I am in constant awe of the way that God showers and envelopes me, and everyone of us, with His Blessings. If you pay attention, you will notice the subtle ways that he personally invites each of us to open our hearts up to His Love and His Light. It is just beyond what I can ever express or pay justice to, but being human and ever an optimist, I will use my tale of Calabash to try, haha.
The tale takes me back to my time in Washington D.C. which, first of all, taught me not to judge a book by it’s cover. Within the first days in D.C. I realized that I could not have been more wrong about it, having assumed it was just a dry seat of politics. Discovering D.C. made me fall in love with it more and more every day.
The reason I had ventured to America’s capital was to hang out with my niece while she completed an internship with the awesome TYT network. It was also an amazing opportunity for her to work alongside a soul sister and great friend of mine who radiates an immensely positive, strong and engaged attitude towards life. I think my niece understood how lucky she was to witness this woman in her element, a true role model both at work and in her personal life. I felt lucky to be there and back in the presence of my friend, spending time with her and her two beautiful little girls. I had not seen her since the precious time we spent together while I was doing my masters in New York. Here, I want to send a note of love and gratitude out to all my friends who have embraced the welfare of my nieces as if they were their own. I feel blessed and doubly so, for me, as well as for them.
During the days that my niece spent at her internship, I sought out different cafes and tea houses across D.C. to sit quietly and get work done. And, from the first day I began to realize the extent of the city’s rich culture of food, music and fine art. I was thoroughly charmed by the end of the second day, haha.
Particularly, I realized that D.C. had a full-fledged and fabulous café culture. In fact, it was the best I have seen in the US. Very different to the European feel of cafes in Italy or France. The cafes of D.C. invite you to work there or while away hours reading with such charm and comfort, that it was a pleasure to get up and go to one to work for the day. Delighted and inspired by my discoveries, I soon fell into a daily ritual of trying a new cafe or going to one I liked, like Calabash, before going on exploratory walks around the neighborhood. Then I would meet my niece at the end of her work day to share what I discovered and enjoy a delicious meal together at one of the great restaurants in D.C.
Family is a great part of the joy and warmth in my life that I cherish above anything else and I have so many fond memories of all my family members. Stepping into the tea houses of D.C. immediately reminded me of them as they are such tea lovers, my dad in particular. My memory of tea and the delightful smell of it made with fresh mint and the taste when it's steeped to just the right color or with just the right amount of milk takes me back to happy moments of childhood. I even remember the first times I was allowed to stir it or carry it over to my father, feeling so grown up and happy to be bringing him something he obviously enjoys so much. The positive associations continued into my university days when a beautiful friend, who was like an older sister to me, would brew us tea at the end of the night with “Miramieh”. We would savor the tea, chatting away about our day until it was time for me to head home to sleep.
I also had recollections of my dad stopping us during family vacations for a cup of tea here and a cup of coffee there, whether it was in the Arab world, Europe or America. The love was sealed yet again in my college days in California, where they also had the culture of studying in cafes. I would while away the day with friends and study buddies. Those were some of the most relaxed and enjoyable moments of my sweet college days.
During my stay in D.C. I started to realize just how much it reminded me of those beloved times and I was so delighted to find four outstanding cafes that all had a connection to Arab and Muslim culture. They were called Emissary, Busboys and Poets, Teaism, and the namesake of this post, Calabash.
Emissary caught my attention immediately with it’s vibrantly coloured sign, proudly displayed right in the window by the door for all to see, calling out islamophobia. The café was right next to a yoga studio and in the same vibe. It served coffee and healthy food, that was fresh to the eye and to the taste. One other gift of this café was realizing how these fair trade cafes draw the best of the D.C. crowd. I would often overhear conversations, although I wasn’t eavesdropping. Americans are like the Arabs in the way they converse, speaking in a lively manner with loud and clear, easy to hear voices, haha. One conversation was by an Iranian man who was obviously having a business meeting and explaining what he does. He was part of an organization that ensures correct representation of Muslim culture in film and the media. I Just loved the exciting meaningful lives of the people who spent time at this cafe.
The second, Busboys and Poets was at the top of everyone's recommendation list. It has a great bookstore, café with full-fledged food menu as well and a room in the back for events. Let me tell you, I was in heaven and it got to be the seventh heaven when I realized with pride that the owner was of Iraqi descent. Now, those are a people with a great legacy and one of the oldest civilizations on Earth. I have yet to meet an Iraqi of the old generation that doesn’t have dignity, intelligence and a cultured understanding of life. Much to emulate there and much to mourn with what was destroyed by the Gulf War. But, my faith in them is just as strong as my faith in the Syrians. The legacy is strong and will live on beautifully in the people.
