World

With Straws, Gourds and Tea in Tow, Syrians Spread Their Love of Maté

Since Walaa Ali first fled her home in central Syria nearly 10 years ago, she has moved around the country four times, seeking safety for her family. Each time she settled in a new place, she spread the word about maté.

Every morning, Ms. Ali, 27, carefully sets out a gold-mirrored tray with a matching teakettle, a sugar bowl that she fills with ground ginger, her tea glass and a metal straw for her morning maté (pronounced MAH-teh) — the strong, bitter tea native to South America.

“I’ve been displaced from one place to another, and in every place, I got to know neighbors and I would introduce them to maté,” she said recently as she sipped from her cup, filled with hot water and a generous helping of maté leaves, which floated on top. “They know if they are going to come to Walaa’s home, they are going to drink maté.”

The drink, made from a leaf called yerba maté and hugely popular in countries like Argentina and Brazil, has a large and fervent following in Syria, one that has grown over the decades. Syrians have increasingly taken to the social and communal ritual surrounding its consumption, not unlike a hookah shared among friends or family.

A cup of the grassy, caffeinated drink — often compared with Japanese green tea — can last for hours as it is refilled with hot water and sipped through a metal straw. The beverage naturally fills the hours of the Syrian sahra, traditional social gatherings in the Middle East that extend late into the night or early-morning hours.

Syrians have made it their own, more often drinking maté from small glass cups than from the gourds commonly used in South America.

Maté from a Syrian company that packs and distributes the imported herbs.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

For more than a century, empire, migration, military conscription and war have conspired to spread maté to all corners of Syria. The country’s conflict, which has internally displaced nearly seven million people since it began in 2011, has brought it to more new palates.

About half of the population of northwestern Syria is made up of those who fled homes elsewhere in the country. Ms. Ali and her husband are among them.

They and their four children live in an unfinished home in the town of Binnish, where more than half of the 11,000 inhabitants have been internally displaced by the war, according to residents.

Ms. Ali and her husband, Yaman al-Deeb, 30, estimate that they have introduced maté to more than 100 people, including neighbors and colleagues.

Syrians were first introduced to maté when they immigrated to South America — paradoxically lured in part by the coffee industry there — as they sought economic opportunity in the waning decades of the Ottoman Empire, according to Naji Sulaiman, an assistant professor of environmental and applied botany at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.

They settled in countries where maté was part of the social fabric. For Syrians, the social aspect of a drink meant to be shared — sometimes from the same cup and straw — and consumed over long periods of time was appealing.

After World War I, when some of the émigrés returned home either for visits or for good, they took it back in sackfuls, introducing maté to more Syrians, according to Mr. Sulaiman.

Ms. Ali said she grew up drinking it, and when she was in middle and high school, she would wake up to find that her father had prepared the tea for them to drink together.

She began her freshman year of college in 2012 as Syria’s Arab Spring anti-government uprising morphed into a civil war. The fighting cut across towns and cities and fields and highways, and sometimes that meant maté shipments were delayed and shelves ran empty.

To ensure she never had to go without, Ms. Ali carried a small package of maté with her wherever she went.

“I would keep it as a backup so I wouldn’t get cut off,” she said. “The cup, the straw and the maté, they were always with me.”

Packages of maté, both imported and produced in Syria, in a grocery store in Sarmada, Syria.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

In 2021, Syria was the third-largest importer of maté in the world, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, an online data platform that collects country-level trade data.

“Despite the hard economic times now, people still want to sit and drink maté — at work, in government offices. Even in the army, people drink maté,” Mr. Sulaiman said, adding that it regularly appears in soap operas on Syrian television.

“It has become a part of the Syrian identity,” he said.

Several Syrian companies now import yerba maté and market it in their own packaging. In the city of Idlib, in northwestern Syria, billboards for new maté products urge residents to “give it a try.”

On a recent night in Idlib, friends, couples and families gathered on benches facing a road or on picnic blankets laid out on sidewalks and between olive trees, transforming the roadside into a park. One of the cafes there began selling maté three years ago after newly displaced Syrians began asking for it.

“But do they make it the right way?” said Ali al-Dalaati, 26, as he rolled out a picnic blanket and began setting up what he deemed an ideal spread to complement maté: salty snacks, Syrian revolutionary music and friends.

“It has its rituals,” said Mr. al-Dalaati, the manager of a local production company.

He went on to explain the proper way to prepare and drink maté: The water must be hot but not boiled, and when all of the maté leaves settle to the bottom of the glass — after multiple hot water refills — the drink is finished.

Since he fled to Idlib in 2017, he said, he has been introducing the drink to friends and colleagues alike.

Khalid Najim, left, Mustafa al-Jaafar and Ali al-Dalaati drinking maté at a park in Idlib, Syria.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Next to them, Mustafa al-Jaafar, 23, a graphic designer, was sipping from his metal straw. He said he began drinking maté last year after Mr. al-Dalaati, a colleague, insisted he try it.

“And now I drink it all the time,” he said, as Mr. al-Dalaati looked on approvingly.

“Maté is like smoking,” Mr. al-Dalaati said. “Once you get hooked, you start doing it everywhere.”

Back in Binnish, Mr. al-Deeb was overseeing the meticulous preparation of maté while at a sahra at his neighbor’s apartment. In the distance, there was a faint sound of artillery from the front lines of a now mostly stalemated war.

“Most of those who fled here drink it,” said the host, Aziz al-Asmar, an artist with a bubbly personality who paints murals around the area. “And when they come as guests and you ask them what they want to drink, they ask for maté. So, we began to drink it as well.”

Mr. al-Asmar recalled how he was introduced to the drink when he was doing his mandatory military service in the 1990s. But he quit drinking it when he left the army.

“When the revolution began and people started fleeing their homes, we started drinking it like before,” he said, catching sight of a neighbor sitting on his balcony across the street.

“Join us,” he yelled to him. “Come drink maté.”

Muhammad Haj Kadour contributed reporting.

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