The Iraqis love tea, but they won’t serve tea in just any cup. If it’s not in a crystal clear cylinder-shaped glass the size of a shot glass, you know the tea maker is a rookie. The tea is about the temperature of your average pot of coffee, although I have drunk a few cups so steaming hot that it could take the hair off of a buffalo.
The more Iraqis like you, the more sugar they’ll put at the bottom of the glass. I typically receive two and a half teaspoons. Once, I asked for no sugar and the man said, “no, you must take the sugar.” They take it as an insult if you say no to their bread, tea or mystery meat. Needless to say, I’ve randomly disappeared when the mystery meat arrives at the table.
In Iraq, tea is really just a vehicle for conversation. They talk about their families, how much they love Americans and how great their country used to be before Saddam Hussein took over. I frequently drink tea with a colonel from the former Iraqi army, who fought in the Iraq-Iran War but not against the Americans, which he always reminds me of. He’s also Kurdish, an ethnic group that has been through a lot of turmoil.
The Iraq population is about 15 percent Kurdish. Most of them are Muslims, and they were considered second and sometimes third-class citizens by the Arabic population despite their similarities in religion and language. Saddam killed thousands of them in the 1980s and there are still hundreds of thousands of Kurdish people unaccounted for from his tyranny. The colonel believes they are all buried in the desert somewhere.
Now as the leader of a Kurdish fighting force, the good colonel works side by side Arabs, Turkmen and Americans. He always tells me how tough his Kurdish soldiers are, then he sips his tea. He starts every sentence with “Yes” or “This is the fact.”
But when he talks of the many battles he’s survived and the brutality his people have lived through, he sets the tea down and you can see the pain on his rugged face and in his tough, brown eyes.
He tells me the Kurds were forced to move or be executed. Most of them moved to the mountainous areas of Iraq, which are near the Mosul area. They established villages, but were forced to move again by Saddam’s people. They were cut off by the Iraqi society, forced to drink bacteria-infested water from the Tigris River and had to find food in the not-so fertile land. Sixty percent of the newborns were dead after their first year of life, and the men could not find work because they were Kurdish.
The colonel wraps his story up with, “but we survived, because the Kurdish are strong, resilient people.” That’s when he smiles, finishes his cup of tea and asks if I’d like another cup. Then he talks about how the Kurdish and Arabs are working together, and how he’s sure that Iraq will be a great country once again.
After about four cups of tea, the conversation is typically over and I’ve usually had enough. He insists I have another cup, so I oblige. Thirty minutes later, as I lay in my bunk trying to fall asleep with my eyes wide open from the caffeine, I tell myself that tomorrow I won’t drink so much tea.
Who am I kidding? I’m starting to like this Iraqi custom of drinking tea. Maybe I’ll buy a tea set before I return to Milwaukee.