I predict that most of my nights this summer will be spent in Mamzar.
Mamzar is the sea-facing neighbourhood of Deira with its own beach park, corniche, running track and an enviable row of beachfront villas. At night, Mamzar transforms into a late night hub of testosterone-powered billiards cafes and Dh1 chai drive-throughs.
Over the past five years, my husband has occasionally driven us to a congested parking lot sandwiched between two rival chai cafes – Rabash versus Filli – and a mosque. I never noticed the mosque at the other end of the lot until recently. The thirsty queue of cars and the myopic focus to honk down a ‘chai runner’ has always jammed my vision.
The bedtime tales of chai fanaticism are numerous enough to keep you up all night. Rabash once poured their chai for a gentleman who pulled up in a taxi. The taxi driver approached the cafeteria to probe what was so special about their chai that the customer had taken a taxi to drink it – all the way from Fujairah.
Two weeks ago, we stumbled upon another branch of Rabbash – this one with a double ‘b’ – about 850 metres away from the old one. While Rabash versus Filli was the game in the old arena, this is a competitive league of late-night cafeterias and restaurants. On my first visit, I was compelled by curiosity to order Mishmish & Toot’s ‘spaghetti ice cream.’ It was disappointingly not available. I settled on a mundane cup of Softee dressed with passion fruit sauce instead, a healthy move that I instantly regretted when my eyes strayed to an ice cream drowned in melted Snickers on the next table.
Here’s the backstory on this strip. It came into existence about two years ago when DP World dunked their fingers into the midnight chai game and leased out twenty shops to different commercial tenants. Cars that used to roll up by the mosque steered around and drove up to the upgraded hangout.
The team at the old Rabash heaved a sigh of relief.
Since its opening by the mosque over a decade ago, Rabash gradually built up its clientele to a level that, along with the Filli Café next door, clogged up the entire parking lot and became a liability for both the café owners and Mamzar’s residents. The chai obsession simmered a growing frustration in the neighbourhood: incessant honking, the lumbering Legoland of cars blocking the mosque and the landfill of Styrofoam cups that would appear every night.
C.C. Basheer is one of the partners who purchased Rabash from the original Emirati owner who started the cafeteria in 2003. He hails from Nadapuram in Kerala, the community that supplies most of the talent behind chai cafeterias across the UAE. His cousin, Rafeeq Memunda, claims that his fellow townsmen have tipped the kettles at least 6,000 chai cafeterias across the country: ‘Nadapuram feeds the UAE!’
Basheer explains that while most of the Keralite owners call home to ask their families to pray for increased business, he had to put in a special unheard-of request to reduce the customer queues to a manageable level.
Places like Rabbash are proof that chai can brew big business. DP World stirred up much-needed change with their new row of retail spaces and helped rebalance traffic in the area. The old Rabash was grateful to serve about two thousand fewer cups every day and see a sense of calm return to the adjacent parking lot. Their new branch more than compensates for the lost revenue.
Basheer’s son, Abdul Basith, describes the bustling late-night strip as ‘the City Walk of the area’ – though you would need a diametrically different wardrobe for Mamzar. The dress code is sweatpants, not stilettos, though no one would spill their chai if you landed up even in pajamas, because you’re more likely to order in your car than sit al fresco.
The standard Mamzar menu has always been basic and cheap: chai, shawarmas, burgers, juice and milkshakes. The DP World tenants have innovated to keep in line with new-age food trends that spark nostalgia for those who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s in Dubai. Frothy Malteser milkshakes, Dutch pancakes heaped with pulverized Oreos or cheesecake smeared with caramelized Lotus biscuit sauce are all the rage these days. It may seem cartoonish to watch grown men tucking into a Softee swirl studded with Kinder bars, but Mamzar is like an animated movie. You need it every now and then to lighten the drama of being an adult.
On my last trip, Basheer thrust a cup of baby pink chai into my hands. It was Kashmiri chai, which is a misnomer because there’s no tea in this chai at all. It is milk boiled with rose syrup, nuts and sugar, a sleep-inducing sweet brew that is perfectly timed at 3am when the cafeterias start lowering their shutters.
Some will ambitiously reopen a few hours later, others only after 5.30pm when people are willing to brave the outdoors again. I am one of those people who goes into hiding until after sunset, when I can finally emerge and redeem the day with friends, chai and pocket-change. Summer days drifting away, to, uh oh, those summer nights.