Chai Nana - image:Nicholas Malfait
Abdullah Zahlan had arranged my meeting with the Minister the next day, so I found myself sitting on the leather sofa outside Harb Al Hashemi’s office, drinking a little gold-rimmed glass of thyme zaatar tea as I waited for the big panelled doors to open. When they did, a little grey-haired man in a blue-grey suit shot out, a pile of papers clutched in his arm as he paddled a fussy wave of effusive thanks and effendi’s to Al Hashemi’s crisp, efficient secretary, who ignored him.Formal meetings in the Arab World often still involve little gold-edged custard glasses of ‘chai’ in various forms, from ‘chai suleimani’, a sweet bronze-coloured infusion of tea, almost certainly Lipton to ‘chai nana’, tea with fresh mint steeped in it. And then there are the herbal and fruit teas you come across, most frequently ‘zaatar’, or thyme. I remember ginger tea waiting in Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s majlis, deep-pile carpets and mirrored walls all around me. And long, painful waits for short, painful meetings at the Ministry of Information in Dubai filled with a variety of teas brought to me in a procession of diuretic little delights. Those were the meetings back in the early ‘90s when I had fallen foul of someone with wasta, something that can’t, thankfully, happen in the same way to writers in the UAE today. Or to their kidneys.
‘You can go in, now, Mr. Stokes.’
Olives, Page 127
In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait you’re just as likely to be offered ghawa, green unroasted coffee flavoured with cardamom and served in little cups from a long-necked brass coffee pot or, more likely these days, a long brass-necked coffee pot shaped thermos. It’s polite to accept a refill or, at most, two and then pass the cup back with a little waggle to signify you’re done. Two fingers over the cup will do instead of a waggle.
It's a little ritual that's tied into the age-old Arab traditions of hospitality that still dictate how you're received as a guest, whether it's sitting in a Jordanian government minister's waiting room or encountering a family while offroading in the Omani mountains and being invited into their home to share coffee and dates. Coming from a culture that's instinctually distrustful of strangers, it never fails to amaze me.