This is the sister of a friend of mine in M'Hamid. I was looking through my photographs and found this one - and, as I spend so much of my time trying to write articles nobody buys, I decided to indulge myself by posting her picture up and writing something people actually read, about what she is doing in the photograph.
Those who have read the site before may have heard about making tea in the desert, and how ritualized the process is. But since I have been back in England, and my tea habit has remained as strong as ever, I have enjoyed making it for friends and family, but realised also how difficult it is to replicate the ritual in an environment where people have neither time nor, necessarily, inclination, to sit through it. So I shall relate it here properly, just once.
The person making the tea will always set themselves up before they begin, with a low, round tray before them (usually silver) on which sit the glasses. The tray often has small legs, so that when cross legged, it is at a convenient height - say about four inches off the ground. Beside the tea maker rests a holder as in the photograph - although here it is made from metal, it is also often a pottery holder with sand in the bottom - in which coals burn. In a house, the coals have been prepared over the gas stove. In a tent, they have been brought inside from the inevitable fire outside. The tea used is a particular type called Chinese gunpowder tea. There are varying qualities, and the discussion over which brand is the best is a continual hot topic amongst nomads. The quality certainly differs greatly, and I found that the best place to buy tea was down in the Western Sahara rather than further north.
A small amount of tea is placed in the bottom of the teapot - teapots in Saharawi culture tend to be almost intentionally humble, rather than the fancy filigreed affairs Morocco is famous for, as if it is cool to be a bit ragged. (It reminded me of being served dinner in France on faded, tarnished silver, with fine linen napkins that nonetheless are slightly threadbare and moth eaten. Something aristocratic about trying not to impress, if that makes sense). An inch or two of water covers the tea, and the teapot is placed on the coals, which the tea maker fans with bellows. After the initial water comes to the boil, it is poured directly out as waste - this initial brew is just to wash the bitterness out of the tea. More water is poured in, this time to fill the teapot, and put on to gently rise to the boil. If the tea is particularly bitter or bad quality, it is rinsed again, with cold water.
Something I should perhaps mention here is that usually the water itself is in a larger kettle, and has already been slightly heated. I always loved to watch the competent, efficient way water was poured from the kettle - rather than grasping the handle on top and pouring as one would a watering can, it seems habit instead to pick it up with one's hand under the handle rather than over, so that the pouring motion almost looks back to front, as if one is pushing up something like a weights bar rather than pulling. As finicky as this may sound, there was something captivating about the deliberate way it was done - and it is through gestures like this that the whole dance of elegant movement comes in, all the small things that make a ritual. It simply wouldn't look the same if you picked the kettle up the wrong way - and indeed, I still find myself doing it now.
The teapot slowly comes to the boil and is removed from the coals. A glass or two is poured out, and returned to the pot - this is repeated a couple of times. Then a glass is poured out, from a bit of a height, which will form a slight foam on top, and left to rest. From a small locked tin box, the tea maker will take the sugar cone. Sugar in Morocco is sold in kilo weight, packed as a solid conical shape. It looks a little like a mini rocket ship. In the tin box will always be a tapping implement, like a sharp rock or a piece of heavy metal, and with the sugar in one hand and the rock in another, a piece will be neatly tapped off, with one or two sure hits. I can tell you from long experience that as simple as this may look, it takes some practice - I think MBarak used to wince as he watched me attacking the cone with great determination, small shards of sugar whizzing dangerously across the ground. It took me weeks to master the art of loosening a piece with one hit, and even now (I left my rock in Morocco and can't seem to find a good replacement - that is my excuse, anyhow) I still manage to make a hell of a mess. So it is all the more impressive to watch someone quietly tap exactly the right spot, and come away with a lovely thick slice of sugar. Dead funky trick. (Below is Madani's Mum, better know as Tea Guru. Tea at their house is the real deal.)