The third, is Teaism. First of all, it has the most charming entrance onto a very small, well utilized space with an equally small and cosy upstairs. They have lots of teas to choose from and again some interesting people who are loyal to it and come to work, have meetings or just read away there. What I loved about this cafe was the second time I went in, I noticed a sign that says: refugees are welcome here. I didn’t explore what that meant but it touched me to see it and counted that as definitely including Muslims and Arabs as we are all aware of the state of the Middle East today and Muslims beyond and the rising numbers of refugees amongst them. Here’s to touches of humanity, may they continue to grow.
Calabash, I actually discovered by chance, well however accidental these things really are. I had set out to visit a cafe I had found using Yelp and after walking 40 minutes past the pleasant front yard gardens that are characteristic of the Dupont Circle neighborhood, I arrived to find that the cafe was closed for emergency work. It was only due to be closed for that day, imagine my luck! I gulped down my disappointment as it was obviously not meant to be and went back to yelp to see where the closest café was.
Calabash showed up as a block and a half away so, with my chin up, I went and oh my, was I glad that I did. There was a feeling of such warmth and funk as you walked in. Calabash has colorful décor and comfortable settees, armchairs and ottomans. I got such a feeling of intense care and flair in every color and detail. I could tell that everything was intentional. It was the way I like to do things, so I knew the owner was my kind of person. I understood from later research that the materials and furniture from the founder’s family and loved ones had found its way into Calabash and the effects of love and positive vibes were ever tangible.
Photographs of people of African descent, looking gorgeous and vibrant doing everyday things covered the walls. The furniture had touches of classic and strong ethnic influences in equal measure. And, as I settled down into one of the chairs, I started to notice details from the Arab and Muslim parts of the Arab world in a photo or a book. When I spoke with Sunyatta, the founder later on, she mentioned a visit to Egypt which explained those pieces on display in Calabash.
Going over to the counter to see what they had on the menu to eat and drink, I was greeted by the warmest smile and welcome. The staff caringly and cheerily talked me through the choices, which included selections of teas and kombucha on tap, which my “Hakima” and dear friend had advised me to consume once a day to aid wellbeing. Having not tried kombucha before, I ordered it and found it was delicious with a satisfying tanginess and just the right touch of sweetness. Having got my health kick out of the way, I then got down to business with ordering a latte, haha, which was just as fabulous. I also ordered a Cuban vegetarian Patty. I was super excited as I had just returned from my Cuba trip with my nieces and was still in the aftermath of the charm of that country, its history, culture and its people.
Sunyatta Amen, the founder, is a naturopathic physician and fifth-generation master herbalist of Jamaican and Cuban heritage, and she hand-blends micro batches of tea. Her Cuban-Jamaican great-grandmother’s recipes inspired the shop’s in-house drink offerings, which aim to ease ailments including headaches and cramps.
Sunyatta came into Calabash later in the afternoon and went behind the counter to serve and talk to customers. I loved how she was part of the team and was obviously so hands-on, adding her intelligent and vivacious presence to the warmth of the team and the place. While we were talking, she mentioned that she is of Syrian-Jamaican/Cuban descent and I was just bubbling over as I made the connection to the nods of our culture in the café. And I knew I had myself a gem to share!
I returned time and again to Calabash, and brought my niece, who was just as charmed as I was. As I researched Calabash further, I realized that it takes tea to a different level! It is tea at its best fulfilling its highest purpose to heal people and aid them to be in their best mental, emotional and physical states.
It gave me pause to think how previously, I had not fully made the connection between the traditional medicinal value of tea and how it has become disconnected from mainstream culture. Again something precious commercialized and stripped of its deeper benefit. That was a true ‘aha’ moment for me.
Customers can choose from 65 varieties of tea. The menu includes Rescue Me, meant to aid cold and flu symptoms, and My Last Good Nerve, which has lavender and hops among its ingredients and is meant to tackle anxiety and depression. "Tea as a pastime is new," Sunyatta says. "Tea as medicine is ancient." Calabash also carries fair-trade coffee and kombucha on tap along side a vegan menu of spicy, island-inspired snacks and pastries.
Those mixes are each to achieve a certain result toward health. You can literally go in describe how you feel or want to feel and they will surely offer something that will help take you in the right direction. How beautiful to witness a modern day example of how a simple cup of tea can heal. It makes me want to learn the craft and add it to any project or space I undertake in the future to help soothe and heal people. There is time yet and I hope Sunyatta is thinking to document this treasure of knowledge either in a book or an online course or videos really any way where this knowledge is made accessible and in that honor her great-grandmother even more!
