In that moment I realized that it wasn’t just tea, but it had a much deeper meaning.
The funny thing about tea, is that at its core, it is so remarkably simple. Hot water, and herbs… Nothing extraordinary about it in its makeup. Even when brewed and crafted by a master, it is rather unextraordinary. With all of this said, never in a million years did I think that such a simple and seemingly unimportant cup of tea could impact my spirit in such a profound way.
Cultures that are driven by community are something really special. In America we are a highly individualistic society. Always looking down at our technology and rarely looking up to see those around us. Country “J” (location omitted for security), like many Middle Eastern cultures, values community above most other things, something Western cultures really never fully understand. This Indialantic culture was something I looked forward to getting away from on this summer internship. I was ready to leave the normal routine of my life in Orlando and to live fully emersed in this Middle Eastern culture.
After arriving and getting settled I was ready to hit the ground running with emersion. I wanted to see the people, the country and really experience the foundation of what has been here since the beginning of time.
Very quickly I could see the effects of the pandemic and how it had taken a toll on the community values. Because of all the restrictions, the people have not been able to connect, like they normally do. As we walked down the narrow streets that would have been packed and bustling pre-Covid, all we could hear was silence. However, as we visited different shops we were immediately welcomed and treated like family because our host had been building connections with each owner. Each person we met added to a fullness I cannot fully describe that I felt in my soul. You could feel the love and authenticity. I didn’t think that my spirit could feel any more… Until I met Yousef.
From the outside, Yousef’s shop was small, cramped and nothing special. Stepping in you could smell the dust that had settled on the jewelry boxes and small trinkets he was selling. In the back of the shop there were chairs and benches…a peculiar site for a store whose primary purpose was to sell souvenirs to tourists. Chairs would seem a waste of space. But as we filed our way to the back of the shop my eyes met an old man whose eyes reflected the stories of his life. He greeted our host with the familiarity only time can create as we took our seats in the back of his shop. He asked if we had time for tea. Quickly saying yes, Yousef began to gather the ingredients to serve us. He pulled a small portable gas stove out, a tea pot and bags of black tea. As we waited for the water to boil, we talked and learned about Yousef’s life. He talked about his family, grandchildren, mother, and the history of his family. He shared his struggles that the pandemic had brought and how at points he didn’t know how he would be able to provide for his family. But he knew that Allah would provide and take care of him. The whistle of the kettle brought our conversation to a pause. He retrieved the kettle and poured the tea with careful precision into our glass cups. He set them before us, and we sat there still in silence. As I lifted that small cup to my lips and let the hot tea warm my body, I was struck with a feeling I could hardly explain. Here I was, sitting in a country thousands of miles from my home, yet I had never felt more at home. I had never felt so loved by someone who had just met me. It was in that moment I realized that it wasn’t just tea, but it had a much deeper meaning. It pointed to a foundational cultural value that tea was only a physical representation of. I let the emotion slide over me as tears began to roll down my cheeks in the back of this shop. Yousef said something after this I will never forget. He said he didn’t care if people came into his store and bought anything, but that he had the chairs in the back because he wanted his shop to be a place of community, a place of welcome.
Like I mentioned earlier, tea in its physical form is insignificant and unextraordinary. However, this tea was one of the most significant experiences I have ever had, and I will take this with me for the rest of my life. In those quiet moments with Yousef, I felt like there was peace in a world filled with chaos. As I go forward, I will always be looking for moments where tea is shared, maybe not always physically, but the value and essence of what it represents. I pray I am able to make others feel as Yousef did for me, because I truly believe we need more moments like that today. A space where community and people are valued, loved and seen.