Tahia Abdel Nasser ~ The Tea Picker

We swooped down in tea coun­try. The moun­tains were cool­er than Colombo. The tea hills rolled emer­ald-green, lush, and order­ly. Mist rolled through the hills, tall slen­der trees swayed in wel­come. They looked like ani­mals gath­er­ing, bend­ing, crouch­ing on the hills.

The car rum­bled along tea bush­es on steep hill­sides. Orderly rows on vast lush hills in per­fect sym­me­try. Step pyra­mids of tea. Narrow roads wove through the pic­turesque tea fields.

My father and aunt had been in Colombo. The plane had glid­ed like a shark through the Indian Ocean, a long, finned shad­ow below him and land­ed, beached on palm-fringed tar­mac. Coconut palms swayed on the island. Colombo was leafy green, yel­low fronds jut­ting out of hous­es tucked into fields. The island was swathed by a jun­gle of emer­ald green. Cars chugged, crawled, and came to a halt on the road.

He had flown to Colombo in July. When he came out of the plane, the humid heat fell upon him like a net and his wet shirt clung to him. He came dur­ing the mon­soon and spent a month in Colombo. His suit had been soaked in the heavy rain­fall. The scent of coconuts suf­fused the island. He had plod­ded through the heat, lugged bot­tles and jars of coconut oil. He had been soaked in coconut. Coconut-scent­ed oil, water, soap, air. The smell of coconut hung on his shirt, trick­led down his skin. He lugged pots of coconut oil from Colombo. My aunt Hind bought box­es of coconut oil and trin­kets and spices. She ambled in mar­kets, fanned her­self, heaped coconut oil and cin­na­mon sticks on stalls. Her broth­er heaved coconut-scent­ed box­es and bags.

He came home laden with assort­ed wood­en hand-paint­ed ele­phants. My moth­er arranged a fam­i­ly of dec­o­rat­ed ele­phants in her par­lor. I would kneel over and peer at the bejew­eled ele­phants stacked togeth­er like a fam­i­ly. I ran my palms over the sim­ple wood­work and intri­cate paint.

It was fam­i­ly lore that he had been in Sri Lanka. It must have been then that the desire to fol­low suit had tak­en root in me. I had come to tea coun­try. When Nadim rolled two suit­cas­es out of the air­port, Colombo smelled of cin­na­mon. Nadim bright­ened at the swathe of jun­gle. Did he know that I had har­bored that wish, that my father had been to Colombo, and we once had a grand guest when I was impres­sion­able? I remem­bered my father and the scent of coconut.

My father had been to Colombo, but we trav­eled deep­er into tea coun­try. The car jolt­ed along and wound through the hills. Tea estates, ravines, and water­falls whirred along a palm-fringed lake.

A burst of bright­ness flared in the green fields. A canary-yel­low sari swayed in the tea hills. A woman strolled down the val­ley, her skirt flowed over a path, a twirl of yel­low winked in leafy emer­ald hills. There was a smat­ter­ing of red blos­soms on a patch, cer­e­mo­ni­al flow­ers in the greenery.


We are hav­ing a guest.” It was a solemn occa­sion, and we were to make a spe­cial appear­ance. The guest swept into my grandmother’s pis­ta­chio-green par­lor. Her sari rus­tled on lotus­es embossed on the mar­ble floor in our hall.

It was 1981. My grand­moth­er had invit­ed the guest to tea. She was in Cairo and had want­ed to meet my grand­moth­er. My grand­moth­er wel­comed her into the green par­lor. Formal phras­es sprin­kled with smiles were exchanged. They had tea and my grand­moth­er sent for us.

I had to look prim in a lace-trimmed frock with hair held in rib­bons. We were herd­ed into the green par­lor where my grand­moth­er wel­comed her guests. We came in pret­ty frocks and well-combed hair for the for­mal occa­sion. The guest smiled and shook my hand and Sara’s.  I stared at the guest’s sari wide-eyed. I didn’t know what a sari was. The rolled-up cloth. That bold fuschia. The sump­tu­ous sari pinned around the guest. I wished I could feel the drapes and folds. I won­dered how the sari was spun and knot­ted. She sat and the cloth looked cer­e­mo­ni­ous. What is your name? How beau­ti­ful! She smiled. We wel­comed her in dain­ty English accents. We must have looked like dolls beside my grandmother’s writing-desk.

