December 17, 2009

KUWAIT: Charcoal, Tea and Tales

. KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait / Arab Times / / Entertainment / December 17, 2009 By Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud, Special to the Arab Times Charcoal - tea and tales When the cold north wind sweeps across the desert, the season for using natural wood charcoal has begun. In the many seasonal desert camps, the duwwah, or charcoal brazier, with its red hot glowing coals, serves as the cozy focal point of the tent. Here friends and relatives gather not only to warm themselves but to put the kettle on for tea, to roast chestnuts and sweet potatoes, to heat up steaming pots of chick peas, and inevitably, to tell a few tales about Kuwait’s good old days. Since the very dawn of human history, people have been making use of charcoal’s intense heat and slow-burning properties. Charcoal production is the world’s oldest industry and is still widely-practiced today. While charcoal may seem like a mundane material, it has many unique properties and the ramifications of its use are dramatic and far-ranging. Its applications range from horticulture, medicinal purposes, as an adsorbing agent for purification and filtration, and even for writing material and art. As an efficient fuel it helped mankind move out of the Stone Age and into the era of metallurgy, initiating the Bronze Age. Here in modern day Kuwait, at Al Nur Al Sigaer charcoal suppliers in Shuwaikh, the charcoal vendors are taking a tea break. The men’s hands, faces, and clothing are black with soot as processing the brittle, lightweight material is dirty work. One of the men hands me a mug full of hot, strong tea nearly as black as the charcoal itself. As I drink the bitter brew the men show me a large pile of charcoal which they’re breaking into small pieces to be used for heating the tobacco in the water pipe, or sheesha. “Nowadays people mainly buy charcoal for the sheesha, for burning incense, and for use in the duwwah,” says a grey-haired man who hails from Isfahan. “But in the old days it was used for many things, even for cleaning the teeth, as a powder mixed with salt.” The many uses for charcoal that mankind has discovered over the millennia are indeed surprising in their diversity. Far back in the mists of time, the world’s first artists picked up bits of charcoal and used them to create drawings on cave walls. Cave pictures made using charcoal have been dated as early as 30,000 BC. The best known cave art, however, at Lascaux, Roufignac and other sites in France, dates back to arou.nd 15,000 BC to 9000 BC. No one knows whether the artists’ tools were intentionally-produced charcoal or simply sticks taken from a fire, but this primitive medium resulted in strikingly beautiful images that were amazingly well-preserved when the Roufignac caves were first discovered. A graceful, lifelike drawing of a mammoth is one of the most famous examples of the cave art which attracted multitudes of visitors when the caves were opened to the public in the late 1940s. But with the presence of so many people, the delicate balance of temperature and moisture inside the caves was disturbed. The prehistoric charcoal pigments began to fade, while fungus started to grow over the art on the cave walls. Replicas of the pictures were created for the visitors and in 1963 the caves were closed to the public. Throughout the ages, charcoal has remained a popular artists’ medium. By the end of the fifteenth century, artists had learned how to “fix” charcoal drawings by immersing them in baths of gum, and thus many historical works of art in charcoal survived, among them those of the famous German artist Albrecht Duerer (1471-1528). Rembrandt, Degas, Matisse, and Picasso are just a few of the many well-known artists who utilised the expressionistic qualities of charcoal as a medium for great art. Charcoal is essentially wood that has been partially burned with little oxygen. Since it burns much hotter and cleaner than wood, at temperatures of well over 1000 degrees Centigrade, it has long been valued as a fuel. It was the intense heat produced by burning charcoal that first enabled people to smelt tin and copper to produce bronze. An article on the website UK Agriculture titled The History of Charcoal Worldwide, explains the significance of this development. “Bronze was a versatile metal. It set much harder than copper and in manufacture was easier to cast as it flowed more freely. It was most useful for the production of swords, axes, tools and jewelry. Damaged or broken items could be melted and recast and tools with a hardened edge could always be re-sharpened.” By around 1,000 BC, the article states, everyday objects were commonly made from bronze and significant charcoal production was required to supply the expanding metal industry. The onset of the Iron Age further increased the demand for charcoal. Thus it was around this time that people began managing woodlands specifically to provide the raw material to produce charcoal. Known as coppices, the trees in these particular woods were cut and regrown cyclically, so that a steady supply of wood for charcoal would be available. While charcoal production was, and still is, responsible for deforestation in some parts of the world, in other countries, especially in what is now the UK, it was responsible for the beginning of formal forest management some 2,500 years ago. In recent times, charcoal has been used to power commercial road vehicles. The first to develop this technology was a Chinese man named Tang Zhongming, who invented a charcoal-powered car in 1931. This type of vehicle was popular in China until the 1950s. Charcoal-powered buses were used in Japan in the years immediately after World War II and are reportedly still in use in North Korea today. The use of charcoal as an adsorbent, like most of its other applications, has a very long history. Peter J F Harris of the University of Reading’s Chemistry Department, cites some examples in his fascinating paper titled On Charcoal. “Egyptian papyri from around 1500 BC describe the use of charcoal to adsorb malodorous vapours from putrefying