We have been experiencing intense heat waves in Philadelphia, unrelenting warmth that doesn’t evaporate even in the darkest hours of the night. Over the years, I have gotten used to the sticky and humid summers, but lately it has felt oppressing. When the heat permeates the early hours of the day, I am transported to mornings in my grandparent’s front yard, a tiled outdoor space with a table covered in a thick plastic tablecloth, lightly dusted with sand. There used to be lemon trees along the edges, and then just tiles.
My grandparents lived in Biˀr as-Sabˁ, currently known as Beer-Sheva within the Zionist Project. A small first floor of a house, a yard on top of a sandy hill wrapped by a iron-wrought gate, in front of the city’s city hall. I fear the sandy hill doesn’t exist anymore, swallowed by constructions. My grandparents are long gone.
But back then I spent part of my summers there, with my mother and my siblings. We’d sleep in the Heder Aravi, their Arab room. An assortment of large rugs and paintings of the desert separated from the rest of the house with a curtain of wooden beads, mementos of a life left in the old country. In the Heder Aravi, the furniture was set up so that an imaginary tea ceremony could happen at a moment’s notice; the center of the room left unused for a fictional group to sit cross-legged and share warm beverages. Nobody used the room for tea drinking. Aside from the occasional guest, the room also hosted an extra fridge, holding large bottles of soda and baskets of stone fruits.
In the mornings we’d drink coffee, made the Turkish way, Nes, or na3na3 tea, the Moroccan way in those glass mugs that are omnipresent in Occupied Palestine. Early, before the desert sun burnt everything, before the shade would disappear and be replaced by blinding light. A tea bag, fresh mint leaves, a healthy dose of sugar. The cooling properties of a plant known for growing rapaciously, preparing us for the ruthless heat of the desert. We’d sit in the coolness of the early morning, around the table covered in a thick plastic tablecloth, lightly dusted with sand.
When I was younger, my grandmother would have baked us dry cookies to dip into our drink. Some covered in sesame, some plain. A hint of orange blossom, maybe. As she grew older, she would outsource that task and buy them from a neighbor. A couple of biscuits, mint leaves, floating in glass cups. Mint leaves in a mug at home, as an act of care for my mother back in Mulhouse.
They say that holding a cup of hot beverage is akin to a hug to the nervous system. I think about the generations of ancestors, who before me and my mother and my grandmother brewed herbs in hot water. I think about the way I already existed in my grandmother’s body when she herself made tea, pregnant with my mother, and the way she was present in her grandmother’s body. Seeds witnessing our lineage’s tradition. A practice of pouring water over the plants available to us, to let them remind us that we are loved along our whole line.
Tea means something in the Moroccan lineage of my grandparents. In Arab societies, tea means generosity and care and hospitality. Tea means that I want your company enough that I will boil the water and wait for the beverage to be ready. In tea, my people understand themselves as people of connections and relationships.
Nowadays, when I make my morning tea that changes with the seasons, I am doing something that my ancestors did for centuries before me: crush a plant and pour boiling water on it. Often, it’s mint, because mint is the plant closest to my heart. I have never lived without her, and she has seen my people shift across the globe, chasing a freedom that would always elude them. Mint has seen worlds change and human civilizations rise and fall and continues to grow. Mint won’t turn into tea unless I wait for it to steep.
We call it Maghrebi tea, Tuareg tea, Moroccan tea, or Moroccan whisky, the mix of mint and tea and sugar that is drunk throughout the day to support the body in the desert. Yet, I often think about the ways the tea that we understand as quintessentially Moroccan is global, a result of capitalism and colonialism. How Moroccan mint tea is a mix of mint and gunpowder green tea, Chinese tea brought in by the British as they pillaged the African continent. Sugar brought in by boats to the port of Essaouira, connected to the commerce of human bodies. In mint tea, I think about the ways our traditions and ways of understanding ourselves always start somewhere, and that more often than not, the ways we define ourselves are closer to us than we think.
Mint is maybe the most beloved medicinal plant, probably because of her gentleness coupled with her ability to grow and adapt in most environments. Mint is a genus (Mentha in its botanical name) encompassing 42 species and a variety of hybrids and subspecies, but usually when we talk about mint, we might be describing peppermint or spearmint. Plants of the Mentha genus all have in common a square stem and opposite leaves, and the magical ability to release smell when touched. The Ancient Greek would rub the plant on their arms to get stronger; today we use mint for digestive issues, to relieve the body from nausea, for the pleasure of taste.
Mint, especially commercial mint, is not considered native to North America; colonizers of the land brought her in in the vessels of the manifest destiny. With the pillages of the natural world was born pharmaceutical commerce and the industrial use of the mint flavor: in toothpaste and candy and cigarettes. But Morocco is still the number one producer of mint in the world, growing 90% of the world’s spearmint and peppermint.
In the summer of 1999, in the imperial city of Marrakech, tour guides handed us bouquets of mint as we walked around the tanneries. It was incredibly hot that day, like every day in the city, and I was wearing more clothes than I wanted because of the constant harassment in the streets. We walked past the piles of animal skin and the humongous vats of quicklime. An overpowering smell of death surrounded us, as the guide reminded us to hold the mint under our nose. My mother gagged and gagged as we laughed, giving her some of ours to mitigate the sensory overload she was experiencing.
