Ali is strong, tall, confident and capable in his work. He is the foreman of a large group of men from the town of Umm al-Jimal who, paired with their American counterparts, excavate archeological trenches to discover the mysteries of a long passed Byzantine world. Though Ali is focused and discerning, each day he also makes time for tea, setting up a propane burner in a small room off the apse of the ancient West Church to heat the tea. He insists we take a break and sit together to enjoy the sweet brew the color of cherry wood. It steams in small glass vessels, petite jewels of hospitality in the arid early summer frenzy of eager troweling and the relentless digging of dirt.
The diversion of tea is a chance to glimpse the elements of life most important to the people one is drinking with. While my time in Jordan and half-hearted linguistical study has given me only a smattering of Arabic words to use in my attempts at communication, a tea break with Ali, who sits scrolling through his Facebook page and pointing out pictures of his young son Mohammad or his khafia-clad Abu (father), speaks volumes about his life. His older son Sultan, who sits nearby, is also pointed out frequently. His preoccupation is not in his works, though he is an exceptional foreman, but in the people whose eyes and smiles look so much like his own.
Tea can also transform an ordinary exchange into an opportunity to create and grow friendships. In the shadow of the monumental rock structures of ancient Petra, I eyed a scarf of exceptional beauty. This is how I came to meet Ahmoud, a young Bedouin man who ran a tent displaying souvenirs on a rocky outcrop. Soon I found myself sitting on a couch with my companions, the scarf wrapped around my head in the Bedouin style, traditional black kohol lining my eyes, a cup of hot tea in my hands. More of our friends walked by and soon they, too, were beckoned to escape the afternoon sun and sit for a spell. Before long all the women were adorned as I was, wearing a scarf of their favorite color and bestowed with a new Bedouin name. The men had been jovially lectured about their haphazard dress as Ahmoud re-tied their khafias in a way he believed was more suited to the heat of the Jordanian sun. He regaled us with stories of other tourists as he called over his seven dogs and three cats to drink from a bowl he filled from a bottle of water. They materialized as if coming from the rocks themselves, sandy colored and resilient. We sat for what seemed like hours while he played Whitney Houston and Celine Dion on his cell phone, explaining that he had learned English from the tourist of Petra and jokingly describing the cave he lived in nearby. “Come back soon,” he implored when as we finally left the flaps of the tent to resume our trek up the endless stairs that would allow us to look down on the treasury from above.
This was a refrain we heard again in the city of Madaba after we finished the cups of tea served to us by Youssef, a retired banker who opened a small shop after his retirement as a banker. Around the time of his retirement, he had invited a team of archaeologists to excavate the Roman-era house in his backyard, and after they stayed for fifteen years, he became a good friend of the trade. Many an archaeology student has escaped the busy streets of Madaba to find the friendly face and capable story telling of Youssef. He has an open competition challenging any who think they are capable to come see if they can beat the record for the number of cups of tea they can drink with him in one sitting. As it stands, the current record resides with an archaeology student from Germany who astonishingly managed to endure fifty cups without pausing to use the restroom.
Tea in Jordan allows strangers to quickly become friends. It is an opportunity to understand the values of others, like witnessing Ali’s pride in his family. Stopping for tea can inform about cultural aspects that could not be gleaned with such vibrancy in understanding if the information was learned from books. Ahmoud made this very clear. And tea can connect us with the pure humanity of others, as demonstrated by Youssef’s desire to share his space and stories with us and anyone else who wandered his direction. Perhaps there is a compulsion, when in Jordan, to rush to the next destination or hurry along the way. But if you are in the country, do yourself a favor and take the time to sit down and have a cup of tea.