I didn’t under­stand how I could not whirl my dress around me like that. I would roll the large crim­son cur­tain in the hall around me, while my moth­er was vis­it­ing in the par­lor, and dis­ap­pear in a swathe of cloth. I won­dered how I could roll myself into a sari.

My almost half-Scottish moth­er, fine-fea­tured and ele­gant, impressed the guest with her deco­rum. Her impec­ca­ble English tin­kled in the green parlor.

When we came out of the par­lor, Narguis whisked us upstairs, but we harangued her to let us out into the gar­den where we scam­pered to the loquat trees.

Years lat­er, I hoped our tea was pass­able. I thought about pluck­ers in the tea estates of Sri Lanka. I wished my grand­moth­er had offered her guest gurai­ba. She would have loved her fresh­ly-baked soft Arabic sweets.

I didn’t know then that box­es of tea arrived from India and Sri Lanka for my grand­moth­er. We had fla­vor­ful tea in our pantry.

But when I was six, after I was sum­moned to meet our guest, I already knew it was Bandaranaike. I remem­bered a fuschia and tan­ger­ine sari.


All of a sud­den around us leafy tea plan­ta­tions burst with col­or. It was a love­ly scene.  Above, the pluck­ers swirled amid the tea bush­es. Tea pick­ers in col­or­ful saris knelt over rows of deep green bush­es, bright specks of col­or in the fields. They plucked buds and leaves, pruned bush­es, swiped and snipped with shears. Cloth pulled over their heads bil­lowed bright yel­low among the bush­es. Brightly col­ored saris blazed through the ver­dant hills. Clusters of yel­low, pink, peri­win­kle in a plot. A pluck­er in a blaz­ing red sari and tan­ger­ine blouse passed us.

Misty hills rose above us. A tuk tuk swooped on the twist­ing roads. I saw the tea pick­ers, hands nim­ble as if they were pluck­ing the strings of a musi­cal instru­ment, a qanun, on the bush­es. Elderly tea pick­ers smiled, chat­ted, called out to each oth­er. Young tea-pick­ers were rare.  They held palm­fuls of fresh leaves and buds. They flut­tered over bush­es, faces bent down and brows fur­rowed in con­cen­tra­tion. Every now and then, they tossed tea leaves back­ward into sacks as though they were tying loose hair, tuck­ing in way­ward strands. When we were near, I saw that they were in flow­ery and bright blous­es and aprons. Some had straps around their heads and hung yel­low sacks of tea. Occasionally, men in sarongs kneeled over bushes.

Mist half-hung over the hills. Nadim and I trekked through the hills, lush and abun­dant. We passed a tea field and came upon slen­der pick­ers. In the hills, a pluck­er paused and smiled. A short plump pick­er opened her palm, full of tea buds. “Silver tips,” she said and smiled.

I leaned over a bush and looked into her palms.

Silver tips,” she said soft­ly. The leaves sil­ver-tipped as if they were cov­ered in frost. Her yel­low sack hung from a strap around her head. The bush­es were bright­ened with swathes of col­or. Marigold, pop­py, canary-yel­low, saffron.

Nadim coaxed me to stroll through the fields. I felt that I was out­sized in the tea fields and had tres­passed upon the pluckers.

The tallest and lean­est pick­er smiled shy­ly. I stepped over twigs and branch­es to climb onto the path and tot­tered over the grass. I looked at them and smiled. I scoured the tea fields. I wished I could stroll among the pluckers.

Our bun­ga­low was perched high on the moun­tains. I came to an emp­ty trop­i­cal tea gar­den of invis­i­ble cro­quet and rest­ed on the porch.

Look! A mon­goose.” I thought it was a cat but some­thing about the way it stopped and looked around and cal­cu­lat­ed and its rud­dy face made me wrin­kle my brow.