This year, I’ve been growing Moroccan mint (na3na3 – Mentha longifolia) which is different from your usual spearmint, stronger, more floral, a lighter green, softer leaves. I can’t find the na3na3 I want in the stores in the US; I often end up with a bag of American spearmint, so different from the taste of my childhood so I found seeds to grow under the blue and pink grow lights I keep in my kitchen during Philadelphia winters.
The seeds have grown into plant and now, in my garden, I have a pot full of na3na3. I feel a little shy around her, the feeling of two separate worlds colliding. I am meeting my old self in the pot of my new life. I admire her leaves, I touch her gently, I get to know her again. She’s lighter in color than the other mints I grow, and her smell touches my spine and opens my chest in a way than no other plant can.
She brings me back to smaller versions of me, the obedient child who turned on the kettle and got the mug and put the herb in the mug and waited before walking from the kitchen to the bedroom, to give my mother what she requested. She brings me back to the delicate care of an elder boiling the water and putting the leaves and the tea and the sugar and the spoon and walking from the kitchen through the living room and the dining corner, opening the door and bringing me a mug as I sit in the front yard. She reminds me that as imperfectly as I was loved, I was loved, and that that love was an ancestral one, one that passed on from my mother to her mother to her mother. That the plant that was crushed and offered to me in hot water, that mint, was herself a witness of my own people, that she had experienced the pain and the joy and the destruction that come with human life.
I feel overwhelmed by shyness around this plant that I am growing for the first time, in my home garden, surrounded by plants that I have known for many seasons. In other parts of the garden, I see myself as adventurous, opinionated, daring; around the na3na3 I tinker, and caress, offering her the reverence I was taught to bestow to elders. It’s the classic feeling connected to diaspora “Am I enough to claim this part of my lineage?” An incessant hum, the embarrassment of not speaking the language of my ancestors, of having severed ties with my roots – the ultimate desecration in the tradition of my people.
So instead of tending to the roots of my people, I tend to the plants in my backyard, including my na3na3 plant. She’s happy in my backyard, growing in a large pot that fills up more with each growing season, as she is a perennial. Meaning she will come back to me every year, growing deeper roots and stronger connection to the soil she lives in.
There’s a different relationship that happens with plants when you grow them. You learn their rhythm, their favorite temperature. The insects who like to nibble on her leaves. You get to pay attention to their growth, how many more shoots are growing this year. The labor that is required to keep them alive. As a gardener, you can’t take your love for granted. You can’t believe that just having the best of intentions yields the best results: you learn the plant, what she wants and you adapt. How much happier she is moved to this corner. How she reacts after the heavy rains. When she goes to sleep for the season and when she comes back.
Mint doesn’t usually get cultivated from seeds, as her roots system quickly multiplies, creating offshoots that can live feet away from their mother plant. To grow mint, gardeners will slice a part of the plant and move it to another corner and wait a season. The cut mint limb will become whole if given the time. Gardeners will warn you, wherever you put mint she will overtake, growing far past the boundaries of the life you had set up for her. She will burst out of beds, finding new crevices to build new life. Seasoned gardeners will tell you: plant your mint in a pot or allow her to reign.
Mint, the ubiquitous plant often overlooked for nicer, shinier plants, builds her kingdom one root at a time until she has taken over space that wasn’t meant for her, adapting to the conditions in front of her. It’s hard to kill a mint plant, she doesn’t need much support; a plant that favors neglect. She loves moisture and sun but will survive droughts if needed. One of the hardier plants I know, she will die in the winter and come back voraciously in the spring. Sometimes, when the winters are mild, she’ll just stay alive, less fragrant, less majestic but still alive.
Every morning, I spend a few minutes in the garden, saying hello to each one of my plants: hops, rue, yarrow, lemon balm and wood betony. Mountain mint and tulsi. Hawthorn and sage. Dyer’s chamomile and anise hyssop. The fennel and the echinacea. Motherwort and elder trees. There’s a floral cornucopia in the backyard, and each plant means something else to me. A story, an anecdote, a moment in time where I needed to cultivate that relationship to find my center again.
I grow other mints in my backyard: mountain mint and spearmint. Pennyroyal too. But the na3na3, oh the na3na3, she will always be my favorite. Simple green leaves growing in a pot over a system of roots capable of taking over worlds. My favorite smell. Every once in a while, I’ll pick a few leaves to chew on and to make a fresh pot of tea with. And the taste brings me back to those mornings in the hot sun, at the table with the thick tablecloth. In those moments I imagine myself the adult guiding a child towards the rituals of mornings.
noam keim (they/them) is a trauma worker, medicine maker and flâneur freak currently based on stolen Lenni-Lenape land known as Philadelphia. noam was born a settler of Occupied Palestine in an Arab Jewish family hailing from Morocco before moving to France as a young child. They are a Lambda Literary ’22 Fellow, an RWW ’23 Fellow, a Tin House ’23 Fellow and a Periplus ’23 Fellow mentored by Grace Talusan. Their debut essay collection The Land is Holy won the 2022 Megaphone Prize judged by Hanif Abdurraqib and is expected to be published by Radix Media in 2024. Connect on IG: thelandisholy or thelandisholy.com.