Postlogue: The challenges and sweet reward of tea


February 9, 2011

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    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    An istikan full of tea, served at the end of a visit to a home in the city of Kirkuk, Iraq. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps

I’ve been back from my field trip to Iraq for a few days now, and have been drinking a lot more black tea than usual. Not only that, but I’m drinking it with much more sugar than I ever have. I’m thinking of it as withdrawal from the super-sweet tea that I had while in the Middle East.

But in a tiny tea glass lays the connection between Istanbul — my stopover along the way — and the many cities and villages I visited while in northern Iraq.

Throughout the region, hot and sweet black tea is served in little glasses called istikans. And it’s everywhere: I rarely, if ever, left a place without being offered and partaking in a glass of tea. It’s hospitality and refreshment that goes unquestioned. It’s understood that no meal or visit — whether at a home, a school, a business or even outdoors — can end without sipping tea together.

And there is a definite practice in the process that speaks truths about the delicacy of life here: you carefully take the istikan, precariously perched on a small saucer, from the person who’s offering it to you. Your first challenge is that the tea itself is scalding hot and, since the glass is filled to the brim, there’s little choice but to just go ahead and take hold. Your fingers will likely hurt a little from the heat — and some of the steaming tea might even spill out and scorch you some more — but, if you just stick with it for a few moments, you’ll get used to it.

Your next challenge is to actually take a drink of your tea. The first sip, you’ll likely taste nothing but how hot it is. The second sip, there’s bitterness. By the third sip, you’re tasting a little of the sugar and the glass has cooled considerably.

I didn’t spend a lot of time in northern Iraq, but feel like I gleaned just a little bit of insight from those dozens of istikans filled with tea. And so the lessons I carry back about the place include the fragility of the glass. The hospitality of the gesture. The careful motion of accepting the tea. The resolve it takes to grasp that hot glass and take that first sip.

And, finally — if you’re patient enough, if you take enough time — the sweetness at the bottom of it all.