They eat snakes,” Nadim chimed.

A mon­goose slinked through the bush­es, paused at a step, looked back­wards out of curios­i­ty, and scut­tled away. A three-striped palm squir­rel scut­tled onto the porch, slid, and fell. Splayed flat on the tiled floor, it looked sur­prised and dis­placed. I laughed.  It picked itself up and scut­tled away. There were coconut, man­go, and cin­na­mon trees. Three lit­tle squir­rels played hide-and-seek, scam­pered down a tuft­ed tree, and climbed up quaint cane chairs in the garden.

After a lunch of fresh fish, prawn cur­ry, rice, coconut sam­bal, and man­go chut­ney, we retired to our bungalow’s verandah.

Have some tea,’ Nadim said at teatime. There was a fresh, steam­ing pot of brewed tea. He poured a cup of tea and dis­ap­peared into the bun­ga­low. There were scrump­tious scones and cakes and sand­wich­es and clot­ted cream. The bun­ga­low belonged to an Englishman. I look at our order­ly tea gar­den. Whether Egypt, Sri Lanka, or India, the English had picked some love­ly spots.

The mist swirled out over the moun­tains where the tall slen­der trees looked like the cut-out peo­ple my moth­er made me when I was sick and bedrid­den. When I was a girl. A chain of paper dolls that felt cheery when the after­noons wore on, when it was my moth­er and me. They rolled now in the mist and loomed on the hills. There was some­thing sick­ly and cheery about them and I didn’t want to fall into them. I was so far from home, but some­thing of my father and girl­hood was here.

It was late after­noon. I sipped cin­na­mon tea on the veran­dah, slow­ly, look­ing at the rolling mist. Afternoon cin­na­mon-fla­vored tea. Geckoes climbed up the walls.  I remem­bered my grandmother’s tea in our gar­den. She would brew a pot of tea and share her tea with me at break­fast. She cos­set­ted me with hon­ey, bread­sticks, and white cheese. I sipped tea in a cup like my grandmother’s gold-rimmed chi­na teacups.

Women’s chat­ter gur­gled along a path through the gar­den. Curious, I brushed off my shawl, stepped down the steps of the gar­den and peered above the clipped bushes.

Women ambled on a path, they were so near I could reach out and touch them. First, one, then two. And anoth­er two. They were walk­ing home from the fields as the mist rolled in, hair piled in head­scarves, sacks hung down their backs. Another three appeared, yel­low and pink tar­pau­lin sacks full of fresh tea leaves (twen­ty kilo­grams), bun­dled on tiny frames. A pluck­er drew slices of dried fruit from a tiny plas­tic bag and ate as she walked. They were like­ly on their way to weigh the tea. Afterward, the tea would be sort­ed, with­ered, fer­ment­ed, dried, and baked at the tea fac­to­ry. Some of it would be flavored.

One of them looked up, nod­ded, and smiled at me. I smiled shy­ly. I thought I was invis­i­ble. I felt that I had shrunk­en. It was a brief moment of acknowl­edg­ment and then she was on her way.

She walked away, light­ly. Tea pluck­ers fol­lowed suit. They labored over the bush­es. They were grace­ful in labo­ri­ous tea-picking.

The bush­es were emp­ty now. There was no move­ment. No bursts of col­or. No chat­ter. Rolling hills of green. This was the tea, the fla­vor, that came to my grandmother’s garden.

My father had been to Sri Lanka. He had been young and sturdy.

I looked at the emp­ty path and the prized paper cut-outs in the mist. I turned to my lit­tle nook on the veran­dah. The steam­ing pot of tea. The tea the pluck­er had to car­ry and walk up and down the hills, the length of the tea estates, and weigh. My shawl draped neat­ly over the dain­ty wick­er chair. A swathe of cloth in a tea gar­den. I was no longer there.


Tahia Abdel Nasser is a writer and the edi­tor of Nasser My Husband: A Memoir. Her cre­ative non­fic­tion has appeared in Rigorous and else­where. She is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo.