A Cup of Tea

A Short Story

By Azzam Maqdissi

Around 5PM, somewhere in the Gulf, February in the far future.

Nidal limped into the tea shop with the intention of teaching someone a lesson or two. He had only just arrived in town earlier that day and it was far too hot and humid to wander the outdoors during daylight. Never one to wait idly, especially on his first visit “home” in over three decades, he headed to the only still-standing shopping centre on the side of town, close to the Ful Al Raheeb Residential and Commercial Estate (FARRCE), to kill the hour or so until he was due to meet a group of old friends at the nearby mosque. Although his demeanour did not show it, it was Nidal’s well-concealed excitement that led him to arrive in the area early. This was to be his first reunion with his friends since he last left the city decades ago.

Physical shops were finally making a comeback after the two main pandemics of the century, and from the looks of things, this particular shop wanted everyone to know it. Its entrance was adorned with the most garish display of boxes of luxury and gourmet teabags. The devious constellation of loud and rather obnoxious visual stimulants that the display presented seemed like it was meant to assault a potential customer’s sense of sight as a means of nullifying their inhibitions about purchasing criminally overpriced “tea”. Unfortunately for the shop’s underpaid salesman and its overpriced boxes, Nidal was not the day’s average tea-buyer and was highly unsusceptible to such unscrupulous manipulations.

Although he was once a more patient and tactful man, old age stripped Nidal of his tolerance for anything he perceived as shameless, stupid, and corrupt. His attention fixated on the largest, and most elaborately decorated, section of the store, a large structure of shelves laid out in the classical analogue retail style that has slowly returned to prominence. He proceeded to scan the ingredients list attached to each type of product.

“Ah, I see you are interested in our Exotic Flavours Collection!” exclaimed the shop’s sole salesman.

“It is our largest collection by far and it includes many of our most popular and bestselling blends!”

“That’s nice, but where is the actual tea?” asked Nidal.

“Every box contains at least thirty teabags. We could set you up with a monthly subscription if you like!” replied the salesman, growing in optimism that he might successfully close a long-awaited sell and win a meagre commission. Nidal looked into the eyes of the salesman and, after a short pause, declared, “I am not interested in a bullshit subscription to something that is clearly not” – Nidal slowly picked up a box, examined it in silence, and then looked back at the salesman – “tea.”

Confused and with a sense of impending dread, the salesman gulped and asked, “What do you mean it’s not tea? All this shop sells is tea, and you are holding a box of teabags in your hand.” Nidal hoped that the poor salesman did not believe the words coming out of his own mouth. The old man placed the box purporting to be tea back on the shelf and sighed in the way that indicated that he was about to unleash some much-needed knowledge upon the salesman.

“Do you know what tea is?” Nidal asked.

“Yes, of course,” the poor salesman responded.

“Then you would know that not a single one of these boxes contains even a trace of tea.”

“Excuse me, sir? How do they not –”

“Look at these lists of ingredients,” Nidal demanded forcefully, gesturing in a way that prompted the salesman to start browsing the long and complex lists of ingredients attached to each shelf.

“Do you see tea on any of them? If you do, please read them out to me.”

“Yes, sir,” replied the salesman in a manner that betrayed his intention of sounding assured.

“Mint tea leaves, anise tea leaves, chamomile tea leaves, orange tea leaves …” he continued as his voice trailed off. When the salesman looked back at Nidal, he saw the old man glaring at him angrily from above the thick rim of his glasses, his dark eyes reading and scrutinising the salesman’s lack of assuredness like poorly written legislation.

“None. Of. These. Are. Tea,” said Nidal, with frustration punctuating each of his monosyllabic words before transitioning into a well-rehearsed sermon. “Not every beverage made with leaves or herbs in hot water is tea. In fact, these days, very few of them are. They are just a random assortment of leaves in hot water!

“What you call mint tea, for example, is just mint leaves in hot water – mint tea would involve leaves of the tea plant being in the hot water alongside mint leaves! Just so you know, tea comes from one plant, known to botanists as camellia sinensis. Anything that does not come from camellia sinensis is not tea! Black tea, green tea, oolong … they all come from this one species of plant.

“And by the way,” continued Nidal, “the reason your employer does not stock anything containing actual tea is a result of climate change and global capitalism!” he said, as the salesman listened on, attentive and bewildered. “The distortion of global weather patterns over the last few decades has made life difficult for many smaller plantations, particularly in places like Darjeeling and Sri Lanka, which used to be major tea-producing powerhouses in my youth. Longer dry seasons and the shutting down of smaller tea-producers has led a group of large tea-producing corporations to act as a cartel. Thus, transforming tea from the world’s most popular beverage, after water, into a luxury beverage, due to price-fixing and manufacturing an increased scarcity beyond that which is necessary. All of your so-called exotic blends and so-called homoeopathic teas are not tea and it is unethical for the good people of the world to be lied to like this. Indeed, the underground, black-market tea traders have far more integrity and far better morals than those who hide behind the capitalist construct of legality that protects the likes of your employers and the faux luxury tea cartels who deprive the masses from the chai they need to survive this abomination of a global moment!”

