Originally Published in Tea A Magazine
Having been raised in Iran I am no stranger to tea, I grew up on it. But perhaps its familiarity blinded me to the enchanting and elegant qualities it possesses. For me tea had always carried an aura of hierarchy which at times felt oppressive. Iran has a patriarchal culture. Add to it the Islamic revolution whose goal was to subjugate women in the name of religion. Soon in my rebellious eyes life became a constant battle for justice. Seeing the society with this lens made following rules about serving a beverage; its perfect color, in the perfect serving order, nonsensical. Besides didn’t women suffer enough without yet another expectation of servitude placed on them? It infuriated me to have to carry a tray of teacups or to watch any woman do the same. The act of bowing down to offer tea felt as denigration. Let them get their own tea. Why should any woman accept this obvious insolent treatment? Stand up for your rights ladies, put the trays of teacups down and declare equality. I would gladly volunteer to lead the fight. Persian women unite for justice!
One of my dominant memories that I chafed under, was the obligation of serving tea to a room full of guests. In Iran the task of serving tea during social gatherings falls on girls in their teens and twenties. As guests arrive we bring them tea, plus with each new arrival we inquire if anyone else would like more. When it comes to Iranians, who have an unspoken rule about being fashionably late, one can stay busy right up to meal time. Further, in Iran we almost always drink loose leaf black tea. Teabags are an insult. Finding the right color becomes yet another challenge. Unless otherwise requested by a guest, one strives for the perfect deep amber by having just the right ratio of tea, water, and timing. Proper etiquette requires an order to the presentation as well: women take precedence and older individuals are served first. I used to review the order in my head: grandmother, aunts, mom, grandfather, uncles and father, followed by the younger generation. Scanning the room ahead of time saved the confusion of searching for the next person. We repeat the whole ritual again after each meal. At the time I found so many rules about a simple beverage banal and incessant.
The true test of a young woman’s skills came about during a visit from a potential suitor with his family. What a nerve wracking moment to have to serve the perfect cup of tea to one’s possible husband and in-laws. It feels as if the whole future rests on this very moment. Can I carry the tray without showing the maelstrom of emotions churning within me? I distinctly remember how a possible potential father-in-law’s order of a second serving in a specific color carried a bitter sense of hierarchy and power play for me.
Many years have passed since those days, and recently something has begun to change in me. A shift took place that was quite unexpected. I began, even against my high-minded convictions, to appreciate this ritual. It required a different perspective to arrive at such a conclusion. Living in the U.S. for twenty years has afforded me a new lens. One, perhaps not as darkly tinted with bias, allowing me to see the symbolism, and the beauty of tea as a cultural ceremony. A practice that teaches us in ways words cannot. With new eyes I began to see how tea is more about sharing and bonding. An experience I find myself nostalgic for now that I live in a kind of chosen exile.
And that nostalgia activated other memories that opened me to the beauty of tea. I was reminded of the other ways tea features in the lives of Persians. Tea is served not just at formal occasions, but also in more casual, intimate gatherings of friends or family. We exchange ideas, relate personal stories, tell secrets, share laughter and tears all over a cup of tea. We welcome company to our homes with tea, even change the serving ware and our demeanor all based on the occasion. My beautiful aunt’s radiant face comes to mind as she would glide from guest to guest during all-women religious ceremonies to offer tea with a glow, a smile that communicated her willingness and love. Not an iota of resentment present in her demeanor. This delightful beverage is about communion and connection, not a political war. With the ego set aside, I now see the bowing as an act of respect not derision, and the ritual as a graceful dance really, an art. I relish in the fact that no matter where or what age Iranians are they have an unspoken understanding about when it is time for tea. Nowadays, far from our families, especially when in company of single friends, I would gladly unburden them. Of course they can pour and carry tea but I am here now. And I can add a feminine touch to the ritual. Perhaps by doing so bring back a remembrance of the country, our families with their preferences, our gatherings, our past.
My new appreciation for the beverage and attendant rituals also paved the way for more playful memories. My grandmother liked her tea very dark, in a large glass. A preference so passionate and deeply worn, she would always don a look of scorn when discussing light colored tea. And then the inevitable comparison to…um…”horse urine.” The language was a bit more colorful in Farsi. I chuckle when I remember this.
Only with time and distance did I begin to realize that the essence of a nation is born from her traditions. Iran’s ceremonies weave the colorful tapestry of a rich culture which has traversed over centuries; one I take pride to be a part of. The very custom that once goaded me now soothes me through the gift of a keen appreciation for respect and social grace. As for the beverage itself it has become an integral part of my everyday life. Each sip is a thread connecting me to the sweet memories of my past, while comforting me in the midst of challenging days.