Mint Tea
by Leyla Reeder El Bouhali

From the writer: My initial enthusiasm for this assignment plummeted when I realized my lack of an artifact to explore. I sat there considering that I am a young woman of dual-heritage who is sitting (late at night) at her desk, at an expensive prestigious university drinking coffee. This immediately triggered a remembrance of mint tea. I again encountered the ever-daunting blinking cursor on the blank computer screen. How should I begin? My mind flooded with scattered memories, and the scenario that surrounded tea time began to expand. This was defiantly a milestone piece for me, as I not only learned to overcome difficulties and blocks, but really learned about my own style of writing and the process that allows me to create my best work. In the end- I created an essay that I am truly proud of, and really reflects my voice and writing style.

From the teacher, Michael O'Connor: The first assignment for WRT 105 was to take a cultural artifact and through a close analysis shed light on the larger cultural matrix within which it operates. Leyla's essay both skillfully and playfully examines an artifact, with its accompanying ritual, that has deep personal significance. Through this she is able to explore the complexities of her position astride two cultures from the unique perspective her liminal status allows.

From the editor, Gillian Dunn: In a stunning portrait of family and tradition, Leyla reveals the power that even the simplest things in life can hold. To her, something as ordinary as mint tea comes to represent a culture and a lifestyle. As she explores her identity and ancestery, the reader is immersed in the imagery and style of each carefully chosen line.

  "Aegie habbibte," my Grandmother would beckon from the salon. Every evening at five thirty, the tremendous brass teakettle whistles on the gas burner in the courtyard, while the aroma of rich almond cookies and freshly baked baguette floods the villa. Suddenly chaos spreads throughout the house as my cousins, aunts, and uncles congregate about the knee-high round table, each reclining on the luxurious sofa that lines the perimeter of the room. Standing above the tremendous platters of succulent fruits and delicious pastries is an ornate brass teapot. The long thin spout and dainty etchings of geometric webs are characteristic of Islamic art, but particularly unique of Moroccan art. A sea of glistening glasses adorned with gold trim surround the pot. My uncle Dris wraps the handle with an embroidered handkerchief and lifts the brassy pot above the glasses. Tilting the spout, he allows the golden tea to stream into the glasses in a ritualized manner. Serving tea is not so much a task as it is an art and acquired skill. The presentation and procedure hold tremendous cultural significance. I am served after the first five glasses have been poured, as I am the only child of the eldest son. I smile with gratitude while struggling not to burn myself on the steaming glass. I am now expected to have a sip before the others can be served. Yuck! The scorching sugary liquid burns my mouth as I struggle to swallow. "Shucran baraklofic," I thank them and smile.

  As a child of Moroccan-American descent, I was raised with both Anglican and Islamic traditions, and was privileged in experiencing both cultures through extensive travel. In Morocco, mint tea is not only a popular beverage, but is representative of the culture and values of its people. It is customary to serve this drink in intricately detailed glasses after meals, at social gatherings, and at special religious or political events. It is a drink enjoyed by affluent and impoverished families alike, and has prevailed through the nation’s transition from third world to a technologically and economically advancing country. It is shared by children and elderly, rich and poor, men and women, and symbolizes the welcoming character of the Moroccan people.

  As a little girl, I vividly recall my grandmother encouraging me to "coulie habbibtie" or "drink sweetheart," as she tended to encourage all of her fifteen grandchildren. With me however, it was always different. I am the only child of her eldest son, and the American one among us. She spoke only Arabic, and I only knew English. She saw me annually, and spent every minute of my visit pampering and spoiling me. Her encouragement was thus a loving gesture of warmth. I, on the other hand, have always hated mint tea. Although I appreciate the cultural implications behind this tradition, yet as a child I utterly despised the flavor. The overtly sweet, syrupy liquid burned as it slowly ran down the back of my throat, and I struggled to smile and swallow simultaneously. The American palate lacks the rich sweetness of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, and to boot, my mother raised me in a health-savvy New York household, where our cupboards were laden with organic vegetables and bland sugarless snacks of oats and minerals. You can thus imagine my disgust and intolerance for the consistency and flavor of this beverage. To refuse, however, would be an insult and sign of disrespect. Thus, with tremendous diplomacy and tact I would smile, take miniscule sips of the drink, and quickly devour a mouthful of whatever pastry or fruit lay before me. It is a skill I have proudly perfected these past eighteen years.

  With two cultures, religions, and continents, I was faced with clashing customs and ideologies. I was raised in a large isolated house in the suburbs surrounding New York City. An only child, I grew to become an independent girl; I was accustomed to personal space, privacy, and had always been treated as an adult or equal with my parents. When visiting my family abroad, I was faced with a polar universe. Family constantly surrounded me, especially my cousins, the majority of whom spoke only Arabic and French. My family is basically western and fortunate financially; however, they have not always been so well off. My grandmother and late grandfather are illiterate and speak only dialect Arabic. They wear traditional garb and follow a strict religious regime.

  My constant lack of comprehension provided time to question and compare different aspects of my cultures. To this day I wonder where certain learned behaviors of mine derive from, but moreover I consider my identity. Who am I? Am I a young woman of strong character and a defined sense of self, or have I lost that true identification and pride in the mix? Am I truly affiliated with the concepts of nationality and ethnicity, or were these ties relinquished at birth as a mutt? How can I be both a Moroccan and an American woman, and identify so strongly with each when my places in society differ so tremendously? What one culture finds a salient tradition and exhibition of pride and identity, the other culture does not appreciate or consider. As with mint tea, the cultural implications and traditions surrounding the artifact define my Moroccan roots, yet my American palate and freedom to dine as I please without offense kick in. I am torn between these polar views.

