Moroccan Mint / by George Bajalia

Tangier, Morocco




            One thing about the mint tea (atay b’naana) here; the steaming mint flavor is wonderfully addictive, but it’s consistency is basically that of a syrup. I don’t doubt it- the amount of sheer sucrose that goes into one of these teas would rot the teeth of an ogre. Not that it’s any different than a couple of Cokes or Gatorades, but seeing it concentrated into a single (albeit pretty big) glass of tea somehow puts it into perspective. The people here, myself included, seem to love them though. After 60 or 70 years though, a couple of them have learned a few tricks they were inclined to pass along to me. Café Tingis, where I often set up camp, seems to be the meeting place for many of these older gents from the Medina and Kasbah.

            Café Tingis is located right in the Petit Socco (aka Zocco Chico or Suq Dkhal) and is one of the Tangier haunts where Tennessee Williams wrote the first draft of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The café next door, Café Central, has been rehabilitated into an extravagant tourist café, but it was the haunt of William Burroughs during his days here. Matisse spent many of his nights café hopping here, and Paul Bowles certainly made it a habit of spending time here (nearly 60 years). In short, there’s something special about the tea in the Petit Socco. Needless to say, the cafés in here vary between catering to tourists and catering to Tanjawi men over the age of 60 (prices vary accordingly). Tingis, honestly my favorite spot in Tangier for people watching, also happens to be the meeting places for many of the survivors from the eras that characterized Tangier throughout the 1930-60’s. One of these people is Pipo, a film actor. Pipo, still vibrant in his 80s, has lived in Tangier all his life and has in some way been in virtually every movie that was filmed in Tangier. He has photos spanning this whole time, but a recent one shows him with Matt Damon on set a few years ago. I met Pipo at a gallery opening that I stumbled upon, where I overheard him and several others speaking about the film community in Morocco and politely introduced myself as an American student studying performance in Tangier.

            Two days later I was at Café Tingis doing some reading when I heard a man tap the rail with his cane and say, “Too much reading isn’t good for the brain, you know”. I looked up, slightly surprised and curious if I was the reader in question, to see my friend Pipo laughing his way up the steps to sit with me. Pipo ordered mint teas for us, and in that moment I had a revelation about mint tea in Tangier. Pipo had just ordered the tea with sugar on the side, not boiled into it. I don’t know how this never occurred to me, but that moment I knew my teeth were saved. Of course, it’s a perfectly logical thing. These men wouldn’t still be here drinking atay b’naana if every tea they drank was steeped in sugar. Once our teas arrived, with sugar on the side, we each added an appropriately flavorful amount of sugar but without overdoing it. Now, another thing about mint tea- bees love it. There are always bees sapping out the juice of teas long unattended. Sometimes, though, they move in for the teas still being attended. Maybe it’s just me, but I usually react pretty harshly to bees. I’ll swing my arms wildly to intimidate them, or swat at them so that they know not to bother me. I’ve tried to call it down a bit here at the cafes, but I’m usually still visibly wary of them.

            A bee landed inside Pipo’s tea, but he didn’t seem worried. I thought perhaps he didn’t notice, and I made a move to brush it away. Just as I did though, I saw that he was quietly reaching his hand into the tea to let the bee slowly climb onto his fingers. He lifted the bee out and placed it on the table. I was caught quite off guard. This was not an attitude that I expected. After decades of sitting at this café, it appears Pipo had learned quite a few things that I missed in my rush to shoo away a prospective pest. Well, first of all, he learned that you could order tea without sugar. I think it would go great with a dash of honey, actually, but my culinary advice is probably a topic for another blog- or at least another post. Patience and caring in dealing with the bees allowed him to handle the situation in a peaceful and productive manner, as opposed to my ungainly swats. He also learned something that I didn’t quite understand yesterday. In my awe of Pipo’s bee-handling skills, I’ve been watching the bees quite closely as they swoop in to the tea. Yesterday, it occurred to me. These bees, though they look quite intimidating, have no stingers. They aren’t dangerous at all. They are perfectly peaceful creatures simply looking to do their jobs. I guess it just takes a while to notice that.