My roommate Haidy has a hot pot to boil water, and every day I make tea at least once. I have many types of tea in my room, Chamomile, a favorite from home, Peppermint, which my Tufts roommate Emily taught me to love, Lemon and Ginger, which I thought would be tasty but isn’t, and Cinnamon, one of several common Egyptian teas that include Hibiscus, Licorice and Lipton “Yellow label.” When I came home from two days in Cairo honking and coughing worse than I had when I left, I went straight for the tea pot. With honey, of course, on mother’s orders.
But it wasn’t only on her orders that I forced down several mugs-full upon arrival. Haidy, having just graduated from the college of Medicine at Alexandria University, heard me hacking and asked, “What can you take? What have you taken?”
“Nothing,” I said resignedly, “there’s nothing that does much for a cold. Besides vitamin C, which I’ve taken and hasn’t done much.”
“Well, tonight we’ll have to get some lemon from the restaurant,” she said resolutely, as if this were decidedly the answer.
Though honey had always been an important addition to an ill-person’s tea in my family, and I often add lemon to my water, I had never heard of using lemon in tea to soothe a sore throat. That evening, at a delicious Syrian restaurant in Alex that Haidy and I were finally getting to after talking about it all semester, we nearly forgot the lemon. My plate of Jasmine rice with shwarma-style chicken (there was no vegetarian option), arrived on the table with a lemon garnish. I set it aside to pack up later but forgot about it, and just as the waiter began to gather it into the disposal heap Haidy tapped me, “No! Tell him you want the lemon!”
“Um, sorry… can I just get that lemon back from you?” I directed at the amused waiter.
I had no idea this lemon was so important. Meanwhile, Haidy’s friend, a doctor doing his post-internship masters in Pulmonology, grilled me about how long I had been coughing and whether there had been phlegm, (a thoroughly appetizing pre-dinner conversation), and promptly scribbled no less than five medicines I had never heard of on the corner of my paper placemat. He ripped it expertly and instructed me to head to a pharmacy right away.
“You have to get well before you leave Egypt! It won’t do to send you off like this,” he said.
The next day, on my way between class and the pharmacy I stopped to buy an orange for lunch. The fruit seller, furrowing his brow at my pervasive cough, asked, “Are you sick?” I confirmed the obvious, and he promptly reached over and picked off two leaves from a guava fruit.
“You must take these,” he said, adding them to the pile with my oversized orange.
“That’s alright, I don’t want a guava.”
“No, no, not the guava, the leaves! Wash them carefully and put them in your tea.”
“It’s very helpful for the cough, to get rid of the cold,” he said. I supposed it wouldn’t hurt to try.
I returned to my room and boiled a pot of water. I’d never felt so clearly that I was doing something aptly described by the English phrase, “fixing” a cup of tea. It was like I was in a Jane Austen novel, or Little Women. I placed the scrubbed leaves in the cup, poured the hot water, squeezed in a few drops of lemon, and drizzled in honey as a finishing touch. It was perhaps the most elaborate and unusual hot drink I’d ever consumed, and I’ve had Starbucks lattes.
The result was a somewhat unrecognizable flavor, sour-sweet with a distinctively plant-like aroma, but now, in the time it has taken me to drink the tea and write about it, I have stopped coughing.
I wonder, who’d have thought a simple pot of water could compete with modern medicine? And more importantly, where can I get free guava leaves in the States?