Middle East

Tea and me

Tea. Warm and strong. In a thin glass. The best teas I drank in Iraq.

Just imagine; the embers of a fire that is still warm but not hot. A blackened metal tea pot in the middle of it. A bird singing nearby, mountains rising around you. Perhaps even an orange sun setting behind one. And then a glass of that tea, brewed patiently with the smoke of the fire.

For a tea drinker like me, that is a huge present. One that, as you can read, I have fond memories of. The best picnic in Kurdistan ends with a sweet, strong, and smoky tea.

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is my tea Valhalla. It’s the place where tea is always ready to be served. Even at the front lines. When I visited the Kurdish front lines with ISIS near Bashiqa a couple of years ago to talk to one of the generals, there came the tea, fresh and hot. As was the case in most of the offices I visited to speak to government officials, managers, and directors.

This is a place where they know how tea should be made. Good chai is made from the best leaves that are put in a pot with cold water, brought to the boil and allowed to boil for a minute. Sometimes cardamom is added to flavour the taste and the smell. On top of the teapot a pot of hot water is placed, to water down the brew so every tea drinker can have it at just the right strength.


The best tea ever was made for me by Hassan, my Iraqi student from Baghdad who lived for a year in the media centre I led in Sulaymaniya. He knew exactly how I liked my tea: freshly brewed and without sugar, so not too strong. He had made it his task to provide us in the office at least once a day with a fresh pot.

This kind of tea you should drink from a glass, preferably a thin one. An istikan, that attractive little belly shaped glass, often with gold around the rim, sometimes painted all over the glass. It stands on a small but deep saucer, which could be from matching glass, but more often is made of white porcelain.

The pouring of tea starts with a couple of spoons full of sugar – and this is where the struggle starts that I also associate with tea in Iraq. Because the really strong tea cannot do without, but I prefer my tea pure, and I have cut sugar out of my diet years ago. So how do I get the tea boy or the host to pour me a sugar free, light tea that at the same time isn’t too light? Or a strong one with a tiny bit of sugar – and not the one heaped spoon that he or she considers as a ‘little sugar’?

Tea boys are so attractive that they seem selected based on their appearances

Tea boy – oh yes, in Kurdistan that really is a job. Mostly for men, and very often for young men or boys. Often, they are so attractive, that I have been wondering if they had been selected based on their appearances. Many offices have such tea boys. For when a visitor enters there, the rules of hospitality dictate that he or she is welcomed with a freshly poured tea.

Where the West has its cafes, Kurdistan has its chaykhana’s. Tea shops where the male owner pours tea from big steaming pots. Mostly, these are men’s places, where they meet and chat over tea or hot creamy milk. Women may drink tea together at home. But when I go into a chaykhana with a friend, we are usually welcomed warmly, and even more so if I order another, and yet another glass of tea, as I, as a tea addict, usually do.


Perhaps that is where my love for Iraq started. With the glasses of tea that always appear when I arrived for an interview or a social visit. Usually, in those offices with the long couches around the walls, firstly a bottle of water is offered. Then a glass of sweet tea will follow. Nowadays, often and depending on the hour, you may also be offered coffee.

That is a beverage I do not consume. Be it Arabic coffee, filter coffee or instant, I like the smell but not the taste. So, when it appears on the side table next to me during an interview, I am faced with a dilemma. For it is impolite to refuse – and being polite is an important part of the local cultural code. Yet I find it just as impolite to ignore that coffee next to me, which often has been made with just as much love as the tea was.

The solution I found is to apologize profusely for the fact that I do not drink coffee. Usually, I am then offered the tea I was already pining for.

Iraq is my country because it is a country for tea drinkers. And the locally offered tea is of a good quality, not with funny additives and tastes, not the Moroccan way with mint and not brewed too long and bitter like in Turkey.


Although with the changes and the influences from outside, ‘teabag tea’ has long since entered Iraq too. Sometimes you will even be presented with the choice: chai or teabag. Teabag comes in a cup of course, and in my home country, the Netherlands, the bag would suffice for a whole pot. But in Iraq it is just enough for a strong cuppa, which colour should always be dark brown. And never with milk! The ritual that follows I love to watch: the bag is taken from the cup with a teaspoon, and the tread is turned around bag and spoon to carefully take out all the liquid. Not a drop is wasted.

An important rule for chai is that it is drunk piping hot. If you are in a hurry, you can use the deep saucer to drink it from, as to not to burn your mouth. Strange perhaps, in a country that has such a hot climate, most of the year. And yet, iced tea that is popular in the West, is available but not really a big hit here.

In Kurdistan, tea is a beverage for all situations. Not like in my own country, where it might be drunk at breakfast time and late afternoon, which leads to about 700 cups per person per year. I think that Iraq has triple that number at least. I was not really surprised to see that the chaykhana’s in Mosul were amongst the first shops to reopen after the recent war in Mosul.

When I travel from Iraq back to my present home country, I always take packets of tea with me that I buy in the local supermarkets. And in my handbag, I usually carry some teabags to make sure I do not have to drink the green or healthy mountain tea that is mainly served in Greece. That’s why, now too, a freshly brewed tea from Iraq is at my side on the desk in Athens.