The serving and the drinking of tea is part of the warp and woof of Middle and Far Eastern culture. Laila Lalami has taken pains to express the nuances that surround this Moroccan cultural feature. Tea is present at turning points in the plot or the thoughts of a character. It acts as a flag for the motif of unanswered questions and lack of resolution. Lalami’s emphasis of the social and emotional connection between the characters and tea is clearly revealed. The role it plays shifts between what I will term, the anesthetic, the apathetic and the amalgamator.
Written by Kazuko Okakura, The Book of Tea gives the history and the philosophy of tea drinking in the Far East. Of the history he writes, “Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements.”(Okakura 1) He further states that out of the amusement grew a cultish adoration of tea. In chapter two of his book, he states that a person or a culture can be known by the little things that they do and enjoy, and that the vintages of tea and the methods of preparation reveal even more. It is upon this point that Lalami also focuses her attention. Laila Lalami has recognized that tea is used for more than quenching one’s thirst. She is aware of the cultural dynamic, the environments in which tea is consumed change as often as the characters.
The anesthetic is first introduced in Larbi’s office environment (Lalami 20). Its use here suggests a daily habit that alludes to his personality, but more keenly points to his state of mind at the time. Larbi takes this drink before delving into his daily tasks. Lalami writes…”but for now he took his time reading the paper and sipping his tea”… Choosing to momentarily partake of a Moroccan tradition in favor of zealously attacking his work can be viewed as a character trait. Tea helps us see that Larbi’s love for Morocco tends to shift, due to some personal desire to escape if not personally then vicariously.
Lalami links Salma and the apathetic, she writes ,“Salma, for whom watching football was only slightly more exciting than waiting for a pot of tea to brew went to take a nap”(Lalami 25). This makes the reader aware of an adiaphoric bent in Salma. This will reveal itself further as Larbi and Salma attempt to deal with their daughter. Salma remains fairly aloof, primarily speaking at emotionally charged moments.
The amalgamator is rebuffed by Larbi, when following a heated debate, he leaves the dinner table. “He didn’t say anything for the rest of the meal, rudely getting up from the table before tea was served” (Lalami 44). Here Lalami acquaints us with the idea that rejecting tea after dinner in Morocco is a cultural taboo. It is obvious that Larbi’s presence would have been both the polite and the traditional thing to do. Since Larbi dislikes Faten however, he could not bring himself to remain at the table especially when some of her rhetoric touched his conscience.
Halima’s story begins with her leaving for her mother’s home to imbibe the anesthetic. “Fatiha made a pot of mint tea and served it”… (Lalami 53) In desperate need to find comfort, Halima goes to a place that she deems safe. Immediately, her mother acts as one might expect from a woman that has unquestioningly embraced all that Moroccan life tends to offer women. Her mother’s second statement isn’t made until after she lights the tea kettle! After taking her mother’s advice things temporarily get better for Halima. The amalgamator appears at ebb of the recurring flow of abuse. Lalami writes “After the children had gone back to school, Maati and Halima settled down for tea” (Lalami 61). Tea is never given his chance however, because abuse follows Halima’s questions about her husband loss of his job.
Tea in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits follows the vicissitudes of life in Morocco. The Moroccan characters in book overlook its centrality as they overlook their roles in their varying story outcomes. Lalami, like the famed mint tea, draws the reader into a world that is rich with turmoil and fragrant with hope.