A pink taxi

A pink taxi

August 10, 2010

Tea with Teta

My first memories of my paternal grandmother were of a Grande Dame in her mid sixties. She had an open house, neighbors and relatives stopping by to visit her all the time. She was always ready to attend parties as well. I remember her closets full of silk dresses, her heeled shoes, the matching Gucci handbags. On her dresser, her string of pearls, her 4711 Cologne (which was avant guard because it inspired the Green Tea by Bulgari) and Elnett hair spray at the end of her grooming.

She then sat in the back of ‎her Citroen C3 hydraulic system which had a shark shape. I always sat next to her as she waited for the driver Youssef Ahmadiyeh (a druze from Sofar, with a heavy Qaf in his vernacular) to start the car. How grand her car seemed, even presidential! (presidents of France were known to have been driven in them in the 70s as well). While he warmed the motor, the car would ascend and the feeling in the back seat was magical!

I can still picture my Teta (title given to grandmothers in Lebanon and Palestine) presiding over the large dining room table with its Syrian embroidered table cloth, for breakfast (that would make any modern Brunch pale in comparison, considering the variety of foods and condiments that were presented) or for lunch. Today, a gratin with beschamel at the fanciest restaurants will always remind me of my Teta. At her home, diners were always served on a trolley in front of the akhbar (News) as seen in the posting Beyrouth.

Teta would go on lengthy walks with my parents when we visited her in Beyrouth. She lived in Doha, one of the rare gated communities of the city. Doha was on a hill, overlooking the Mediterranean sea (my dad would point to the horizon and simplify to me who only knew France from geographical representations: France is there, on the other side). In Doha, the roads were safe, with the rare car driven by a resident or visitor. As kids, we trailed along, ahead or behind the matriarch by a distance. She used a cane, a beautiful wooden one with a silver handle, which she "parked", next to a large traditional wooden coat hanger that greeted the rain and winter coats in the vestibule of the house. She walked at a snail's pace, with the same heeled shoes or heeled slippers (she never owned tennis shoes or even flats). She would always point with her cane to this tree, that house, with social stories.

The tradition I was most fond of was tea time. She would send us to the kitchen, where her Sudanese cook, Sayed, would take a large bread out of the bread container (the steel one with sliding door) and cut the Lebanese bread into a single layered sheet on which he would apply Danish imported butter generously, which he would then sprinkle with granulated white sugar. He would finally roll it very tight into a snack that would make any mother cringe and any child happy: arousset sukar (literally translates as a bride of sugar).

And as if those were not enough, we (siblings and/or cousins) would rush to the adults who would be sitting in front of the house, as if on the doorstep ( but it was quite a large area) who were drinking tea. My grandmother sat, with a fly swat that looked like a pony tail, and she would use it invariably to keep the flies from attacking the ka3k, which are dry circular or oval type cookies-crackers.

I have always identified ka3k with Teta's tea time. Later in life, they were the perfect antidote to pregnancy morning sickness...

Today is the first day of the Month of Ramadan. My Teta was the first person I remember who invited me to open the Holy Quran. She asked me to sit next to her and kiss the holy book and open it from the back: "the easiest suras to memorize are in the back", she explained. I remember her with fondness.


  1. This is easily my favorite of your pieces, as you sent me down memory lane, reminding me of a truly special woman. I remember the sadness I felt, as a 10 year old, when she passed away (my first experience with loss). I remember the clean air near her house, the clementines on the trees which we picked and ate by the handful, her playful grin at the dinner table, where she always presided at the head of the table and, where as you wrote, food was plentiful and delicious. I remember her nail polishes, the colors of mother of pearl and rose of damascus, the radio she carried around with her everywhere,and even on her pillowcase. Our father now emulates her, walking around his house in France with a portable radio.

    I remember feeling comfortable in her warm house and in her neighborhood, because family was everywhere and we could run around as we wished without fear of getting harmed. More than tea time, I picture her sitting in front of the warm fire place, elegantly cross legged (daddy says I inherited her way of sitting :) with a ball of yarn and knitting needles, making sweaters for the Palestinian refugees and her grandchildren alike. She even taught me how to knit. And who can forget the smell of chestnuts roasting in the fire place?

    Yes, she was a wonderful woman and we miss her very much!


  2. Lucky are those who have vivid memories with their grandparents.As an older generation,few of us experienced that.I didn't know either of my grandfathers:they had passed before my birthdate.I barely have a memory of my maternal grandmother who was a stern thin image of my mother.
    In the past grandmothers aged fast,may be because they mothered so many kids,or worked hard at housework!I remember both grandmothers as bed ridden,telling us stories bordering on fairy tales.
    I was lucky to know my paternal grandmother,known as Umm Ali",the matriarch of a family of 9 boys and 3 girls that produced tens of children and hundreds of grandchildren.She lived in our ancestral family home in the heart of old Beirut.Her Venetian style house with internal arches was furnished with art nuveau furniture,with high ceilings.Her dining room had a 18-dining table to accommodate a portion of her family who constantly dropped in to check on her and ask for her "bar aka".She had one of those old huge radios where she would sit with her ladies friends to listen to news or the Qoran.
    Umm Ali had a small frame,her strong blue eyes contrasted her white creamy complexion,her hair always covered with a white veil.She descended from a Morrocan family,as most of the Beiruiti families did.I remember her the most during the Eid events,where she would sit in her large bed with a beautiful headset,receiving the family who come to kiss her hand after the early Eid prayers.She had envelopes filled with newly minted banknotes,to be distributed to her 45 grandchildren each according to his age.The Eid lunch was a feast like nothing you have seen,with at least a 100 members of the family.
    I used to go and recite the Qoran at my grandmother's feet,she used to renumerate me with delicious candies stated in her large closet.The matriarch passed away when I was 13,and her memories stay with me like her scent of orange blossoms.