The sugar is put into the pot and left to rest, and meanwhile, the great pouring ceremony starts. Now, I have been making tea daily for six months, and I am not too bad. But watch a nomad do this and one can only harbour deep seated tea-envy. Saharawi in particular, use tiny glasses - I have a theory that it is an inverted snobbery: "see if you can find the opening to these little babies from great heights, suckers" - that kind of thing. With deft, sure movements, the tea is poured from a height of about half a metre directly into the glass below, and then returned to the original glass. The action is repeated for every glass on the tray. Everyone has a characteristic way of doing this, but often the glass begins quite low, is quickly raised to the maximum height, then just as quickly swoops down again and twists, right at the end, to stop any spillage leaking down the side. When I do it, it takes me several pours to achieve the aim - which is to create a nice froth in the bottom of each glass. But I have watched Saharawi, both women and men (equally adept), simply pour once and achieve the kind of froth that no fifty repeats would give me. After the froth up, the tea is poured back into the pot, and once more the tea is poured out into two glasses and returned to the pot - to mix the sugar. At this stage, a really good Saharawi tea maker will add three other ingredients: the sap from a particular tree in the desert; a tiny thread of saffron; and, if one is in the desert, a a piece of a small plant that grows which has a wild flavour vaguely reminiscent of mint, but somehow, far more piquant. This plant has small yellow flowers, and is found often amongst the vegetation camels like to eat. I became adept at spotting it.
These three ingredients change the flavour of the tea, giving it that something extra, and making it also easier to form a froth. Now the tea is once again poured from glass to glass, and this time, with the sugar and other ingredients, the tea gains a kind of creamy, smooth consistency, and smells wonderful. By now, if you haven't got a froth - then baby, you no good. Go back to opening stubbies in a nightclub. No gold star for your tea making.
As all of this is going on, the teapot is resting on the tray and behind the glasses. A teapot at the front of the glasses implies that the guests should help themselves; and is rude. After every pour, a cloth is wiped around the rim of the glass, deftly, to prevent spillage and sticky glasses. If a drop goes on the tray, it is quickly wiped up. But, let's face it - we DON'T drop tea, ladies, do we now? it really isn't cricket.
So, by this stage, we have a semi circle of glasses with a lovely good inch of foam at the bottom, and well mixed, good consistency tea. Time for the coup-de-grace; the teapot is raised and, once more from a great height, a good two inches is poured into each glass, and passed around. The glasses are never filled, for this, my friends, is only the FIRST round.
Whilst the others drink their tea, the tea maker is already preparing the pot for the second round. The process is the same except that for the second and third rounds, the tea leaves remain in the pot, and just a small amount is added to maintain the strength. Each round will taste slightly different, with wide consensus being that the third is usually the best. To give you some idea, for all three rounds of tea (which is customary and, in the desert, obligatory), the time frame is at least an hour. And it is not at all unusual to just finish making tea when someone else will arrive at the tent, and the whole process starts again. Normally a plate of biscuits, nuts and dates is placed out with the tea.
At the end of the process the glasses are quickly rinsed out with water, over the silver tray, which is then swilled around and drained off. Everything is carefully dried and put in the corner with a cloth over it, ready for the next use. The things for tea are always close at hand, since it will usually be made at least three times daily.
It is a sensual, sometimes almost seductive, ritual. The way a woman sits; the way she flings her melkhva out of her way, and arranges it around her face; the quick glimpses of a lower arm beneath the material, or a strand of hair poking out from the forehead - all of these things are intimate and part of the experience. I found making tea for other women to be, at times, quite nerve wracking; they watched me like hawks, and giggled when I made a mistake, although never from a malicious angle. The men tended to stand less on ceremony, often waving away my offers of tea. I think my most prized purchase in Morocco was my own teapot, tray, and pottery holder; I felt inordinately proud of them, particularly the first time I managed to make the tea without spilling a drop.
Sometimes now I begin to make tea for people but here, no-one has the time to sit for the full ritual. They generally take a taste and proclaim it too sweet for them, and decline the second round. It was hard to come to terms with this at first - I am so accustomed to drinking the tea whether I want to or not, as a courtesy, that there was something kind of shocking about people simply saying they didn't want anymore. But more than that, I realised that the tea ceremony is about much more than the tea - it is about having time to sit and swap stories, talk bollocks if you like, and that for that time, there is no sense of having to do something else, BE somewhere else, because, after all, one IS doing something important: having tea. This notion of being occupied simply by sitting is not one that we have anymore; we are just too busy. I am not trying to imply that I think Saharawi culture is superior - I sure had days when I could have screamed from the frustration of being forced to sit for hours on end when I had things I wanted to do - but a balance would be nice, and there is something to be said for focussed time in which to concentrate on nothing more important than making a good glass of tea. I still gain immense satisfaction out of it - and I know when I am stressed, because I spill it. It takes concentration and patience, and for me, these are two things I always need to be working on.
So, there ends my little tea rave. Maybe you will never have the joy of Saharawi tea - but it is a ritual that is repeated in hundreds of Middle Eastern and African homes, with a variety of twists. Perhaps you have a friend who would love to invite you home for tea, if you have the time.