West Bank: Sami the Tea Guy
The West Bank: Tea in Bethlehem - Avoiding the 'Tea Guy' in the West Bank. But then...
By Paul Michelson
We left the open-air café on Manger Square near the West Bank and started on a roundabout route back to our Bethlehem hotel.
“Why are we going this way?” my wife said.
“To avoid the tea guy,” I muttered, staring at the cobblestones underfoot.
“Oh,” she said, “yeah.”
The tea guy was the big, bearish fellow who’d materialized in front of us the day before as we approached Manger Square via Star Street, the picturesque cobblestone passageway that led to the square.
“Come with me,” he’d said, planting himself firmly in front of us, a tray of Turkish coffee cups dangling from his hand. “I make you the best cup of tea.” His voice literally vibrated with excitement.
“Oh, no thanks,” I said. “We just had something to drink. Tomorrow.”
He stood and watched us as we started toward the square again. “I don’t believe you,” he called after us.
“No. No. We will,” I said, waving back at him.
The Evasion Fails
I was lying. I just wanted out of there. I had no intention of seeking him out the next day. Not that it was something I felt good about. After all, much of the reason we were visiting the West Bank—Ramallah earlier that week and Bethlehem now—was to pump some money into the region’s struggling economy.
But I was tired of guides and taxi drivers nagging us to take a tour of Jericho or Hebron or some other West Bank town. I was worn down and wasn’t in the mood to accommodate the tea guy. Besides, how special could a cup of tea be?
So there we were the next day, taking the long way around, trying to sneak back to our hotel without the tea guy nabbing us.
Obviously, we hadn’t given him a wide enough berth. About when I figured we were in the clear, there he was again, bearing down on us with a silver tray full of empty cups. He reminded me of a big bald butterfly, zooming out from his home base, flitting from one merchant to another, bringing them their tea or coffee, and hustling back to his shop.
He lumbered up to us, dressed in the same dark tee-shirt, faded jeans, and worn sneakers he’d been wearing the day before. “You promised,” he said, his tone a mixture of accusation and amusement.
“Oh … yeah … okay,” we said, trying to sound enthusiastic.
A Friendly Little Place
He led us around a corner into a narrow cobblestone cul-de-sac lined with aging limestone apartment buildings. “Have a seat,” he said, pointing to three little white plastic tables with a couple of plastic chairs at each.
We sat down. “How do you want it?” he said. “No sugar, a little, a lot?”
“Uhmm, a little.”
He hurried off. A blond couple in their mid-thirties, probably Scandinavian, were just finishing their tea at the table next to us. I had a feeling they’d been roped in by the tea guy, too. As they got up, the woman looked at us, smiled, and rolled her eyes as if to say, “What can you do?”—just the sort of resignation I felt at being dragged into the tea guy’s lair.
But I’d misunderstood her. In the next moment, she nodded toward her cup, touched her fingers to her lips, and blew a kiss in the air, implying, rather than resignation, something more like “Perfection!”
While my wife and I sat there waiting, I thumbed through our guidebook. Suddenly, above us, a perky voice chirped, “Hello.”
We looked up. A young olive-skinned girl in a tattered robe leaned over a small balcony opposite us and waved. “Hi,” we said and waved back.
Some Amazing Tea
After a few minutes, the tea guy hurried out from his workplace and set two clear-glass cups on our table. Each was filled with pale golden tea along with a bouquet of colorful leaves, buds, and stems. “Try it,” he said, standing over us. We took a sip and … whoosh! A bracing rush of flavor, an exotic blend of aromatic herbs and tea with a hint of sweetness. I’d never tasted anything like it.
“That is good!” my wife said. “What’s in it?”
I was nudging something around in my cup, trying to figure out what it was. “Mushroom!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, mushroom,” the guy said, then laughed. “No, ginger. I experimented. There’s lemon, coriander, thyme, ginger, mint … ” He emphasized each ingredient with his forefinger, eager to share his recipe.
“It’s delicious,” my wife said.
“I’m glad you like it,” he grinned and hurried back into his work spot.
A local man in dark slacks, white shirt, and sandals shuffled in from the walkway just outside our cul-de-sac and sat on a low limestone wall nearby, waiting for coffee. Another walked in and sat on the rockery opposite us. We savored the tea slowly. “This is amazing,” I said.
A minute later, the tea guy hurried out of his doorway toward the open end of his cul-de-sac holding a tray of tea. Before long, he came back carrying an empty tray and followed by two women, the younger of whom carried a Lonely Planet guidebook with Cyrillic subheads. They sat at the table next to us and launched into a lively chat. They looked over at us, smiling, as we finished our tea. “It’s great,” I said, pointing at my cup.
A Warm Leave Taking
We got up. “I wonder how we pay?” I said to my wife. I walked over to the tea guy’s work spot, a dark little 6’ by 8’ cave with copper pots and silver pans hanging along the blackened stone walls. He was bent forward, back to me, arms working busily over a stove. An armload of dusty-green herbs protruded from a white plastic bucket next to him. He looked like a scientist toiling away in his lab. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Adeish?”
He shook his head slowly and shrugged. “Whatever you want to pay.” I handed him a twenty-shekel Israeli banknote, the standard form of currency in the West Bank. He nodded and smiled.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“That was really good, Sami.” He beamed.
My wife, standing just outside, asked if she could take his picture. He and I stepped out, put an arm around each other, faced the camera, and broke into laughs. The guys on the rockery grinned. My wife took the picture. Sami and I shook hands, and my wife and I left.
An Uncommon Soul
As much artist and inventor as businessman, Sami seems to me one of those rare souls who derives such delight from what he’s created that profit becomes almost an afterthought. In his case, that delight seems to permeate his little cul-de-sac, both residents and patrons, as well.
It’s a happy place, a sunny retreat, something not easy to come by, I suspect, in a West Bank where life can’t be easy.
Sami’s still there, just off the passageway that connects Star Street with Manger Square, working out of his cave. There’s no address, but I doubt you’d need to seek him out; if you’re anywhere around, I’m pretty sure he’ll find you.
Paul Michelson is a writer living in Davis, California.
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