By Natascha Tahabsem
Boston University News Service
It was nighttime. The doors were locked. An overhead sign read “enter as strangers, leave as friends” in slanted, white letters. Mohammed Badran glanced at the sign, then at the swaying bodies that thronged his tea bar. He recognized them all: his three business partners, who nodded in his direction, Hammoudeh, the 10-year-old boy who sold gum on Rainbow Street, but now taught Arabic to a group of dread-locked expatriates, his wife, Mona, his sister, Lubna, his ex-employee, Tha’lab, or Fox and friends he had made over the years.
As the ground trembled to a boosted bass and dancing feet, he promised himself he would never forget the concrete floors, the warm hues, the drum circles and the five wooden steps that led to the cult of Turtle Green Tea Bar.
“No, really. It was a cult, unfortunately,” Badran said in a Zoom interview, a smile touching the creased corners of his eyes. “The bond was too powerful. It took part of my soul. I had to be present, always. It needed so much energy to sustain.”
That night, waves of emotions overtook him, some dark, some sweet and others mixed like tea blends, locking his shoulders and elbows into place. He knew it was time to let go after 11 years of wavering successes. He saw the arrival of the pandemic as an opportunity to bid farewell to the place he had given himself to for so long.
Badran closed Turtle Green Tea Bar on the evening of December 30, 2020, but only after organizing a heart-felt, mini-concert series, dubbed The Tea Party, where underground Jordanian artists performed at the tea bar one last time.
The end did not rattle him, as it would many middle-aged entrepreneurs; it only evoked images of boiling frogs. He said he would rather have his brainchild survive in memory than die in boiling waters. Just like his father, Badran is pragmatic, usually unattached — and to some degree, he is forgetful — perhaps for his own good.
“Wherever he looks, he finds an opportunity,” Lubna Badran, his sister, said in a phone interview. “And everywhere he goes, he pours his soul. You’ll find him in the colors, the hung artwork [and] in the furniture. It breaks my heart that Turtle Green had to close, but he knows what he is doing.”
And today, three things matter more to Mohammed Badran than Turtle Green Tea Bar: tea blends, board games and the thrill of knowing himself well enough to move forward.
Badran is bald, 42, and typically clad in industrial colors, with gadgets glinting on his wrist or in his ears. Doe-eyed and dimpled, he smiles often and fills spaces with jokes, guttural laughter and Kung Fu Panda references.
He will call you by your first name to form camaraderie with you and mumble to himself often, pausing to get his thoughts in line. His sentences vary in length and are peppered with English. His Jordanian dialect is present, Arabic unswerving.
As an undergraduate student in Irbid, a city north of Jordan with a college-town air, he often huddled on battered mattresses with his friends under neon lights in the toe-numbing cold. He would spend hours there discussing political philosophy and religion. Badran often carried their discussions with him to bed. Throughout the day, he dwelled on them, and in a slow, brewing process, transformed them into business ideas in his head. Three of those friends, Muhammad Abdullah, Ghaith Salameh and Fadi Zumot, would later become his business partners and co-owners of Turtle Green Tea Bar.
One such idea shot through him one day when he completed his master’s degree in hotel and restaurant management at the University of South Australia.
“I was at a crossroads,” Badran said. “Either I continue working a normal job abroad or I return home and start my own thing. So, I called my friends from my college days, asked them what they were doing with their lives and how they felt about starting a new project with me.”
They called it Theatre Cafe, because one of the four partners, Muhammad Abdullah, had a band and dreamed of a casual spot for performers where they could sip cappuccinos during intermission. Badran thought of it more practically. To him, it was a project that simply combined live music, food and beverages. They dove into it for a year, no brakes.
“We are nine years apart, Mohammad and I,” Lubna said. “I used to see everything — how they gathered in this room, spent days and nights working on this thing, writing ideas down and imagining.”
But as Theatre Cafe began to lose its luster, Badran foraged for new ideas in his mental catalog. He thought back to Australia, to the time he spent at earthy cafes and wood-laden shops. Jordan’s cafe and beverage market was arid — no comparison, he thought to himself. It needed some kind of twist. And Badran was not interested in the grab-a-coffee-and-rush-to-work lifestyle. He wanted something slower, calmer, “more zen.” Turtle-like and green.
“Tea!” The idea thundered through him.
The four partners opened Turtle Green Tea Bar in 2009 in Amman, with the help of Abu Ali, a contractor who often carried a Hilti hammer drill over his shoulder and barked at law enforcement at night. The store instantly gained traction, drawing customers from every corner of the kingdom. It became a hot spot for students, artists, musicians and people who wanted an hour of free wifi.
As months went by, Badran applied what he called “the three-tea formula” to his work. When people thought of tea shops, they imagined three stereotypes: those that offered high, British tea time with scones and cucumber and cheese sandwiches, those that offered spiritual, medicinal East Asian tea blends that are good for one’s liver, and those that offered traditional tea blends that reek of wild herbs and taste of home or dirt.
Badran sought out a fourth prototype: Home of “the alternative drink,” he called it. A place that sold drinks with stories and functions behind them.
“I didn’t want us to engage in toxic, intimidating tea cultures,” Badran said. “So we worked on our own blends. Jabal Amman, Sahrawi, Dafi Albak (Warm Your Heart). We created them to communicate with the people. When they started to sell more than the other blends we imported from China, we realized we were doing something right.”
He sat them down. The tools hung on the walls. Tha’lab, Badran’s tea apprentice, sat in the kitchen, which they called Al-Mashtal, or the nursery.
His aunt, a stout woman with pearl earrings and lines by her eyes, sat on a rocking chair somewhere in his mind, ready to judge. He always imagined her when he mixed his teas: what would she say about this flavor?
The mango-vanilla green tea blend was next on the list.
“So, what do we think?” Tha’lab asked. Badran echoed the question so as not to leave out his imaginary aunt.
“It smells good. But maybe for a shampoo,” said Badran. “What function would it have? What story would it tell?”
Tha’lab considered the questions, then returned to mixing.
“From 2009 to 2011, we worked together on Turtle Green’s tea blends, lunch items and desserts in the nursery,” Tha’lab said over the phone. “I learned a lot from him in that space. Even when I messed up, he would blame the system, not me. To him, people are faultless. It’s the system that always requires tweaking.”
If anything, Badran loathes over-thinkers and likes to compare his business endeavors to his Lego sets and board games, which mount in dozens on shelves in his office. Once he completes one, he begins the next with no hesitation or attachment.
Today, Badran is a business-to-business tea supplier, providing exclusive Turtle Green blends and tea-training services to cafes, restaurants and bars across the kingdom. He is also working on Tea Turtle, a concept tea house “where you get to enjoy fresh tea blends from herbs grown indoors.”
His favorite saying is buried deep in a long list that he keeps on his smartphone.
“I do believe this, wholeheartedly,” Badran said: “It’s better to wear yourself out than to rust.”