Monday, July 03, 2006


Madeleine # 8: The Holy Trinity of the Maur

Sand, Sun and Stars.
Camel, Dates & Lamb.

You would think that the Bedouin already had 2 holy trinities for surviving the Sahara. But within the first few hours you spend in these men's company, you discover that the holiest of holies, is the Mint Tea. And that teas come in three's, just like the 3 ages of life. The first one is weak in taste, but very sweet, like a childhood without worries and concerns. The second one is balanced in strength and sweetness, like a full grown man who knows that both maketh the man. And the third is strong and yet tempered by a memory of the sweetness that was, like old age full of the wisdom of many years.

Mohammed, our resident watchman in Nouakchott, was definitely a third glass of tea. To my 13 years, he was even a fourth or fifth. But having experienced the first and the second, he could recognise sweetness and strength, cruelty and weakness, when he saw them. And that may be how he one day saved our lives, for all we know. But more of that later.

Some of you may have tasted Moroccan mint tea, which to me tastes like somewhere between a 1st and a 2nd glass. But very few of you may know that the Mauritanians have a tea ceremony, maybe not as complex as the Japanese, but just as important. At all times of the day, wherever you are and no matter for how short or long, you will be offered - and expected to accept - the 3 glasses of mint tea. At sunset in the capital, Nouakchott, one can see small groups of men, lying around in the sand, chatting and drinking mint tea. It's the physicla embodiment of happiness.

I have to rely on observation and memory for the recipe, as neither my parents nor I ever learned the true ritual, so bear with me.

Green gunpowder tea
Fresh mint leaves (I have no idea how they manage to get that in the middle of the Sahara, but they do)

Sugar cone
Sugar 'axe' or 'hammer'
Teapot with small spout
Small tea glasses
Ability to squat on your haunches

Pour 2 tbsp of the green tea into the teapot, add a handful of mint leaves, and some sugar freshly hacked off the cone. Add boiling water. Stir with a spoon.

Now for the tricky part. A good mint tea is frothy. And the froth is obtained by pouring the scalding liquid from a great height into a small glass, then pouring the content of the glass back into the teapot and repeating. Over and over again.

There must be a magical formula which guarantees that all present get the right 1st, 2nd and 3rd glass experience, all with froth, but sadly, I do not know it. If anybody out there has it, please leave it as a comment. You will be rewarded with gazillions of happy orange Madeleine vibrations from me to you. And let's face it, you can NEVER have too many of those.

I have recently started drinking mint tea again, in the morning but also at work. We have a small stainless steel tea pot at the office and my co-workers think me slightly bonkers for pouring the sugar directly into it (and for all the other things I do in that kitchen). But you don't get the '3 life stages experience' if you don't have the sugar. And when I take that first, fragrant sip of each of the 3 stages - sorry glasses - I smile into the distance, sigh a wellbeing sigh and think of Mohammed. Sometimes I also think of the day he may very well have saved our lives.

It was in April 1989 and border skirmishes between Senegal and Mauritania escalated into full blown riots, where Mauritanians were killing anybody vaguely resembling a Senegalese (i.e. black) and the Senegalese were doing the same to anyone Bedouin-looking. Harrowing times which are best not described in all their horror here (I have been considering for a few weeks how to describe them and have decided not to), but best remembered by the acts of courage they also engendered.

The biggest act of courage was my Dad's. As UN Representative, he unilaterally decided to organise an air-bridge between Nouakchott and Dakar to evacuate the refugees from both sides. Meanwhile, the UN office was transformed into a make-shift refugee camp, where people who had lost everything waited to be the next to be sent to a country which was not even their own. But not before the Mauritanian authorities had stripped them of their papers and few remaining belongings, thus also stripping them of their identity at arrival.

As could be expected, my Dad was hardly flavour of the month and my teenage self stupidly resented not being able to have the freedom I had enjoyed until then, as I had to be accompanied everywhere, for fear of retribution. For several months we lived according to the UN Warning System, where Warning 3 meant ‘Stay at Home’ and were considering what we would pack into the single suitcase we knew we could take with us if the order was given to evacuate. We all 3 agreed that instead of a suitcase, we would save our beloved dog, Balder instead.

At the height of the riots, my Dad had to leave my Mum and me alone, to go and make sure that all his UN staff were safe. Before leaving, he taught me how to fire a gun - a Magnum I think - so that at the age of 16 I could defend both of us. I remember standing on the first floor of our inner court, being shown how to load it and unlatch the safety mechanism, take aim. At the legs/feet, nothing more! We are peace-loving people. Perhaps it was my Dad's way to boost our sense of safety. Perhaps it was to make himself more confident that we could defend ourselves. Or perhaps he genuinely believed that I could do it.

In the end, Mohammed saved me from knowing if I have what it takes to fire a gun pointed at another human being. When rioters started amassing in front of our house one night, Mohammed climbed onto the gate and told them in no uncertain terms that the people living there were good people and to leave them alone. Or that's what he told us he had told them. Whatever he told them, it worked. And we are forever grateful for it. A month or so later, my Dad's contract was up and we left, virtually persona non grata.

Looking back at that period, that’s probably when I took my first steps from the 1st glass of mint tea towards the 2nd.

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