Tea is the Key

A jolt of minted black tea, the Bedouin welcome since the mythical age of Scheherazade, reveals a side of the Middle East far more nuanced than the headlines.



A goat’s hair tent in the desert is the last place I expect to be on a business trip to Qatar. After flying swank Qatar Airways, where my toughest task was deciding between Torres Grenache and St.-Émilion Grand Cru, I’m shaken to find a place where men greet by rubbing noses, and our cheery O.K. hand sign could be interpreted as wishing the evil eye on someone.

My first bewildering encounter occurs in Souq Waqif, when an abaya-covered woman presses a slice of apple into my hand. Politely I taste, even if peeled fruit passed hand to hand in an open market breaks every rule in the “healthy travelers’ handbook.” This triggers an avalanche of orange wedges and pear slices, which I stuff into my mouth, pockets and purse before backing off, profoundly puzzled.

“That happens to me everywhere,” laughs Danish transplant Mette Pii, a manager at the Marriott in Doha, Qatar. “It goes back to old times in the desert, when travelers would perish if they weren’t taken in.”

Offering food and drink as a symbol of welcome dates back to antiquity, according to Dr. Marion Nestle of the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. It greases the wheels of social cohesion, she says, especially if these commodities are scarce.

“Overwhelming hospitality is a badge of honor here in the desert,” explains another expat, Erik. “Anyone who touches your tent pole must receive water, food and shelter gratis for three days—the whole party, including animals. Even sworn enemies.”

It sounds like an impossibly utopian notion, which Erik proceeds to test by driving onto a private farm lavishly irrigated to grow lettuce and herbs. As we make our way onto the property, a man approaches us so fast that his white thobe flaps like a sail. We aren’t yet touching his tent pole and it doesn’t look pretty. In America, we call this trespassing.

But after a brief formal greeting, Erik informs me, “Mohammed invites us to his tent, and since we’re on his land, we really can’t refuse.”

Slipping off my shoes and summoning my entire knowledge of local etiquette—mitts off the teapot (men do the serving), eyes off the cell phone (rushing is an affront), stow that left hand while eating—I limber up for the cultural bungee jump ahead.

As our host spills the first cup of coffee on the ground, I shiver, imagining his forebears performing this same rite for contemporaries of T.E. Lawrence.

Following Erik’s lead, I raise the doll-sized cup for three refills before shaking it to say “no more.” Next, Mohammed pours minted black tea, sipping his own through a date in his teeth. My Russian great-grandfather did the same with a sugar cube, I recall, and slowly I begin to unwind.

As the teapot empties and our fingers grow sticky from home-grown dates, I realize we’ve spent hours communing without a common language. Akin to raising wine glasses in the West, Mohammed reaffirms our welcome each time he refills our teacups.

Whether it’s the gentle mood lift of caffeine or wine or the companionable atmosphere, after an afternoon sipping tea from a common pot, we feel connected.

Alas, this may not bring peace to the Middle East, but in the miniature universe of a desert farm outside Doha, this age-old rite of hospitality can transform two would-be trespassers into friends.

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