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My Scholarship entry - Understanding a Culture through Food

WORLDWIDE | Monday, 23 April 2012 | Views [215] | Scholarship Entry

“Ça va?” Hassim asked and pulled the 1975 Mercedes-Benz off the dusty road. A single Berber tent of burnt sienna wool was the only dwelling we had seen for hours. We were somewhere near Merzouga, the sky an ash blue and everything else -the tent, the car, the sand- was all a thirsty, beige echo of the surrounding Sahara.

Slats of sunlight pierced through holes in the wool tent revealing half a dozen slumbering silhouettes within. Hassim beckoned us to follow. Inside, a dozen eyes as white as moons looked up at us from within their cavernous djellabas. A rich smell of cumin and turmeric filled the air. Men mumbled in a jumble of Arabic and French, while one of the figures slithered toward a hearth in the center of the shelter to boil water.

He was the man of the house, the ceremony master, the illustrious brewer of atay bi na'na': Moroccan green tea, the drink that binds this sprawling country of diverse cultures together. Leathery hands with deeply creased skin and blackened fingernails moved knowingly with hundreds of years of tradition behind them. The moon-eyed men in their ochre clothes silently watched the ceremony master at work.

Into the berrad went a sprinkle of green tea, boiling water, a handful of mint so fresh it stung your nostrils and a generous plop of white sugar cubes. Poured from above head-level, chartreuse liquid plummeted into a tiny ruby cup below. Its contents were quickly splashed back into the pot before the lid was clunked shut. Slowly lifting the teapot again, the waterfall fell and foamed in the cups as it hit them. Quietly, the patriarch passed each of us a cup of steaming tea.

They say the first sip is as bitter as life, the second as strong as love and the third as gentle as death. Sitting around a warm hearth in the middle of the harsh Sahara with silent strangers, I took the first sip. It was pleasantly sweet. I said the only words I knew in French, “ça va.” Hassim and the strangers laughed and their world seemed more familiar.

Tags: Travel Writing Scholarship 2012

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