For Chai Chats hosts, home is where the tea is, and guests are invited to share a cup

Shada Abubaker (left) and Sumaya Abubaker (right) pass photos, books and postcards around the circle of attendees at the Oxy Arts building in LA. Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. River Lisius/The Occidental

Sisters Sumaya and Shada Abubaker shared tea, homemade cookies and memories of Yemen with 40 guests at their Chai Chat Oct. 8. The event was part of a weekly series running Sept. 24–Oct. 29 sponsored by Oxy Arts and hosted at their building on York Boulevard. April Banks, an LA-based artist and traveler, produces the Chai Chats series as part of Bank’s larger project called Tea Afar. Previous Chai Chats have featured tea and traditions from Senegal, Argentina, India and China.

According to Sumaya and Shada, who grew up in California’s Central Valley, the Yemenese tea tradition they shared during their Chai Chat was something they learned from their mother and from family visits to Yemen. During the event, the sisters prepared Shai Adani tea flavored with cardamom and served it to guests in small handleless glasses with mint leaves inside, picked from a large bouquet on the table. Then they offered guests dates and cookies that Sumaya and her mother made together the night before. Handmade incense decorated the table and filled the room with their distinctive smell.

Shai adani tea, fennel cookies, fig-filled cookies and a bowl of cardamom seeds were offered to attendees at the Oxy Arts building in LA. Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. River Lisius/The Occidental

Some of the cookies were date-filled and tasted like nutmeg, cardamom and cloves, and others were slightly salty and made from dough flavored with fennel. According to Shada, her mom nicknamed the fennel cookies the ‘poor man’s cookie’ in Arabic because they are so inexpensive and simple to make — the only ingredients are water, flour, yeast and fennel.

During their event, Sumaya and Shada passed around family pictures, books and mementos. Guests chatted with the hosts and each other freely.

Tea Afar Producer April Banks with attendees at the Oxy Arts building in Los Angeles. Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019.

“It’s so hard because this is home and I was born here, but home is also Yemen, and at the same time I’m still being called by that home,” Sumaya said. “Sometimes I yearn to see another Yemeni, to just see somebody that looks like me, or to hear my dialect — like my mom’s and my dad’s dialect.”

Sumaya said food and traditions are what keeps her tied to the culture when she cannot visit Yemen. She collects incense, and they are treasures to her because they make her house smell like her memories of being with her family in Yemen, of the parties her mom hosted there and days spent cleaning while listening to music together.

“Smells and tastes are almost all that we have [of home],” Sumaya said.

According to Shada, it bothers her that most people do not hear positive things about Yemen, with the exception of when Chandler goes to Yemen on the TV show “Friends,” which the sisters laugh about. Shada said usually whenever the country is mentioned, it is in the context of war or terrorism, and in movies the people who live there are portrayed as uncivilized and barbaric. During the event, she said she hopes everyone listening will remember their Chai Chat when they think of Yemen now.

Shada Abubaker and Sumaya Abubaker’s mother, Afrah Syed Mohsin (right) and her friend Nawal Elbershawi (left) at the Oxy Arts building in LA. Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. River Lisius/The Occidental

“Our experience of Yemen was that the people who live there are the most hospitable people, and whether they’re poor or whether they’re rich, they welcome you as their own. They invite you to tea, and whatever food they have they’ll bring it out, and they’ll serve you and host you and want to know about you, and they’ll share about themselves,” Sumaya said.

According to Shada, American culture is not focused on hospitality like it is in Yemen. Instead there is a distance between people.

“When you hear somebody’s story, there are so many layers to it,” Sumaya said. “It’s experiences like this that give us the chance to hear each other.”

According to Banks, one of the experiences that led her to develop Tea Afar and the Chai Chats series happened years ago, while hiking through the Dogon Villages of Mali in West Africa. She remembers the climate was incredibly hot, and she spent her days hiking in the morning and evening, when it was coolest. Banks said when she would arrive in a village to rest, she would be invited to sit and wash her hands and feet in a bowl of water before her hosts would serve her tea — hot tea, oftentimes in 110-degree weather.

Banks said at first she resisted the idea of drinking hot tea just after exercise on a hot day, but she eventually came to love the tradition. Later, she learned that research has shown drinking hot tea in hot weather can actually cool the body down.

“I just really love it — that whole ritual of being received, of washing your hands and washing your feet, and sitting down and drinking tea,” Banks said. “I just started noticing tea rituals after that.”

Hannah Pearlman (first year) and Ilah Richardson (first year) have come to every Chai Chat together. They keep coming back because the events are educational and enjoyable. According to Richardson, the events feel insulated from the stress of school, and the two friends call it their “grounding activity” every week.

According to the Tea Afar website, The last Chai Chat event will be hosted by Justino Mora and share holiday traditions from Mexico Oct. 29 at 4 p.m.