wounds, and there is an Old Testament reference to the ritual purification of water using the charred remains of a heifer.” The first scientific study of the adsorptive properties of charcoal was made by the Swedish scientist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in the late eighteenth century, Harris states. “It was the use of poison gas in World War I which created an urgent need for effective adsorbent materials…” Harris continues. “The first true gas masks were made using wood charcoal which was activated chemically.” In World War II activated charcoal gas masks were issued to the entire population of Great Britain due to the fear that poison gas would be used to attack civilian targets. The same fear arose during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, when it seemed all too possible that Saddam Hussein might use chemical weapons against the local population. As a result, members of the Kuwaiti resistance issued and circulated instructions on how to make home-made gas masks using natural charcoal. This writer made more than a dozen of them, for all the extended family members in the household at the time. Thankfully, as in World War II Britain, the feared gas attacks never materialised and the home-made charcoal gas masks never had to be put to the test. Nowadays the use of activated charcoal in industry is widespread, particularly for the purification of air and water. In medicine, charcoal is used to absorb gases and toxins to help treat heartburn, flatulence, and indigestion. In horticulture, charcoal is used to improve soil quality. Despite charcoal’s versatility, most of us still think of it primarily in the context of cooking while camping or barbecuing. In the West, natural wood charcoal has largely been replaced by charcoal briquettes. The briquettes are made by compressing charcoal or other wood or chemical byproducts with a binder and other additives. In this part of the world, however, people still favor natural wood charcoal over the synthetically-made briquettes. Most of the natural charcoal sold in Kuwait is imported from Africa. In days gone by, charcoal was commonly burned in the duwwah to heat some rooms of the house, usually the sitting room where the family would gather. Some people still use charcoal for indoor heat, but if the room is not well-ventilated, asphyxiation can result. An elderly Kuwaiti lady recalls that her grandfather used to buy charcoal from a charcoal vendor in Hawalli. “When my grandfather brought in the charcoal my grandmother would light the duwwah, using a tin can open on both ends to create a kind of wind tunnel over the charcoal, in order to get it started quickly. Then she’d call me, ‘Come my dear, sit next to me’.” She had two colorful enamel kettles, one to make the tea, and one to heat the milk, which in those days was goat’s milk. I used to love the ritual of the tea making on the duwwah because while my grandmother did her preparations she always told me stories.” Any local tea drinker will tell you that the best tea is brewed over a charcoal fire. That’s why some restaurants, like the outdoor cafes in the old Mubarakiya Market, still make it that way. Each individual teapot is brought steaming to the table on its own small charcoal burner. The tea must of course be made from loose tea leaves, never tea bags, of a good, strong Ceylon brand. Some like it with a few pods of cardamom and a couple strands of saffron, or with a few drops of mai liqqah, the clear aromatic liquid that comes from the heart of the palm. When hot milk is added to the tea, it’s flavored with cardamom or sometimes with ginger, especially in winter to ward off colds. But many serious tea drinkers prefer the rich, unadulterated aroma of pure charcoal-brewed black tea. Although locally the demand for charcoal has declined in recent years, there are still a fair number of charcoal suppliers around town. During the camping season, charcoal is also sold from small trucks that serve as mobile grocery stores. There are many of these parked along the Wafra Road. Tea in Kuwait The Ex Mayo Establishment for Charcoal, Center for the Sale of African Charcoal, in Shuwaikh, is a shop with a long name and a large range of charcoal and charcoal-related items. The owner, Abdullah Al Fadhli, has a number of well-stocked charcoal shops in various locations in Kuwait. He explains that there are different types and qualities of natural charcoal. African charcoal is the best, and it comes in three grades: one for water pipes, one for barbecuing, and one for heating. “The charcoal for the sheesha or water pipe, is usually made from the smaller branches of the trees. When we receive it, it’s mixed with a lot of sand and other debris so it must be carefully cleaned and chopped into small pieces,” he says. A six kilo bag of sheeshah charcoal sells for 3.5 KD while the same amount of barbecue charcoal costs 2.5 KD. One of the salesmen points out a charcoal-powered hot water heater for use by desert campers. It’s a simple but effective device: a large, aluminum drum on a stand with a hollow container in the middle. The charcoal is put into the long, hollow container and when lit it heats the surrounding water, giving desert campers the luxury of warm water for washing. Among the other items for sale are many different sizes of duwwa, including the small ones for individual tea pots; barbecue grills, tongs, metal kebab skewers, sheeshas and tobacco, and palm leaf fans for fanning the coals. Meanwhile, over at Al Sijaer Al Fahem, the charcoal vendors are back at work, loading bags of charcoal into customers’ vehicles. “This is our busy time of year as the Kuwaitis are all buying charcoal for their camps in the desert,” one of the black-faced vendors says. The customers buying charcoal are probably unaware of the many unique properties of this dirty black substance and its rich legacy. But next time you sit gazing at the glowing coals, pause to ponder the fact that you’re a link in a long chain of charcoal users that stretches far back across the millennia. [rc] Claudia Farkas Al-Rashoud is Kuwait's most celebrated journalist and author Source: Arab Times