And before the poor, dumbfounded salesman managed to begin thinking about how to respond, Nidal shouted, “And before I leave, you should know that the term ‘Exotic Blends’ implies that your marketing department is rabid orientalists and they need to fix up if they want to do something useful for this crumbling existence!” The old man then proceeded to throw a bootleg copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism at the salesman and he stormed out of the store before the salesman could even work out where he pulled the book out of.

After Maghreb prayer the same day, FARRCE.

It took a while for Nidal to navigate the American-style labyrinthine grid of streets that now lay upon the grave of this famous haunt from his youth. The only sight in the area familiar to Nidal was the mosque at the corner of the estate, by the road separating it from the residential properties that were built for a gentry that never arrived. Nidal parked his rented human-operated, mostly-mechanical car in a parking space by the mosque and sat on the bench near the mosque’s southern wall.

He was relieved that low-tech was finally coming back into fashion after the Silicon Valley financial crash warded away investors’ self-driving cars and other technology that Nidal felt facilitated a capitalism of data extraction and exploitation. Besides, Nidal maintained that there are few pleasures greater than feeling in complete control over the metal beasts that were the cars of his youth. He recalled the humid evenings of his university days when his Terrain Cruiser used to rule the sands that lay beneath the eerily sterile buildings, the cramped parking spots, and the unfamiliar bricks that silently but violently robbed FARRCE of its predecessor’s immense character.

Just as the mental images of Nidal’s majestic Terrain Cruiser days began to fade from before his mind’s eye, Nidal’s eye spotted, what he hoped was, a familiar shape walking towards him. He beckoned towards it.

“Subhanallah! The world keeps changing, but some things remain the same! Hussain – always the earliest to arrive at a group hang-out… when he actually decides to hang out,” exclaimed Nidal with a noticeable chuckle. Hussain, the first of the four school friends Nidal was meeting with that evening, was a kind and quiet man who loathed to leave his house when he was younger, much less in his old age. Nidal even had his doubts that Hussain would show up to this meeting, despite how long it had been since they had last met. “Of course, how could I miss it?” replied a beaming Hussain.

About fifteen minutes later, as the two friends were catching up, another vehicle arrived and parked in the space beside Nidal. It was not difficult to find space to park, given that FARRCE was little more than a ghost town these days, frequented by more local cats than human beings. The three figures to emerge from the vehicle were Nidal’s three other friends, Yassar, Munaf, and Shahryar. Each of the friends shook hands and shared warm embraces with one another as the smiles of youth returned to their faces. They then sat on the benches on the mosque’s southern wall, where Nidal had set up the station.

“A’ – how have you been, guys?” Shahryar excitedly asked Nidal and Hussain. “And wha’ have you been up to la’ely?!” Shahryar spoke in a disjointed manner where he struggled pronouncing the letters T and D in certain words, instead of converting them into a glottal stop. He also began every sentence with a glottal a’ sound as a holdover from his childhood speech patterns. “A’ – I’ve been good, alhamdulillah”, replied Nidal, imitating Shahryar’s style of speaking in jest.
“A’ – all this time and you’ve still no’ le’ the ‘a’’ go, have you?”, asked Shahryar, his huge smile demonstrating his good humour.

“Nope, I coul’ never do tha’!” said Nidal. “I’m sorry about that snub at the Oscars, by the way,” he continued. “I am so proud that you got nominated, but it’s a shame that a film as great as yours still lost out to a white guy’s orientalist fantasy about South Asia in this day and age!” He then turned to another one of the friends, “Munaf, it’s good to see you. I hope you’ve been in good health?”

“Yes, alhamdulillah. I could be better, but this is fine for now,” responded Munaf. “You know, I was not looking forward to this day, but here we are.”

Nidal then turned to Yassar. “I’m so glad you were able to make this meeting happen. It’s been such a long time. Do you even remember when the last time we all met here was? It must have been back when we knew this area as the Karak Quarter”, he said.

“Indeed, as our friend, Nimer would say, ‘lak it’s been thirty-three freaking years!’” shouted Yassar in a jokingly nasal voice.

“May Allah bless his soul. I still cannot believe that Nimer has passed on. I never expected that somebody triggering him would one day actually result in a trigger being pulled on him,” lamented Nidal.

“A’ – I’ was indee’ a surprise to us all, even if some of us di’ always suspec’ tha’ he would die this way,” Shahryar interjected as he shook his head in sorrow.

A silence befell the men, who took a moment to remember their departed friend before Munaf broke it. “Guys!” blurted Munaf, “why are we meeting here in the middle of nowhere rather than at one of the nice cafés in the city next door?!” A smile slowly crept onto Nidal’s face as he said, “Remember the reputation I had for always being able to procure a cup of chai karak, wherever, whenever? Well, do I have a surprise for you all!”

Just as Nidal ended that sentence, a dusty, grey nondescript car came to a rolling stop on the street, beside the benches where the friends sat. Nidal walked up to the passenger’s seat just as the window slowly rolled down and said, “Assalamalaikom, Jameel Bhai” before demanding that Shahryar “do the thing”.

