Wrapped in her tarha (headscarf), her face characteristically smiling as she moved smoothly serving multiple customers at once. With one hand scooping sugar and spices out of an array of jars, the other hand moved a fan to stoke a fire beneath her tea kettles in an effortless juggling act, a scene repeated everyday with uncanny déjà vu. She served cheap refreshments, sha’ay laban(tea with milk), gahwa(coffee), karkadeh(hibiscus tea), janzabeel(ginger tea) and other hot drinks from a table set up on the corner across the street from the American Discussion Club in downtown Khartoum.
Israa, demure, slim and in her early 20s, is from Ethiopia. She is one of hundreds of sitat al sha’ay (tea ladies); poor women who eke out a living by rendering the indispensable service of making tea to sell to perfect strangers and passers-by on Khartoum’s streets. All over Sudan in fact, many are far from home Sudanese or not.
Sitting on a banbar(foot stool) across the verandah, I sipped my cinnamon-flavored karkedeh and wondered about Israa’s smile and high spirits as she scurried to and fro serving tea. Her incense continuously burned with the dual purpose of inviting customers and dispelling annoying flies. “How much?” a customer would ask as he stood up ready to pay before he left. “Only one pound” said Israa, punctuating her reply with a grin sure to elicit reciprocity from the guy.
High on these dainty drinks, the well-heeled customers who buy their daily cuppa from women like Israa seem to be oblivious to her hardship – her daily battle with poverty and police harassment. Setting up their tea-making paraphernalia on pavements, verandahs and virtually any corner with shade, sitat al sha’ay are standard features in every neighborhood in Khartoum.
Making conversation with sitat al sha’ay and their customers who huddle around them in the morning as the sun rises, next to restaurants and shops in the evening as the sun sets, and well into the night– is the perfect way to immerse oneself in the daily life of Sudan as experienced by the nas(common people).
On that crowded verandah, sitting next to a shoe-shine boy or chatting with a street vendor, a businessman could get in touch with Khartoum’s real life and live some of its most enjoyable gaieties.
Back to Israa and her smile, it was endearingly mysterious seeing that kind of endurance and positive attitude towards life. Even though she was not certain if she could make a living tomorrow or whether it was going to be another police sweep that would rob her of everything she possessed, She kept smiling.