Under siege: tea in Syria

We hear so much about what’s going on with the political situation that it almost feels that we know Syria; as though it is familiar. But what does it mean to really know a country? To know where its leader’s allegiances lie, to know of the civil unrest, or to know the richness of its soil? Wissam Zarqa, English teacher and anti-government activist tells us of the current reality.

Syrian tea culture is traditionally Arabic: often served fresh in a shot-like glass alongside an intricate shisha or nargilah pipe and plenty of conversation. Often highly sweetened, tea will mostly be mint like Morocco, black Lipton brand, or zouhourat: a delicious tea made from hibiscus flowers. With a pale, buttercup colour and light, floral notes, it is said to have a calming effect on the mind and body, and is also sometimes used for stomach upsets.

Another part of Syrian culture is Mate drinking. Stemming from Argentina, the grassy leaves are picked and dried before becoming the inhabitants of little tiny cups filled with hot water and sugar. The cups have an in-built sipping straw as part of the tradition. Druze families will often be seen at social occasions with the tea sets as the centrepiece of circular tables.

Only one person drinks the Mate at a time, after which the glass is passed back and filled with more after for the next person; similar to the regulated passing of the nargilah pipe. The sharing of one receptacle emphasises an unspoken code of closeness and trust within the social circle; of community and agreement.

For special occasions like birthdays and happy festivities, muggeli will be brewed – a spicy tea with cinnamon and allspice, sometimes with walnuts floating on top. A winter drink is kammun, with cumin, salt and water.

This of course is all Syrian tradition, but with the drastic changes and political discord over the last decade or so, what’s happening now to social practices of culture and community?

Wissam Zarqa is an English teacher at the University of Aleppo and political activist living in Aleppo, Syria. He’s written for sources such as The Telegraph, New York Times and UK Vogue, commenting upon his experience during the unrest.

With a tenuous internet connection and dwindling supplies, I contacted Wissam through Facebook, his display picture a visual metaphor for his work: light at the end of a tunnel.

I WOULD TELL MY CHILDREN THAT HOME IS WHEREVER YOU FEEL FREE TO DO WHAT YOU THINK IS RIGHT – WISSAM ZARQA

ELLIE: In one of your articles with The Telegraph, you say that you’re ‘a tea man’, what do you mean by this?

ZARQA: Once you are hosted anywhere in the Aleppo, the first question is “Tea or coffee? “My answer is always “tea”.

ELLIE: What does tea mean in your society- is it just a drink, or does it have cultural meanings and associations?

ZARQA: It’s a must with breakfast and dinner, a habit for many after lunch, and a common way to welcome guests.

ELLIE: Has this changed much in your lifetime in accordance with the changes in landscape?

ZARQA: Not much. Tea had its usual presence everywhere.

ELLIE: How do you value the importance of communal culture in national, or international unity?

ZARQA: It breaks the ice and helps to bridge the gaps between people.

ELLIE: A key question: the tea itself. What varieties of tea do you use in Syria?

ZARQA: I guess what makes tea that common in my society is not having varieties. Black tea and the only thing that varies is how much sugar to add to it.

ELLIE: How has the reported siege of Aleppo impacted your relationship with food and drink?

ZARQA: Before Russia invaded Aleppo in December 2016, and while we were besieged in eastern Aleppo by the Assad’s militias and targeted by the Russian warplanes, tea was from the few items still available in the markets. Tea was so important that all people had already stored plenty of it. Nevertheless, making tea needed fuel that was getting less and less and by then electricity was part of the past.

tea in syria, food in aleppo before siege
A meal shared by Wissam Zarqa and his wife before the siege began in eastern Aleppo. (From Newsdeeply.com by Wissam Zarqa)

ELLIE: Fleeing Syria by choice in 2012, but making the decision to return indefinitely: ‘‘This is the land where I want to live the rest of my life.” – how much of this decision was due to culture?

ZARQA: Little if ever. In Saudi Arabia, it’s easy to find all cultures. If you are from an Asian or African country, you can meet many people from your own country. Syrian restaurants were everywhere too.

ELLIE: I read an article recently on a Turkish journalist who moved with his children to America, his daughter asked if Turkey was at war and he struggled to answer. He didn’t want to taint her view of home. Do you believe a sense of ‘home’ is important in life, and that it should be unconditional?

ZARQA: If I were him, I would tell my children that home is wherever you feel free to do what you think is right.

tea in syria
After the interview completion, Wissam sent this photo. “In fact, I’m having a lovely cup of tea.”

ELLIE: It’s almost a political statement in itself – staying in your home country despite the danger, following your own dreams – do you see it that way? What drives you to remain in Aleppo?

ZARQA: It’s Jihad! I usually avoid using the word “jihad” because the media played a big role in giving it very bad connotations by focusing only on ISIS-like mentality. Unfortunately, jihad now is only connected to killing whereas in Islam even working to feed your family is jihad. What the White Helmets are doing by saving people’s lives is jihad. Risking your life for the sake of others is jihad.

ELLIE: As a teacher, do you find it important to behave as a kind of robust role model to represent what you believe to be a wholesome Syrian identity? Is teaching censored or limited in topics of discussion?

ZARQA: The only time I had to avoid a topic in classroom was during the siege. It was a unit titled “Food!” It was a real torture to see pictures of delicious food and talk about recipes and ingredients.

ELLIE: And finally – on a lighter note – if you had to, what tea would you best use to describe yourself?

ZARQA: As I have already mentioned, no variety of tea in my culture. So the answer would be just TEA.

Wissam Zarqa is currently living in eastern Aleppo with his wife, where he plans to stay indefinitely. Find his work in UPI, The Telegraph, Vogue, and The New York Times.

With a thirst for unusual experiences and a love of culture, Ellie desires to see the world and shine a lasting beam of light upon it as she passes. Spicy, warm, soothing, healing and somewhat mysterious; that’s her down to a tea.