is used to prepare tea, and it must be made of
Chinese pottery, and they call it (tea Qouri).


It is also said that during the days of the Ottoman reign, serving tea was existed but was rarely
used and only in the affluent homes, where tea was served on occasions and holidays.
Until now adays, most Iraqi women are keen to purchase the most beautiful “Iskanat (plural of
Istikan) sets” to express their pride to the guest by offering tea in the most beautiful style. Tea
“Istikan” settles in the middle of a small plate of its own, where some enjoy emptying the tea
and drinking it in the plate to cool it. The “Istikan” embraces a small spoon (Khashoka tea), as
the Iraqis call it, to help dissolve sugar. This spoon is small and is smaller than the usual
teaspoon. One of the Iraqi popular beliefs and anecdotes is that when tea is served to the
guest, and two spoons have been placed for him by chance, he will marry two women
regardless he is married or single.

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Drinking tea and its Social habits

Although Iraqi family’s bond with tea is not old-fashioned, it is closely related to it, and it has
become part of their life and exceptional rituals, especially in winter. Tea has social origins and
rules like coffee, and it measures the degree of respect to any visitor and the level of his
appreciation!! if any visiting guest at home or in workplace is not offered a cup of tea, it is
considered as a lack of warmth and welcome, and perhaps (ignorance) and disrespect. In
returns, If the guest refuses to drink the served tea, or returns it, this indicates the
interpretation of anger, or unfulfilled request. The house owner must serve fully filled “Istikan”
of tea; otherwise, it means a detraction from honoring the guest. It is naturally for the guest to
take two cups of tea in one visit. The habits of drinking tea are also different than drinking
coffee. This hot drink “tea” should not be drunk before water or after coffee, and many Iraqis
like to add cardamom seeds to it during preparation, so that it will be a controlled and delicate
tea (with cardamom added).


Tea is the favorite drink of Iraqis, especially in winter. However, hot summer in Iraq does not
prevent drinking tea excessively. During the fasting month of Ramadhan, Iraqis think about
drinking tea instead of thinking about eating or drinking water after fast breaking, especially if
tea is prepared in a controlled way (with cardamom seeds) that modifies mood.
People in Iraq become addicted to the habit of drinking tea, like the smoker’s addiction to
smoking cigarettes and tobacco, and red tea has become a social value in their daily lives.

Tea preparation

The method of preparing tea is done in a jug called Qori, and this process is called (Delicately
controlled) because of the care and accuracy in preparing it in terms of the amount of water,
tea leaves, and fire. Tea maker watches the preparation process because any defect in these
steps may lead to burning or lightening the tea. Most Iraqi tea sellers prepare tea in their own
way, and the most delicious tea is the one that is prepared on charcoal. Many accessories and
tools accompany the preparation and serving tea, some of which have disappeared with the
change of time, and some others are still struggling to survive, such as the Tea Pot, which the
electric kettle was unable to remove from the throne of Iraqi tea. There is “Samovar” that
unfortunately became extinct. There is Shakrdan (container to preserve and serve sugar. Sugar is imported in conical shapes that is called Qand (presented to the new bride so that her life will be sugared, and this topic is prolonged to discuss now). Tea or (Chai) as the Iraqis pronounce it in the Turkish Çay or the Persian “Chai”.

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Iraqi tea tales and songs

Iraqis prepare tea differently than others; some songs reflect their love to tea. Iraqi tea has
stories, poems, paintings, and songs. In the forties of the last century, a song about tea became
famous and is still known until now after it was established in popular memory. The lyrics of the
song say:


Khudri Alchai Khudri,,, / (prepare tea with care)
The song tells the story of a lover who asks his beloved to prepare tea with care, so he says to
her: prepare tea, O my eyes (Iraqi words which still be used in communication) , she replied: “ I
will never prepare it to anyone else except you”.


Iraqis were attached a lot to tea, and some of them were crying over it during the days of
scarcity and high prices. Iraqi women sang many songs about it as they mourned for losing tea
during the days of the British occupation.


I do not think there is other people rather than Iraqis who consider tea in a unique way like
them. Whoever visited Iraq, could not forget the taste of Iraqi tea for many years. Iraqis serve
tea in a medium way that is not boiled, clear, and fermented, by leaving it for a few minutes on
a low heat.


There are many artists, such as the painter Nizar Selim, who did not exclude tea from his
paintings. He painted his famous painting entitled “Drinking Tea”. The tea is also mentioned in a poem by Nizar Qabbani in the elegy of his Iraqi wife, Bilqis, as he asks her, “Where is your
mighty Iraqi tea?”

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Historians state that the first people who knew tea were the Chinese thousands of years ago,
then its plant was discovered in the Indian region of Assam in 1832 by Robert Bruce, a British
officer who was working in the East India Company. The home of tea is Ceylon, India, Southeast
Asia and South American countries. Ceylon tea is a good plant, and its cultivation needs moist
mountainous land. It is difficult to cultivate it in Iraq because it needs special environmental
conditions.


Iraqi man is eager to drink tea in (Istikan) after eating the main meals, and the housewife
stresses to start preparing tea before pouring the food so that it is ready after once meal is
over. Many Iraqis still do not taste drinking tea except with the “Iskan,” although some drink it
with a cup and the other take it with “glass.”


Indeed, the story of Iraqi tea remains and will remain famous throughout ages.

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