January 28, 2009

culture of tea

I remember sipping black tea out of a tiny shot glass in Muhammad's Persian Carpet Gallery in Old City Jerusalem. My friend Michael and I sat with our knees squeezed in tight around our stools for the "great gallery" was no more than six feet wide and eight feet deep.

Along with us was Muhammad, the shopkeeper and Haans, a Czech tourist whose English was really bad. Every color of fabric you can imagine stacked all around us in twelve-foot high towers leaning in as if to listen to our conversation about land, love and politics. Above our heads hanging from the twenty foot ceiling were thick chains adorned with jewelry, oil lamps and pitchers. Everything metal would click, clank every few seconds which gave the feeling of being aboard an enormous yacht; the thousands of people swarming along the souk in black, blue and white completed the experience, almost making the three visitors seasick.

The tea was hot and sweet with three twigs of mint stems poked sideways into the glass floating capsized in the clear cup. About an hour later Michael bought a Persian rug that weighed half as much as I did, and Haans went on to find his wife and children somewhere among the millions.

Muhammad invited us to stay for a second round of tea. We gladly accepted this small delight and ate greedily cubed sweets that came along with the tea. We continued to talk on about our families and cultures. Once our glasses were empty the little shopkeeper asked us to share a third cup of tea with him that evening in his home.

Initially the tea was Muhammad's thanks for coming to rest awhile with him, or maybe a courtship of us as his customers. The second cup of tea was for the hospitality of friendship and the standing offer for tea anytime we were in the Old City again. The third cup of tea was like a deeper contract of kinship. I feel sure that Muhammad would recognize me now, ten years later if I stopped at the Persian Carpet Gallery.

It makes me happy that we offer tea to our friends when they stop in to the store. I am glad that we even offer it in a clear glass with plenty of sweet. Sometimes people cannot accept this free gift ... they are afraid of committing to stay, they think there is some hidden cost, they feel awkward receiving a gift from a complete stranger. Maybe they are wondering about sanitation or or just had a cup of coffee in car.

Eventually I hope people will stop in for just a visit and a cup of tea. No need to worry about what gift they need to give to their brother, or what version of the Bible to read. Next time you are around, come in and sit for awhile; enter our culture of tea.


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