If you want to get anything done in Western Sahara, be prepared to drink tea — very, very sweet tea.
Last week, I traveled to the disputed territory with a group of journalists on a fellowship with the International Women's Media Foundation to report on natural resource issues. Our caravan of cars crisscrossed the city of Laayoune each day, ferrying us to and from meetings with government officials, human right activists, and former political prisoners. Some days we sped out into the desert to visit ports, a mine and a sardine cannery. But each time we entered an office or a home to sit down and interview people, we were offered a small glass of tea.
Baira Abdellatif, one of the many Saharawi people I drank tea with, says it is an essential transaction for doing business in Western Sahara. "If you want to speak with someone seriously about anything, you invite them for tea," says Abdellatif, who is stout, regal and bearded and leads the Ulad Busbaa tribe, which is native to the region. Usually these meetings are held in people's homes (even if they have an office), and the host or a highly respected member of the household will make the tea for the assembled group. More often the honor of making the tea goes to a man, rather than a woman.
In each home we entered, the appointed tea maker would almost immediately arrange themselves behind a tea set in the corner of the room and begin preparing the tea.
The tea served in Western Sahara is green tea (imported from China), flavored with fresh spearmint leaves and sugar. When it's poured into small glass cups with gold trim, it's the color of honey. It's Moroccan-style tea, and the same combination is served all over North Africa – from Tunisia to Mauritania.
In the most common preparation, loose, gunpowder tea leaves shaped like pellets go into a kettle with water; the kettle is set over coals on a small stove right next to the tea set to boil. Then, fresh mint and huge hunks of sugar are added to the pot. Some call this tea "Berber whiskey" because of the caffeine and the sugar, and because it's the closest thing to alcohol many Muslims in the region drink.
But the most distinctive thing about this tea is the way it's poured. The tea maker begins by pouring the first glass from two to three feet above the tray. He then pours that glass of tea at the same height into the next glass, and then the next, creating a frothy head in each glass. Then the original inch or two of tea goes back in the teapot for more boiling. Before serving, he may taste the tea a few times, seeking optimal flavor.
The motive behind the methodical pouring of tea from glass to glass is to aerate it, generate a flavorful foam and blend the ingredients – especially the sugar. That's according to Lisa Boalt Richardson, author of The World in Your Teacup, who has researched North African tea traditions.
But though the pervasiveness of the ritual might lead one assume that the Saharawis have been drinking tea this way for millennia, Richardson says it's a relatively recent tradition.
Chinese green tea first arrived in North Africa in 1854 when British ships en route to Baltic ports were forced to dock in Tangier, Morocco because of the Crimean War. "There were amazing salespeople on this ship, and they convinced the Moroccans to add to green tea to their mint tisanes [herbal infusions.] Then it became a huge tradition," says Richardson.
Indeed, according to Abdellatif, Saharawis will drink tea four times a day, and maybe more if it's a day filled with meetings. If you're really lucky, you'll be offered three cups in a sitting, each with its own symbol: the first one bitter like life, the second sweet like love, and the third gentle like death.
If that's true, then Thursday was a very productive and amorous day. As journalists in Western Sahara, we traded in information, hoping to parse out the nuances of the complex, long-simmering conflict between the territory and Morocco. In our dozens of interviews, we drank glass after glass of sweet tea, sometimes spilling it on our notebooks. We came away woozy with new knowledge, and high on Berber whiskey.