  In terms of my sense of self, the opposing roles of women in each respective society consume most of my mental energy. Having been raised an independent girl in one of the most powerful, technologically accelerated, liberal nations on earth, I was fortunate enough to receive a superlative education and have enjoyed many luxuries growing up. As an American, I have always held true to those rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Since infancy, little boys and little girls were treated with equal respect and given equal opportunity, and I was no exception. I was a first-class citizen, and when my rights of equality or freedom were violated, I was supported in seeking justice. America, though not perfect, granted me liberation as a woman, and has elevated me to a status where I will soon work side-by-side with men, and perhaps even be their superior in the work force. Though women’s liberation has not always been a universal truth in the states, it is now a defended right that our nation holds fast and stands behind. I am independent, strong, and equal, with the right to speak freely and believe whatever I choose.

  Overseas, however, women are only now reaching these landmarks of liberation. As the foreign cousin, I was treated with a manner of formality. I was served first with the men, and never expected to participate in the chores of the household. I received elitist treatment. This never sat well with me. As with the serving of mint tea and other meals, I never had to wait or be treated as a second-class member of society—in essence, I was treated like an adult male. I was not expected or allowed to dine at the second seating with most of the women and children. I was served, and my requests were addressed before those of my uncles who surrounded me. Although my family is western and liberal, there is still a hint of formality, especially at mealtime. Our family has hired help, yet my aunts still return from their careers at mealtime to prepare tremendous tajines and elaborate dishes for the family. The double standard sickens me. Women are independent, intelligent, and hold high-power positions, yet are still expected to raise the children and run the household. As for the issue of seating, in traditional families, the grandfather (now grandmother as well), sons, their adolescent sons, and guests would dine together, followed by the women and children. Things have changed; however, as women and men are now treated as equals . . . or are they? The sheer volume of family members prohibits us all from eating at the same table (thirty plus of us); however, it always seems that my uncles and older male cousins get to eat first, and myself of course. One or two of my aunts and perhaps my cousin Sarah, a young woman now, will join us, but there is still a tremendous offset in the balance of the sexes. As I learned to swallow the tea and smile, I too learned to accept this distasteful aspect of Islamic culture and complacently smile. It is my American sense of feminism and liberation that inhibits me from blindly ignoring this injustice, as minor as it may be. Still, the Moroccan tradition of dining is a piece of my heritage and culture as well, which cannot be devalued by my western values. This tug-of-war within my ideology again leaves me torn with my identity.

  While listening to the slurred phrases of a foreign tongue, I was able to detach myself and consider the realities of feminism, or lack there of, in Islamic society. I cannot imagine my life without freedom and equality. Understand that Morocco, while an Islamic nation, is the most liberal and advanced of the Muslim world. Women may dress as they please, and the laws of Islam are observed yet not enforced. Its citizens are free, and may live as they please without fear of government brutality. It is a peaceful nation with a young monarch. While Moroccan women have sprung up all over the working world, there is a tremendous double standard with regard to their role in society. Women are advancing, as they now hold positions of greater authority and status, yet they are still expected to raise the children, cook, clean, and perform the tasks of a housewife. While women may now be treated with greater respect, Islam places the female below the father and husband in terms of social status. These are not codes of society, but based in the Koran, and to argue is to question the faith. I am torn by my own split identity, and so is Morocco as a nation. It is an evolving country, where technology and the economy are expanding exponentially. The gap between the masses of impoverished and the small, wealthy class is slowly closing, as the middle class is being hatched into the world of westernization. Still, this young advancing nation is bound to its development as an Islamic state. The traditions, though often dated and anti-feministic, are tremendous aspects of the culture and religion. As I learned to swallow mint tea, however displeasing its taste to my western tongue, Morocco too has learned to balance its parallel dichotomy. Women are independent and gaining their liberation and equality, yet respect certain traditions that hinder their advancement. It is difficult to perform medicine or law while raising children and running a household. Bear in mind that the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern family consists of the extended tree, and while they may not live in the same home, mealtime is always a combination of various branches of the family.

  I hold both cultures close to my heart, yet find the conflicting roles of women in my cultures difficult to combine. I cannot separate myself from the ‘negative’ aspects of one culture or another, yet cannot openly accept and cherish all their respective values and traditions. I am who I am, and will not be defined by my heritage and faith alone. My choices define me, and my roots or heritage are a means of developing my own unique identity. My melange of cultures and ethnicities has allowed me to view my diverse roots through different sets of eyes. Through the years, I have noticed that my forced smile has vanished at tea time. I still abhor the consistency of the steaming, syrupy liquid, yet my appreciation for the tradition and desire to learn the language and culture surrounding the ceremony draws my attention and brings me pleasure. I no longer simply smile and swallow aspects of my cultures that give me pause, but step back and reflect upon the context surrounding the tradition. While enjoying the company of my huge family, I am slowly picking up the Moroccan dialect while practicing my French. I joke with my cousins and shower my Grandmother with affection. When she now urges me to "coulie habbibtie," I graciously accept a glass. Perhaps the tea isn’t so horrid after all. After I willingly take a sip I realize, some things never change.


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