I was drinking black tea with a friend in the small kebab shop in town. The place is run by Turkish people and there is an elderly man with a splendid turban seated behind me. The man is there every time I go. It was the friend who told me of the group going to the refugee camp.
I had no idea what exile meant really, until I grew up and figured out that my mother was addicted to being in a constant state of exile. She grew up moving towns in India every year, and then countries as a grown up. Now she can’t stay in one place too long without getting twitchy. She says she can’t make any friends as she thinks she is going to move end of the year anyway.
But every Tuesday she gathers a group of women in her home and makes them her chai with ginger.
I went with the group to Ramallah this past summer, most of them were local Irish. On the flight, I had grand visions of volunteering and helping the unfortunate.
Before we could take the van to the camp, we were stuck inside a tiny room for 24 hours, the authorities trying to extract from us any information that would mark us as a threat. We only got coffee that tasted like burnt paper and gave me a headache.
Walking into the camp, I was not prepared for what I saw. I think of refugee camps as tents pitched in soil, from the stories my mother used to tell. But this was ramshackle houses and overflowing sewage, all crowded in a small space.
I went around at dusk delivering some medicine and clothes. I bent in a low door to a family house of two rooms. Two mothers were cleaning up after their meal and one of them was also trying to get a baby to sleep. Four more children of different ages were present in the room.
The older mother asked me if I wanted some tea. She had a pot of hot tea with bits of sage leaves in it. I served myself a cup of the tea, while the baby who had just slept, startled awake with a wail and sent the other small children running to the smaller room. I sipped my tea and scalded my tongue.
The rest of the time I was trying to take deep breaths with my mouth, and sip the still hot tea, while their husbands and a teenage daughter returned from their work. One of the women told me that her father was the village baker in the old Palestine. A village that no longer existed.
My tongue still burnt from the tea, I phoned my mother in the morning. She was in the midst of serving her chai-friends and could not talk much to me. Loneliness is a frequent companion of those who are banished. I was not sure how, I, a privileged child of Western education was sensing the exile now.
Sage is meramiyyeh (ميرمية) in Arabic. Tea in Palestine is black and sweetened, with either mint or sage leaves added.
Henry David Thoreau writes about sage:
Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself too much to get new things, whether clothes or friends.
It was about a simple life he wrote, to avoid materialism, and pay more attention to the spiritual life.
Now juxtapose this philosophy (aimed at comfortable middle class existence) with the life in Palestinian refugee camps.