“A’ – you canno’ be serious, Nidal. You know I ha’e i’ when you make me speak Urdu”, Shahryar said, bewildered. “Anyway, you know tha’ black tea is kin’ of unaffordable for us these days –”

“I can afford it!” interjected Munaf. “But seriously, Nidal, you know it’s illegal for us to do this, especially me, seeing that I am a citizen here.”

“Don’t worry,” said Nidal, dismissively, as he attempted to assure everyone of the legitimacy of this chai. “Jameel Bhai is as safe as chai karak gets, not to mention that his chai is still the best in town. Don’t ask how I know that because I cannot tell you.”

“It is still illegal though”, Yassar stated, echoing Munaf.

“Yes, but that is only because the big tea cartels have put pressure on governments to make tea that is not directly distributed by their selected partners illegal. Jameel Bhai works with somebody on the inside of a major plantation who does the revolutionary work of smuggling these wonderous tea leaves out to the masses. This chai is how we defeat global capitalism, finally!” concluded Nidal. “And besides, it is haram to turn Allah’s chai into a luxury, especially when colonisers do it, given how they’ve treated tea over the last few centuries. Really, what we’re doing here is a form of worship! Shahryar, once again, do the thing!”

“A’ – I ha’e you, Nidal, bu’ here we go: Jameel Bhai, char chai!” Shahryar said, placing his order in broken Urdu.

“Kya?!” replied the man Nidal kept referring to as Jameel Bhai, unexpectedly loudly given the clandestine nature of his work.

“Shahryar, what do you mean char chai? There’s five of us,” chuckled Yassar. “Khamsa chai, Jameel Bhai!” he continued, ordering the chai in Arabic. The man known as Jameel Bhai then poured five piping hot paper cups of beautiful, brown chai, carefully covering them with lids in order to not raise suspicions. He collected his comparatively meagre bounty from Nidal and then drove off, as silently as he arrived.

“Ah, how beautiful a nice winter evening is while drinking chai karak with my old friends!” exclaimed Hussain, finally speaking up from the bench he was sat on. Each of the five friends felt the chai hug their bodies from the inside, expelling the traumas of the last few decades with each sip. The chai’s warmth complemented the warmth of their long-awaited meeting, its sweetness complemented the sweetness of the kind of friendship that transcends lifetimes. Nidal was right; in a world so dominated by rigid cruelty disgustingly disguised as justice, tea was indeed a human right and respite.

Twenty minutes later the same evening, the area formerly known as Karak Quarter.

“Man, it was not that bad of a movie!” Yassar said of the fifteenth feature-length film released this year by the Mouse Media Conglomerate. “Seriously Shahryar, you didn’t like it that much?”
“A’ – I feel like no’ only was i’ no’ true to the source material, bu’ the film was technically very poor!” rebutted Shahryar. He was not allowed to continue his rebuttal, however, because the soft background sounds of the February breeze were abruptly interrupted by the sound of sirens. “I am not ready to go to jail for this!” shouted Munaf, as he jumped back into his vehicle. Hussain started moving back to his own vehicle to do the same.

Yassar looked towards Nidal, who was still blissfully sipping his cup of chai karak, and asked if he needed help getting to his car. Nidal replied in the negative. “I am an old man enjoying a good cup of chai with my best friends. I am not endangering anyone nor am I disturbing any peace. I have run for too long, and I refuse to fear the consequences of exercising my right to live in a beautiful moment. All I am doing is consuming chai as it is meant to be consumed, and if that is why these people are here, then I choose to steadfastly sit here and drink my chai. You both should leave, however. You don’t deserve this trouble.” As he completed his musing, Nidal was heartened to see that both Shahryar and Yassar remained seated.

The sound of sirens inched closer by the second, and the three old men who remained resigned themselves to the inevitable. A small unit of young officers from state security dropped from the sky and demanded that the men stand up and pour the contraband onto the ground before them.

How ironic, Nidal thought, that if tea was genuinely so valuable and a luxury, would state security really demand that they pour it onto the ground, where it can no longer be consumed by anyone but the emotionless cracks in the brickwork? What an insult to such a mighty blessing!

Nidal led his friends in standing up, raising his left hand, and continuing to take sips out of the cup of tea with his right. The leader of the young officers bellowed orders at Nidal, commanding the old men to comply with the authority of the state. Nidal calmly took another sip of tea – a move that enraged the officers, who then drew their weapons in response. The old man then took a deep breath and another sip, followed by a deep breath and yet another sip. The air grew tense and its humidity began sweating in discomfort as he took a third deep breath and another sip.

The young officers, tasked with defending the interests of the state and the allied cartels, grew more and more absorbed by the cosmic rage vested in them by said powers. And there, on the edge of the ghost of the Old Karak Quarter, stood Nidal, staring down the barrels of “legitimate” guns alongside two of his oldest friends, with “illegitimate” cups of chai karak in their hands, defending the interests of tea itself.