Sunyatta showed her pride in her Cuban and heritage by being excited about being just around the corner from the Howard Theatre, an icon for African American culture, as she grew up so close to the Apollo in NY when she lived with her parents above their health food shop and juice bar.
Part of the charm of D.C was being in Dupont Circle where African American history and culture is so strong. I loved walking the streets and seeing plaques by the houses explaining about the activists or successful individual of color who contributed to the American legacy. It was so inspiring and life affirming to witness their pursuit of the freedom and the right to a life of equal opportunity and dignity. I miss this in many other parts of America that I spend time in, so it was such an unexpected delight to see it displayed so strongly in the political capital of the US nonetheless. The bookstores had great books, the lounges great jazz and it just went on and on to my utter joy.
Sunyatta is an active part of that celebration and commitment to education that I so admired. And, I was excited to hear that she is soon to open another branch of Calabash in Brookland, with a learning garden so there can be a more prominent educational element and a bigger space to host events on a different scale. Calabash’s Brookland location will feature over 50 organic tea blends based again on Sunyatta’s great-grandmother’s time-tested formulas.
The new jobs created in Brookland will allow Calabash to continue its commitment to hiring single mothers, veterans and returning citizens. A mural of a native Jamaican hummingbird with a red hibiscus is to be painted on the building is especially meaningful to Sunyatta. She says, “It’s called a Doctor Bird because it makes quick house calls to medicinal plants and is the number one pollinator of herbals on the island”. I just love that attention to detail and commitment to setting the intention for the space through a mural. The carefully considered hummingbird was selected to bring good omens, great knowledge and heartfelt art to a space created soulfully to serve people!
I liked the name Calabash a lot and stayed my curiosity at the time I was frequenting it, not thinking to ask where the name came from or why. I thought it was a funky, made-up word to be honest, but it turns out to be an elegant nod to tradition and traditional medicine. Calabash is a tropical plant which produces a large fruit, the outside of which becomes hard when dried and can be used as a container. A name is such an important part of an initiative’s spirit and meaning and I honestly can't think of a better name for this beautiful, heartfelt legacy project.
The time I spent in those cafes, experiencing their authentic care, was healing for me. It brought back to me those phases of my life where it was quieter and less hectic. The days when I would have time to stop and read a good book, or to focus on work that I loved for hours in a charming cafe. I truly felt blessed by this unexpected reminder that reconnected me to a better version of myself by a Most Merciful, Loving and Generous Creator. I still feel that renewed quiet that seeks to enjoy a cup of tea and just observe and reflect on life or to read a book that I had crammed into “when can do moments” in my life. Ever grateful for His Care and in Him I trust. So, as you can imagine, I miss Calabash so much and look forward to going back even more after fully understanding its intent and impact to learn more and be a friend and supporter of it for life.
DISCOVER Washington D.C’s cafes
Calabash Tea and Tonic
The seed for Calabash was planted 2 doors from the world famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NY in 1976. Serving at her parent’s herbal shop & juice bar, owner Sunyatta trained alongside master herbalists learning the medicinal value of teas & spices. Sunyatta accompanied her family on tea and spice buying trips, all the while dreaming of a shop that emulated those exotic destinations.
Calabash serves aromatic teas and tonics for all of your moods, locally baked vegan treats, kombucha on tap, and fair trade coffee.
An independent coffeehouse, bar, and cafe located in Washington DC's historic Dupont Circle neighborhood, serving Counter Culture Coffee. They believe in community, diversity, and equality, and there space is a place for people of all backgrounds to unwind and connect over carefully-sourced and organic ingredients, amazing Counter Culture coffee, and local craft.
EmissaryBus Boys and Poets
Busboys and Poets is a community gathering place. First established in 2005, Busboys and Poets was created by owner Anas "Andy" Shallal, an Iraqi-American artist, activist and restaurateur. After opening the flagship location at 14th and V Streets, NW (Washington, DC), the neighboring residents and the progressive community embraced Busboys, especially activists opposed to the Iraq War. Busboys and Poets is now located in six distinctive neighborhoods in the Washington Metropolitan area and is a community resource for artists, activists, writers, thinkers and dreamers.
A collection of Asian-inspired tea houses that infuse the cultures of tea and the ideals of teaism with the informality and casualness of America. A collection of critically acclaimed restaurants and tea houses that produce simple foods from the cuisines of tea, Bento boxes from Japan, curries from Thailand, and tandoor breads from India. Their collection of tea shops have an abundance of tea accessories and exhibitions of work by local potters and artists where the inventory of over three dozen teas is constantly updated to ensure it represents the best of what is available.
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To Calabash Tea and Tonic for the contribution of an image to this post from their Instagram account.