If there is one thing the Sahrawi are especially known for, it’s their hospitality. The minute you step foot into a Sahrawi home, you know that your presence is appreciated. Usually, tea is what confirms that welcoming spirit – sometimes accompanied by sweet treats, lotion, and/or perfume.
Tea is primarily seen as a way of welcoming people into your home. When friends, family and neighbors stop by, they are asked to sit and enjoy the tea and company that the household is offering them. It serves to bring people together and create a space for sharing news, gossip and other information. Many friends expressed that you can’t just invite people in to do nothing with you – you need something to offer them! From personal experience, I have felt welcome and wanted even when walking into a stranger’s tent and being compelled to stay for tea. While welcoming guests is a huge purpose of tea, this custom is even more than that. It symbolizes the different ways that people value their time as well as every tradition’s encounter with modernity.
Routine vs. Cherished custom
Various opinions I heard about making tea left me wondering whether most people thought of this as simply a part of their daily routine or if they valued it as something more than that. I came across many differing opinions and levels of love for this tradition, but ultimately I have come to find that these two categories are not mutually exclusive.
To anyone who has been around a Sahrawi household, tea-making is obviously a part of their routine. It begins when a family wakes up and is often the last thing they do before bed. One friend told me that some people literally never stop making tea throughout the day. Even if a particular family’s tea-making is not that continuous, it usually happens at least three times a day.
I asked a few of my friends about the first time they made tea, and the varied responses point out how nobody’s experience with this custom is the same. One friend described how when she was 13, she sat on a mat outside with her siblings and made them tea for the first time. Her mother had decided that it was time for her to learn, so she gently coached her through the process. This friend couldn’t remember if the tea was even good or not, but she fondly remembered the encouragement she received from her family as she learned this important Sahrawi custom. To contrast, other people I asked couldn’t remember the age when they first learned or who taught them.
Like I wrote above though, I don’t see these two categories as excluding each other. I liked what one friend told me – for those who value time, it’s like charity (in the sense of giving something you value to someone you care about) and for those who don’t value their time, it’s simply a way to pass the days.
Tradition vs. Modernity
Both the value given to tea-making and the way it is done are part of what every culture faces – the battle between what is seen as “traditional” and modern influences. I was told that Sahrawi have always made tea, even back when they were Bedouin, roaming freely through their land.
One example of this clash is in the way tea is heated. Traditionally, the teapot is heated on a small grill called a ferna, with smoldering coals called ijmar. The last time I was here, this was still the only way that most people heated their tea. Over the summer, though, the majority of the camp received electricity. Now, many people head their tea on an electric hot-plate, reflecting the influence that a modern convenience, such as access to electricity, can have.
Anyone I asked, though, told me they still prefer ijmar. A couple of them believe that it is healthier than using the hot-plate, though they didn’t tell me why. Most admit that the hot-plate is just a convenience. While some people like that – they don’t get coal all over their hands, they don’t have to heat coal on the stove, it’s ready to go – they realize that it speeds up the processes of tea. The length of tea is part of the welcoming nature. Guests usually don’t leave before all the rounds are complete and the tea-maker has cleaned his/her tea set, so if it all happens faster, guests don’t stay as long. It is also just not as aesthetically pleasing as a hot pile of coals in the middle of a sand dune, with some incense (lubkhur) thrown in. 🙂
The other connection with modernity, or at least with my own fast-paced American lifestyle, is tea as a utility for getting the day going. When I asked one of my students why she drinks tea every day, she responded with, “Why do you drink coffee every day?” Many also have brought up the caffeine headaches that they get when they don’t have their morning tea. One friend, expressing perfectly my own quick-and-convenient tendencies, said she didn’t see why we can’t just all have a quick cup of coffee in the morning and move on with our day. She does enjoy tea in the middle of the day, when there’s free time, but said she prefers for her mother to be the one making it so she can work on other things.
As a side note, the people I spoke with were all young women who have spent a few of their childhood summers in Spain. Therefore, I have a very limited sample of Sahrawi opinions. Yet I believe that their answers still reflect the variety of feelings about tea that exist in the culture, and I think that as the people who are living the closest to the brink between traditional and modern, their perceptions are the most affected by this dichotomy.
I’m sure there are many more sides to tea that I have not captured, and thoughts that have been left out as to my limited scope. But I had fun learning some of the variation of opinions that my friends hold, all spoken directly over the tea set in front of us 🙂 Lastly, enjoy this video of many great friends making tea foam! The foam is made before each cup is poured. Again, there are many thoughts about it (one friend’s uncle doesn’t make foam because he thinks it’s “a game”). But it’s a skill a appreciate watching and struggle to attain myself!
This is part of my advocacy series, “Hearts of the Desert.” Check out other posts from this series: