Desert time and tea

Desert time and tea

, Sun 15-01-2017

Time is everything. Time is money. Time is the currency of our every day. Even our pulses mark time's immutable passage, hammering out the drumbeat of the every day. We race time. Time is our enemy. Battles can be won or lost within its smallest measure, while even the mightiest empires collapse and crumble under its relentless onslaught. 

However, within the desert, time loses its meaning. In the desert, nobody races against time. Time, in the desert, is suspended. Time, in the desert, is where the simple act of making tea can take up to four hours of each passing day.

Some would find it strange that the preparation and drinking of tea could take so long. However, for the Tuareg, the making of tea represents a sacred ritual that lies at the very heart of their ancient culture. 

The Tuareg are thought to have lived in the Sahara from as far back as the fourth or fifth Century.     “Tuareg is actually a name attributed to us by the Arabs” Fatima Mani Shawi said. “This is what they called the people who travelled through the desert at sunset, especially in the summer when travel during the day becomes impossible. We actually prefer imuhagh. However, this is the name that has been used to refer to us since the Islamic Conquests in the 7th Century, so it’s become part of our identity.” 

For many, just to hear the word ‘desert’ is to conjure images of endless tracts of rolling sand. However, there is more to the desert than cheap stereotype. The desert is an ocean of secrets that nobody can solve. It is also an alien world known only those who have fallen in love with it. 

For the people that make the desert their home, like ancient cultures everywhere, life is arranged and organized around their rituals. Typically, there are three cups of green tea that are drunk every day, each one protected from the sand by the foam that sits upon it.  The first morning cup of green tea should be bitter as death. The second midday cup should be lighter and, in Arabic is often described as being hard, or as hard as life. The third, drank under the covering of the moon and the stars, should be sweet, or as tradition has it, as sweet as love. 

Each one is prepared in the same way. To begin, wood is gathered and placed into a neat pile, before being lit. Desert travellers would then gather around its flames and talk while the tea heated. There, by the light of the fire, fantastic stories and myths would be shared. This is the literature of the desert. 

Amid Al-Mortadha, a Tuareg man who works as a reporter at the ‘Gate’ radio station, said, “The ritual of making tea and sitting by the fire waiting for it to be ready has another dimension; that of forging a bond of love and affinity between strangers travelling together. In fact, one can’t find a convoy without finding tea with it.”

For many, the desert represents a world of mystery, with each visit revealing new and hitherto concealed secrets. Its love is eternally renewed.