Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Cup and Saucer (08/28/14)
TITLE: More Than a Container
By Dave Walker
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I left the sentence hanging, for Sadiq and his brothers to draw their own conclusion. In the Middle East it is bad form to bring unwelcome news bluntly; far better to speak positively and infer the truth obliquely.
I'd been summoned from a hospital 140 kms away, to the Intensive Care Unit here in Fujeira. I'd examined an old lady whose mottled lips and fingers, tinged blue, told a story of tissues desperate for oxygen. A ventilator strained unsuccessfully to force the oxygen into the lady's chest -- into lungs rigid and unyielding from the scars of extensive tuberculosis. Sadiq's mother had reached the end of the line.
Now, we sat in the hospital's V.I.P lounge sipping strong black coffee from little cups. The air was filled with the scent of cardamom and cigarette smoke. Periodically a woman dressed in a black abeya, her nose and mouth concealed behind a burka, did the rounds with a brass, curved coffee pot, filling the cups. On the third round I gave mine a little shake, indicating in a traditional signal, that I'd had sufficient.
We had been in the lounge for over two hours, talking about everything from the camel race the day before to the 25th anniversary of the formation of the United Arab Emirates.
Finally, we'd come round to the reason why I was there.
"So there is no way my mother can survive, Doctor?"
Sadiq had reached his conclusion and I nodded agreement.
For the next two hours we spoke about Sadiq's mother, each brother extoling her virtues. I heard her family history, her medical history, her favourite sayings, their lineage through her and the details of her deterioration in health.
For a busy doctor with a department to run, it was frustrating at first, to be subjected regularly to the slow courtesies of the Arab tradition -- but in time, I grew to appreciate them.
Walk into any shop and you will be offered a cup of sweet, black mint tea in a tiny cup and saucer. The owner, in passing it to you, will engage you in conversation. By the time you finally talk business, he will know how long you have been there, what family you have and whether or not they are with you.
Visit the extravagant opulence of a Sheik's palace, or enter the primitive rural waiting area at the start of a camel ride, and the little handle-less cups and the curved coffee pot are there as a social gesture, bringing the participants together, giving a sense of community.
In the West, we are losing the art of community. Our transactions, even when they are person to person and not online, are conducted as strictly business -- sometimes even devoid of eye contact.
It's impossible to operate that way in the Middle East. In any contract, relationship is as important as the signature at the foot of the page; the coffee ceremony as significant as the document.
When I read my Bible, particularly the Old Testament, I wonder if the unhurried intercourse of the coffee or sweet tea ceremony isn't closer to God's way. One just has to read the interaction between Abraham and the sons of Heth as he negotiated a burial place for Sarah (Gen 23) to picture a scene similar to mine in the hospital with Sadiq and his brothers.
Was Abraham sitting around a brass coffee pot sipping coffee with the owners of the cave of Machpela, while the conversation flowed back and forth?
As Ephron, son of Zohar offered the land free, was that a courtesy gesture, establishing relationship? Did Abraham take the cue, by offering the full price? The social cut and thrust of the whole of one chapter devoted to the transaction is replete with gestures and innuendos, establishing good relationships so that all parties felt satisfied with the transaction.
God has made us for relationships. Why would He make an exemption of business transactions from His grand design?
Who knows how many world shaking decisions of the past have had the curved coffee pot as their catalyst; or how many people, like Sadiq, have been helped to face a tough reality by the humble cup and saucer -- reduced in the West to a mere utility.
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