Brew is now a local tradition, social drink.
Steam rises from a gourd filled with yerba mate as Wissam al-Halabi takes a sip, seated on a Lebanese mountain slope where the South American drink has become a local tradition.
For more than a century, the mountain folk have been enjoying the slightly bitter hot drink, pronounced “yer-bah mah-tay”, far from its origins half-way around the world.
It is particularly popular among adherents of the secretive Druze faith, who are scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean’s Levant region, mostly in Lebanon and Syria.
“It’s from Argentina originally and we’re told it came here hundreds of years ago, brought by Lebanese migrants who came back from there,” says Samah Halawi, a Druze sheikh.
Latin America became a prime destination for economic migrants from the Levant, particularly in the late 19th century, and a large community of their descendants still exists in Argentina and elsewhere in the region.
Halawi sports the white knit hat, thick moustache and loose pleated sherwal trousers that are traditional attire for the religious class of the Druze community.
And he considers the signature mate gourd and silver bombilla (bahm-bee-zha) straw to be just as traditional as his clothing.
“Mate is something that’s very traditional here, something that we grew up with and saw our family drinking,” he says.
“It’s a social drink; we drink it together. Me and the guys get together often and drink as a group.”
Crosses Syria battle lines
Yerba mate, made from the leaves of a rainforest holly tree, has been cultivated in South America for centuries. It is particularly popular in southern Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina, which dominates exports of the tea to Lebanon and neighbouring Syria.
In 2012, Argentina exported nearly 1,500 tons of mate to Lebanon, making it the country’s third-biggest market, according to the International Trade Centre, a UN and World Trade Centre agency.
Syria, with a population more than five times that of Lebanon, is Argentina’s biggest mate market, importing more than 24,000 tons in 2012.
The drink’s popularity there has not been affected by the conflict and even crosses battle lines, with both regime troops and rebel fighters spotted imbibing.