"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

More Josh Hersh on Yemen

Josh Hersh at the New Yorker continues his series on Yemen with a nice little essay about food, with photographs.  It isn't easy to write slice-of-life pieces without sounding condescending or veering into Baedeker-esque "look at that" territory, but Josh does a great job.  He also talks a little about the greatest tea-stand in the world.

Some places seem designed to accommodate this pace. An extraordinarily old man makes sweet chai with hot milk in a tiny shop next to the Pink Mosque in the Old City. He serves one and a half glasses of tea with every order. The half-full one cools more quickly, so you start with that and, by the time you are done, the full glass will be ready to drink.

I am thrilled, but not surprised, the old man is still around.  I think he is timeless and ageless, and I wouldn't be shocked if he outlives me (given my diet and drinking, this is: not difficult).  On a personal note, when San'a was the Arab Cultural Capital in 2004 I edited a book about it, and had a couple of pieces, one of which was about the magic and beauty of the city, and started by talking about the tea man.  I can't find it anywhere on the internet,  which makes me sad, because while the prose was over the top, it is still one of my favorite things I have written.  To add to what Josh has said simply and eloquently, I will annoyingly put in my couple of paragraphs, which time has rendered slightly awkward, but of which I am fond.

The brown and white cupolas of the Al-Mahdi Abbas Mosque loom above the dry banks of a stone river.  Inside is a tomb; outside a magician.  The tomb is of the man whose mosque bears his name.  A ruler of Yemen who twice had to put down revolts led by sorcerers of his day, he lies uneasy as another has come back to haunt his restless nights.  The magician is a tea-maker, a timeless resident of San'a, who operates at night in a dirty and noise little hole carved into the side of the silent mosque.

It is here, at this nameless stand run by a nameless stranger, that you can get the best cup of tea in town.  The magician doesn't pour milk into black tea- he makes it all at the same time, a long procedure that is worth the wait, the noise, and the silence of its creator.  The sweetness of his alchemy is matched only by the grandeur of the view from the uncomfortable metal chairs that are set up haphazardly outside.  You sit and sip and gaze out over the paved levy that used to carry water and raiders into San'a.  On the other side the Old City sits in its nighttime silence.  Frontlit from the street, it seems unreal, a movie prop, a gingerbread backdrop that would topple on you if a strong enough wind came roaring off Jebel Nuqum.  

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