This travelogue was written as part of a journey overland through the Middle East I completed in 2009 and was originally published in The Alligator.
The sun is burning overhead, white-hot in the unforgiving emptiness of the sky. Its relentless heat scorches the stones on which I am sitting and turns the dry earth into cloying red dust that cakes my tired feet. My limbs feel limp and lifeless, my energy evaporating like water to vanish in the blinding light. Above me, the crumbling walls of the citadel cast their feeble shade on my burning body. What I wouldn’t give for a cold drink.
With true Syrian hospitality (and more than a little theatrical flourish), my diver, the eccentric Faisal, brandishes a thermos from the depths of the car and pushes a cup of the hot, steaming liquid into my hands. I drink thirstily, burning my throat and feeling the gratifying taste of sugar on my lips.
Wherever I go in the Middle East, life beats to the rhythm of this golden, impossibly sweet nectar: from the dark, thick brew in Istanbul to the honey-coloured, mint-infused drink after the evening meal in Syria. Served in delicate, tulip-shaped glasses, tea – along with the cardamom-infused coffee that stains my lips and makes my teeth ache with its sweetness – has been the one constant on my travels. Young boys weave in and out of the narrow streets and crowded souqs of every city, expertly balancing several precious cups on swinging, elegant trays. Men lounge listlessly in doorways or on street corners (or even, once, in the underbelly of a bus), the floor beneath them littered with innumerable empty glasses that bear testament to their caffeine-infused love affair.
In Aleppo, I was offered a drink from the glass of a youth who gave me animated, mimed directions in the labyrinthine streets of the old city. In Damascus, a group of young men bought me a cup each as I sat, enthralled, under the spell of Syria’s last professional story-teller. In Jordan, I lounged in the shade of the breathtaking rock formations rising out of the red sand of the Wadi Rum, drinking cup after cup offered by my Bedouin hosts. In Bethlehem, during Ramadan, a stranger invited me into his home to drink tea infused with mint from his garden. It seems to me that I can almost retrace my footsteps across these ancient lands by counting the rims my lips have touched, the golden liquid I have tasted. A journey made in cups of tea.
Arriving back home in the cold, wet air of a typical English morning, I wrap my arms tightly around my body and marvel at the difference between here and the intoxicating, dust-coloured lands I have left behind.
“Miserable weather” my mother intones mournfully, gazing out at the bleak landscape through the rain-spattered windows.
“How about a nice cup of tea?”