2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Tea and Sympathy and Tales of the Taliban

Tea and Sympathy and Tales of the Taliban

Chai with Sugar in Iran

While climbing the mountain north of Tehran with two Iranians, we met a shepherd. It was a dark night, and clonks of a bell were the first signal of his presence. The 20-year-old man was herding four loaded mules back home. We shook hands, and he introduced himself as Abdula. He noticed that we felt lost, and suggested we follow him along a rocky path to his place, to have some tea. His herd led the way, the mule in the front clonking away.

We entered Abdula’s home. It was a room with a bed, a gas lamp, a stove, and a heater for the cold winters. The floor was covered with a carpet, on which we took a seat. Abdula fetched a knife from under his mattress and started preparing us a late-night dinner. He took out bread, a big sack of walnuts, and started heating up the tea kettle. We indulged in cracking the nuts and thanking Abdula for his hospitality. Abdula whipped out a piece of delicious white Iranian cheese, to smear on the bread and eat with crumbled up walnuts.

Then came the tea. Sugar cubes were served, which were popped into the mouth before taking a sip. The hot chai would dissolve the cubes and send the sweetness around the tongue. There could not have been a better dessert.

While savoring the black tea, Abdula started telling us his story. He grew up in Afghanistan, where he was a shepherd in the hills. But the Taliban invaded his village. Our host was captured, severely beaten, and sentenced to die. Nevertheless, Abdula escaped the handcuffs and ran. After three days of racing through the mountains, he was finally free. He got to Iran and began the life of a shepherd here.

In the morning he escorted us down the hill alongside his now unloaded mules. Abdula rarely walked the mountainous path. He dashed through, climbing to the tops of trees to have a clear look of the area, jumping down and bouncing across the stones just to land a powerful kick on a mule that wandered off, then slowing his pace, preparing for the next sudden rush. Up or down, in dark or light, it did not matter to him. He did so humbly, without giving his immense strength a second thought. He reminded me of the wind rushing through. I was at all not surprised the Taliban failed to catch him a second time.

A few days later, I climbed Abdula’s mountain with one of the Iranians to visit him again. This time we brought some dinner, too. When we saw him, he was riding his mule, which he sent rushing towards us. We were happy to see one another. Abdula, a plastic bag of lamb liver in one hand, motioned us to come inside with the other. He took out a bowl from under his bed and started preparing jigar shashlik: lamb liver pierced with a metal rod. After grilling it above hot coals and sprinkling the pieces with some salt, we ate.

Afterwards we went inside. The kettle was set on the fire, and tea with sugar was about to be served.

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