The Magic of Mate

Drunk by both Pope Francis and Che Guevara, the South American drink of mate has strong roots in the Middle East


Natalie Shooter


Roland Ragi


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The Guaraní, an indigenous people of South America, were the first known to drink mate. Guaraní legend states that mate is a drink of friendship; it was offered to the goddesses of the moon and the clouds, after they were saved from a jaguar attack by an old man on a visit to earth. Leaves are harvested from the yerba mate trees in northern Argentina once a year. They are then dried in enormous metal cylinders over a 150 degree fire for six hours, to be chopped and bagged, and left for one year to ferment. After re-chopping, the mate leaves are packaged up and ready to be distributed around the world.

Until recently, Syria was the biggest exporter of mate outside South America, importing 15,000 tons a year, but with the growing population of Syrians in Lebanon, it’s appearing in the most unexpected places across the country. The intimate ritual marks a close bond between friends and is usually limited to the family home, but can now be found more and more in the street – sold on street corners or drunk during late night gatherings.

In Lebanon’s Shouf mountain region, in the small Druze village of Baqaata, three brothers – Atef, Othman and Hassan Hassanie – stand in their mate depot. Despite an electricity blackout, the light pours in from outside, revealing stockpiles of mate stacked to the ceiling. Beginning with just one container back in the late 1980s, the brothers now import around 700 tons a year directly from Argentina. Their company Al Rami Trading distributes the traditional drink as far as Russia and Australia. The depot is full of brightly-coloured packets of mate, from the two brands the brothers are loyal to.

Packaged in a 1950s style red and white striped design, Amanda is the most popular among Lebanese drinkers. Its rival Piporé has a slightly more bitter taste, and comes infused with flavours ranging from peach to mint. A friend of the brothers, who adores mate so much he has even opened a mate café, introduced the flavoured mate to the Russian market, where it is now steadily growing in popularity.

In the neighbourhood where the Hassanies live, mate is as standard as morning coffee, yet the brothers have a stronger attachment to the drink than most. The family’s connection to Argentina stretches back generations. Their great grandfather, Fares, was the first in the family to move from Lebanon to Argentina, where he set up a sheep farm to produce wool, which remains in the family.

The country became a second home for the brothers, particularly Hassan, who married an Argentinian and worked in the country for a few decades. ‘I spent 20 years living the free life as a cowboy in the middle of nowhere in Argentina,’ Atef says, in a gentle growl, maintaining the soft hint of a Spanish accent. ‘We grew up on mate, I remember drinking it as a young child. When I decided to move back to Lebanon in 1989 and we were looking to start a distribution company, it made sense to bring back mate.’

The office is full of souvenirs to mate – tokens of what has become a life’s passion for the three brothers. Atef holds up a framed picture of a dried mate leaf. ‘I had one mate tree in Beirut, but as soon as I brought it to the mountains it died within a few months. It was just too cold for it to survive in the mountains here,’ he says. Atef’s wife, Sanaa, brings out a collection of intricate bombillas and lays them on a tray covered with a handmade green and white checkered cloth, a gift from a friend in Argentina.

‘We drink mate every morning,’ Sanaa says. ‘It is part of our life, our routine. It wakes me up and it’s very good for your body.’ Mate has a high level of natural caffeine, meaning it gives the same kick-start to a day as coffee. It’s also known to hold numerous health benefits, containing more antioxidants than green tea.

As the tray is brought to the living room, the intimate ritual of mate begins. Sanaa spoons in heaps of dried mate into the kar’a until it’s two thirds full. Hot – but not boiling – water is poured over the dried leaves and it’s left to settle. A distinct aroma drifts around the room. Each of the family drinks from the cup until no water remains.

The cup is then passed around the circle, the bombilla cleaned with a lemon in between and hot water re-added. This process continues for maybe ten rounds: it’s a moment of calm, gentle conversation, and of reflection. The straw creates an immediate intimacy. ‘In Syria they carry an individual straw around in their shirt pocket for mate, but here we share,’ Hassan says. ‘We sit together and drink mate. It’s something you only do with your close friends, not strangers.’

Atef pulls out his iPad and flicks through a collection of photos of celebrity mate drinkers, from Pope Francis and the president of Brazil to Pavarotti and Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi. A ritual that stretches back centuries, drinking mate offers a suspended moment in time, a brief exit from modern life. After Hassan takes the last drink, the mate cup is left to rest. As he stands up and leaves to continue with the day’s work, Sanaa clears the table, and life starts moving again.

This article appears in the issue43Buy Now