On Tea

☀️ Sulaymaniyah city. Kurdistan, Iraq, 2019.

Tea in Iraq is typically served in a small, woman-shaped glass class like this. It’s called an istekan. Legend has it that the British, when they colonised swathes of Iraq, called these tea glasses “east tea cans” to differentiate them from the larger British tea drinking vessels. I have no idea if this is its actual history!

The chai seller pours tea from one kettle, cut with hot water from another, over a shovelful of sugar. The music of the teaspoon against the glass, stirring in sweetness. Served and drunk at boiling point, the same temperature that kettles over glowing coals keep the tea and water.

Hot tea is good in summer and winter. After every meal, over a conversation, to soothe frayed nerves, or for a necessary break in the day. Anywhere you happen to be.

I’ve drunk tea all my life but never this elegantly. For me, tea (earl grey, hot) is brewed in a half litre mug, sweetened with honey (jarrah, clover or acacia, ideally), with soy milk added after a long brew.

I made it this way in the Iraqi office, horrifying an unsuspecting colleague.

“What is this madness?!” Zido would declare in Kurdish, mock hand-wringing in full force. It become a running joke in the mornings. Me finding all kinds of novel things to put in my tea, and Zido shaking his head at this weird person from the other end of the continent who was ruining the chai, which is not to be adulterated with anything except sugar 🍵


I lived in Kurdistan, Iraq for a year in 2019, working for a small American aid group.

I left Iraq in March 2020. Mentally though, some part of me is still there, wondering about all of the places I’d never been, trying to work out how to listen to all the people I don’t share a common language with.

Trying to reconcile the expat life I lived that year, the daily life of people I worked alongside, and what people from where I’m from, know as Serious History.

All of it overshadowed by the spectre of war.

I’ve read so many Iraqi stories, filtered through other languages, understandings, life lenses, before being run through my own. Perhaps this is always the truth of people’s histories: that they are shaped by myriad lenses, and that is what makes us all so inseparable, no matter what we tell ourselves.