Their bodies are asbestos, seemingly unfazed by heat. They sit low, ready to spring into action when duty calls. When duty does call, they react at supersonic speeds – 300 every hour, one every 20 seconds – with a level of precision that escapes the ordinary man. It would break our backs to be them, but they make it look effortless. Their faces are wrought with bewitching beauty and silent sadness, that profound duality of the archetypal brooding super hero.
But the Afghani bakers in Naif wear no capes. Wisely so, since any additional layer of clothing when you’re manning a fiery oven for 12 hours a day is suicide.
Faisal, Abdul Raouf and Ebrahim are three of the six-person dream team at Adrar Bakery, baking the bread that rescues many a solitary stew simmered in homes around Soor Street in Deira. The first owner who fired up Adrar’s ovens forty years ago was from Ghazni in Afghanistan, on the road between Kabul and Kandahar, towards the eastern border with Pakistan. He sold the bakery in 2005 to his friend in the village, Faisal’s ‘chacha,’ who in turn brought Faisal on board four years ago as an apprentice. Connecting bakers across the generations is the proud written legacy of the original founder, painted in blood red, cursive strokes of Perso-Arabic on the front door:
‘Uff Allah ummi jaan! Kithna accha hai Irani naan!’
(Uff Allah, my dear mother! How good is Iranian bread!)
For those who cannot read the Perso-Arabic script, there is the universally comprehensible scent of freshly baked bread. Invisible wisps of earthy, butterscotch air swirl around the unsuspecting passerby, holding him captive until the bakers settle his hunger with their baked ransom.
The menu at Adrar Bakery boasts six items all under three dirhams: the best-selling Afghani bread, the elongated Iranian bread, the thinner Pakistani and Iraqi breads and two types of stuffed rolls, ‘jatar’ and ‘joban.’ The code word for bread on this menu is ‘roti,’ while ‘jatar’ and ‘joban’ are the cryptic English transliterations of the Arabic words ‘za’atar’ and ‘jibin’ (cheese) as pronounced in Pashtu. It would be foolish to anticipate gourmet French cheese in a three-dirham roll; the bakers rough it out with triangles of heavily processed cream cheese, the type that retreats into melted undetectable oblivion when plunged into the oven. Those in the know will wager their coins for a secret seventh item: a two-foot long mixed ‘joban jatar’ roll. Paired with Chips Oman and Excellence hot sauce from the grocery down the street, this roll delivers a deadly blow to the most disciplined of diets.
Customers place their order through a window, peering up at the bakers who are raised above eye-level on an elevated platform. The platform is built around a vertically tunneled clay oven, better known as the ‘tanoor’ in the Middle East, the ‘tandoor’ in the Indian subcontinent, the ‘tinnuru’ in Semitic over 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
A hazy backdoor, its translucent tint peeling away with age, reveals a private workspace where white flour, water and yeast are cranked through an industrial dough mixer. Ebrahim sips chai next to a fat mattress of leavened dough, his face always a tooth away from a highly infectious smile. His warm, reassuring expression compensates for Abdul Raouf, often aloof and unapproachably handsome in his walnut-coloured kurta and mushroom-capped pakol.
When a roti is summoned, the gang falls into a silent, swift routine – a wordless game plan born out of repetition, muscle memory and intuition. Ebrahim plucks off a fistful of dough, rolls and tosses it out to the front room through a miniature window. Abdul Raouf’s hands are now set in motion. For the Afghani roti, he hammers the dough with a wooden docker to ensure the bread stays thin and tender. For the stuffed roti, he yanks the dough out like a sock, smears it with cheese or za’atar using the back of a teaspoon, folds the edges over and pounds it down with his fist.
Faisal is the ‘Ustad’ – the master, the teacher, the gang leader – who presides over the oven. He stretches each roti taut over a hard cushion, slams it against the sides of the oven and watches vigilantly as it bubbles and browns, all without heat-safe gloves. His fingers have long lost their fear of fire. There is a precise moment when the roti must escape the oven, not a raw minute too early nor a burnt minute too late. At that ripe moment, Faisal brandishes his two iron sticks and deftly pries the roti away from the wall.
When asked if he takes weekends off, Faisal replies bravely in Urdu: in this work, there are no holidays.
Language and culture are no barriers to buying roti. Faisal claims that anyone who takes a fancy to their bread will buy at least one piece. As I stood melting by the door, a mixed delegation of residents – an Indian couple, a Chinese shopkeeper, an Afghani garage owner, a Pakistani tailor, an Iranian spice seller, an African trader, the Common Man – successively stuck their heads through the window. Faisal responded with perfectly browned rotis for everyone, every time.
But after the last person had left, he salvaged a distorted roll from the depths of the oven, not unlike a coiled snake paralysed in mid-motion before an attack. I looked at him quizzically: Had something gone wrong?
He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, sometimes, heroes make mistakes too.