Saturday, February 10, 2007

drinking with Tuaregs

The Tuareg people are spread through the Sahara, where they have lived nomadically in one of the most desolate and punishing environments on Earth, raising animals or trading things across the vast trans-Saharan trade routes. I've been learning their language, which has its own ancient alphabet preserved for thousands of years of nomadic life, almost without the use of books. They have a fascinating culture, and one of the first things you learn about it is that when greeting someone at home, water or tea are usually offered. So when the musician, Ibrahim (above), I hired to teach me one of their instruments (the Tehardent, an ancestor of the banjo) comes over, I started offering him water and tea, and unlike Nigerien guests from other ethnicities, he never refuses. After a few minutes of standard greetings--How's your campsite? How's your tiredness? How 'bout the heat? etc., etc.--I bring out a glass of water, saying "Aman da" (There's water!), and he thanks me, picks it up, and drains it in one draught, without stopping to breathe, says "Aahh!" and puts down the glass, saying, "Aman iman!" (Water is life!--the words in Tamajaq are almost the same).

Tea is even better. The Tuareg drink the espresso version of tea--Chinese green tea, mixed with mint and steeped so strong, in so little water, that it's undrinkable without several teaspoons of sugar in each tiny glass demitasse (and almost undrinkable anyway). They pour it from way up high over the glass so that it makes foam on top, which they value like Italians value espresso 'crema.' Then they slurp it loudly when drinking, like wine tasters, to get the full flavor. They describe the flavor by saying, "The first cup is bitter as death, the second mild as life, the third sweet as love."

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