Shai: A Binding Muse for Middle-Eastern Cultures | Good Life Tea
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Shai: A Binding Muse for Middle-Eastern Cultures

by Robert O'Brien June 16, 2017

Shai: A Binding Muse for Middle-Eastern Cultures


When 17 th Century master merchant Abu Taqiyya rose in the ranks of the Cairo elite, he witnessed what few people in Europe had seen. Various spices, medicines, coffee, and even ice traveled from the Eastern part of India to Europe and were sold along the Persian, Arab, Jewish, and Ottoman markets along the way. This lead to cultural differences in how life was documented and created a vast historical gap.
Our record of life in the Indo-Persian-Muslim world is scarce compared to some others such as Western historians. Egypt came under Turkish, then Ottoman rule and in the 1800s, and the nation saw a dramatic shift in law, lifestyle, business, and culture as a whole and was considered to be the beginning of mid-modern history in the area. That is, until court records in Cairo were perused. Now for the last few decades historians have access to a previously-unknown vault of careful legal documents that shed light on not just legislative affairs, but also everyday life in Egypt. Abu Taqiyya was an unknown figure by and large. Now his whole life, including his time in court, can be reviewed, from his purchases of new storehouses for his spices, to his family's inheritance disputes, to the records of his home and marriage lives. Among this new wealth of information, came the role of shai ( the same word in Arabic as the Hindi word chai) a miraculous curative drink that, along with coffee, was still being documented by European traveller-historians as 'black water,' even though it would ironically define the British empire in centuries to come.

Shai is the world's most popular drink after water. It is sold, grown, and enjoyed on every inhabited continent, and on each, it plays the multi-role part of a staple consumable: a tonic, a comfort, a dessert, and more. The middle east is its third-earliest adoptive home territory (after China and India) and is an unquestionable part of life there. From a young age, Egyptians, Kuwaitis, the Omani, Somalians, Turks, and Afghans alike rely on cup after cup of the marvelous beverage. This sampling of countries in what is commonly called 'The Middle East' may seem homogeneous to Westerners, but the cultural divide among these nations and their people, is profound. Afghans, for example, speak Pashtun and can not understand Arabic, likewise Iranians speak Farsi and are of Persian – Aryan – descent, not even 'Arab' or Semitic, truly. Somalians and Nubian Egyptians are dark-skinned with the African heritage of that nation's geographic location, though Egyptians will also point out that historically, both Pharonic culture and the Ptolemys (Cleopatra et cetera – Egypt's time under Greek rule) were not Arab. Oman and Kuwait, along with the UAE, are khaleeji Arabs, speaking a dialect closer to the proper fussha , the Koranic Arabic that all Muslims learn alongside their local dialects. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other Gulf states have their own distinct brands of Islam, cultural practices, and more. And this is not to mention many others. There are stereotypes – with folks from Bahrain likely to tease Egyptians or Saudis as backwards, rural, farm hicks, and bookish religious types, and Iraqis, Yemenis, and others to joke right back about the technology and car obsessed moneyed peoples of Oman and Abu Dhabbi. Oman, for its part, is a longstanding center of 'alternative medicine' and mystic cures that pre-date Islam. Modern as its cities are, the superstitions of the countryside, as well as their mystic healers, are still both joked about and seriously sought for those suffering incurable ailments.

But the whole region loves shai.

Islam, the faith binding all of these people, prohibits the use of alcohol and other mind-altering substances. The Prophet (PBUH) was a businessman, a shrewd deal maker, a bringer together of disparate people, and fiercely devoted to strong character and wisdom, which he arguably saw as the heritage of this poetry, math, and philosophy loving region that was facing new and terrible trauma at the hands of some European influence (the crusades and following cultural expansions). For him, the safety, well-being, joy, and integrity of the whole people was worth more than each individual's pursuit of pleasure. It is a philosophy opposite to the founding principles of the United States, where rugged individualism was, ironically enough, a tonic seen to be able to free people from the same advances of empire, state rule, and systemic abuse of power. Therefore, though America flirted with temperance (prohibition was a shockingly modern law – sometimes we forget that alcohol was illegal in every state for part of the early 20 th century) the nation always came back, letting personal choice dictate law first. The Muslim world modernized but retained its faith. And so while you can still buy beer at the right grocery store in Cairo and have a cocktail at a restaurant (there is a local wine also: Omar Khayyam), this is something regulated to non-strict and non-conservative Muslims and foreigners, as well as Egypt's large Coptic Christian (some 7 million or so) population.

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But when the day is long and hot and work is hard and continuous, people crave a social lubricant, a pleasurable beverage, and a creation whose variety can be studied, shared, and discussed. Thus s hai is consumed just about as often as the prayer call is heard in Cairo: some five times a day on average. The English custom of 'tea time' is also loosely observed, since its pause-and-share mentality suits the longstanding Muslim tradition of fundamental hospitality. Passing by even the simplest bedouin camp in the Sinai dessert, one will likely be offered tea and sweets. Likewise, linger long enough in a street shop (and show interest in a purchase!) and an offer of “Intah aiz wahid chai, mumkin?” (Would you like a tea, perhaps) is likely to arrive.

Though coffee was initially viewed with uncertainty and even prohibited in stricter Muslim nations (centuries ago) for its caffeine, this didn't last long, and tea was more or less adopted with eagerness.

But what about drawing a connection between Mexico, the Middle East, and India? Now the difference is starker. Linguistic roots are no longer shared. Religion, neither. These peoples have by and large lived out histories so separate that their worlds are called The Old and The New. But scientifically, there's a reason that these three places rapidly adopted unbelievably widespread tea drinking.

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Hot countries might seem a strange fit, sociologically, for a hot drink. Likewise, hot food, salty foods, and spices. But the opposite, scientifically, is in fact true. In places where the sun burns down long and harsh, salty and spice foods – all prominent in Mexico, India, and the Middle East – induce thirst, keeping people from mistaking water satisfaction for hydration, making them drink more and more. Likewise, if the water or life in general is not hygienic (a modernization that came somewhat later to these areas), the potent spice in chillis, pepper, and more, are theorized to have helped to clean and clear people's stomachs, reducing bacteria life and giving people a little kick, taste-wise to keep them alert and working hard during the sleepy heat of the sun. Finally, likewise, a boiled drink like shai though it may sound less refreshing than a cold lemon juice on a Cairo summer's day, provided a means for always achieving healthy water, long before bacteriology explained this, these nations realized that boiled water was cleaner.

Beyond all of this, of course, is the fact of social cohesion, of the common love for something good, pleasant, and affordable. It is a common woman or man's drink as well as – in luxuriant forms – a gift fit for royalty. It is not associated with male or female preference, it crosses language barriers, it gives people a reason to pause and break from work, talk, keep close with family, meet old friends, and maintain relationships.

And it's delicious, which – to put it in socio-biological terms – never hurts.





Robert O'Brien
Robert O'Brien



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