The History and Traditions of Yerba Mate in Lebanon and Syria
November 19, 20236 min read
You may be surprised to hear that the tradition of drinking yerba mate isn’t just present in its origin countries Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay - but also in regions of the Middle East.
In the past, we’ve talked about the Polish link to yerba mate and how Poland leads statistics on Google for yerba mate. Today, we’ll talk about Syria and Lebanon, the largest importers of yerba mate in the world. (Yes, you heard that right!)
Nowadays, imports to Syria are even higher. In 2017, Argentina exported 22,563 tons to Syria and 800 tons to Lebanon. That’s huge, especially considering that the Syrian Civil War is still ongoing. In fact, many readers in South America were puzzled when they saw Syrian soldiers drinking yerba mate in the newspaper.
At first, the Syrian and Lebanese connection to yerba mate seems enigmatic, but the explanation is quite simple - and has everything to do with waves of immigration during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Pre-WWI Wave of Immigration to South America
Today, there are 17-30 million Arab people living in Latin America. Many of these families have immigration stories that began in the mid-19th century when the cultural sharing of yerba mate really took off.
Historians say that large populations of Syrian and Lebanese people first immigrated to South America between 1860-1912. There are four major events that explain this first wave of Arab immigrants:
1860: TheMount Lebanon Civil War broke out between Christians and the Druze.During this conflict, Christian peasants revolted against their Druze overlords, which eventually lead to massacres in Damascus. This conflict caused many to flee the region and look for a new home.
1870s: The Emperor of Brazil encouraged immigration after his visit to modern-day Lebanon (then part of the Ottoman Empire).Apparently Dom Pedro II, the Emperor of Brazil, was so charmed by his visit that he encouraged Lebanese groups to relocate to southern Brazil.
1909:The Hauran Druze Rebellion started between the Druze and the Ottoman Empire.Oppression by the Ottoman Empire was commonplace at this time. These events caused many Druze populations to flee modern-day Syria to South America.
1912: The Italo-Turkish War erupted between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Italy.As a result, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants escaped to South America to avoid violence and persecution.
Researchers believe that these events caused around 46,000 Syrians and Lebanese to emigrate to Argentina before 1913. This was the starting point for sharing cultural customs, including mate.
Post-WWI Wave of Immigration to South America
After World War I, Syria and Lebanon changed hands from the Ottoman Empire to the French. Unfortunately, conflicts continued from this period, causing more immigration to South America. These include:
1914-1918: World War I
1920: Franco-Syrian War
1925-1927: The Great Syrian Revolt
These events spurred more Syrian and Lebanese people to flee from the violence of war. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, many also fled because of the uncertainty of being governed by France.
As you may have guessed, conflicts also ensued when the Syrians wanted to gain independence from French rule. During this time, even more immigrants left the region.
Post-WWII Wave of Immigration to South America
In addition, World War II brought new waves of immigrants from Syria and Lebanon. That’s because many of these populations were being conscripted to the war (since they were living in French colonies). Instead of going to war on behalf of colonial power, many immigrated instead.
Immigration to South America also intensified during events following World War II, including:
1948: The Arab-Israeli War
1958: The Lebanese Civil War
Similarly, young people from these countries were being conscripted to these wars. Many fled the violence and conflict during this time as well.
Returning to the Homeland in the 1970s with Yerba Mate
All these waves of immigrants, primarily to Argentina and Brazil, resulted in the sharing of traditions. Starting in the 1860s up to the 1960s, immigrants from Syria and Lebanon arrived in South American and began to exchange customs. In this period, they started the habit of drinking yerba mate.
Immigrants to South America didn’t start to return to the Middle East in large numbers until the 1970s. This is when economic conditions in South American countries like Argentina and Brazil took a downturn. Some of them even became politically unstable, with coups and military dictatorships.
At the same time, Middle Eastern countries were experiencing an oil boom and a subsequent economic high. Many immigrants from the 19th and 20th centuries decided to return to their homeland, bringing yerba mate with them.
In the 1970s and beyond, we see the greatest spike in yerba mate exports to Syria and Lebanon, accounting for the returned immigrants who wanted to continue drinking yerba mate.
In particular, the Druze, who had been particularly affected by events in the 19th and 20th centuries (as listed above) were especially keen on drinking yerba mate. Today, their community is culturally linked to drinking yerba mate in a major way.
For this reason, most yerba mate drinkers in Syria and Lebanon are Druze. While it’s seen in other regions, yerba mate is most commonly drunk in Druze mountain villages.
Key Differences in the Arab Way of Yerba Mate
How Yerba Mate is Prepared
Yerba mate is prepared somewhat differently by the Syrian and Lebanese. However, key elements stay the same. For example, yerba mate is typically drunk in the mornings. It’s also prepared using hot water from a kettle. Sometimes flavors like sugar, spices or fruit peels are added. This is all fairly traditional.
However, there are two distinctions between the South American mate and the Middle Eastern one.
1. Syrians and the Lebanese prepare mate by adding yerba mate and hot water to a gourd - and then stirring it.This act of stirring yerba and hot water would be blasphemy to an Argentine or Uruguayan yerba mate drinker.
The South American creates a little mound (montañita) to one side of the gourd so that the flavor of the yerba mate is released slowly over time. He/she maintains this mound and only pours hot water on the “valley” side of the gourd.
Instead, Syrians and the Lebanese add yerba mate to about half of the gourd or cup, then add water on top and stir it with the bombilla. In this way, the yerba mate is more of a tea infusion. This also means that the yerba mate lasts for less time.
2. Syrians and the Lebanese clean the bombilla between drinkers with a lemon slice.Another big difference is the cleaning of the bombilla. Since yerba mate is served on a tray, you’ll see a lemon slice on a small plate, which is used to sanitize the straw between drinkers.
South American drinkers of yerba mate do not clean the bombilla between drinkers. In fact, fussiness about yerba mate cleanliness is generally considered anti-social.
Yerba Mate Equipment
The yerba mate equipment used by Syrians and the Lebanese are also distinct. It’s typically served on a tray, including the yerba, gourd, lemon peel and any added flavors like sugar. This sort of presentation is not typical in South American countries, where yerba mate is simply set on the table with a kettle or thermos.
In addition, other differences can be seen with the gourd and bombilla.
Gourd or Cup
Arab yerba mate drinkers will use either a gourd (called a qar’a), a small glass or a ceramic milk jug. You’ll notice for those who use the gourd that it’s a slightly different shape. It’s a small-sized gourd with a very narrow mouth and a larger bottom. A typical South American mate gourd is rounder and larger. The mouth is not quite so narrow.
Other drinkers choose to use a small glass or a ceramic milk jug. These mate vessels are very small and less popular for a South American drinker. However, this size makes sense when you remember that typical preparation for a Syrian or Lebanese involves stirring instead of creating a little mound.
The bombilla in the Middle East is generally called a masassa.Like a traditional bombilla, the masassa is made of silver or alpaca and has a distinct filter at the end. The difference is that this masassa is a lot shorter than a typical South American bombilla. In fact, it’s about half the length.
Again, the short size of the masassa is fitting, since the gourd or cup for yerba mate is a lot smaller. During the serving of yerba mate, the straw pokes out just slightly from the lip of the gourd or cup.
After suffering many conflicts in the 19th and 20th centuries, Middle Eastern immigrants - especially the Druze - brought yerba mate back to their homeland and made it their own custom. While there are certain differences in how a Syrian or Lebanese prepare yerba mate, it’s essentially the same drink. These traditions show that there’s no “right” way to prepare yerba mate!
At the end of the day, yerba mate continues to bring together peoples from all over the world - including the Middle East.