A cart-pusher crossed his hands in front of my car, signalling ‘no entry.’ It was a one-way road. I sheepishly turned around, gingerly avoiding the pedestrians and cyclists crisscrossing the road. Navigating through Naif is like playing Pacman – except that the monsters come at you from all directions rather than down a neat dotted path.
My soundtrack was an Arabic podcast on ‘akhilaat masr shabiya’ – traditional Egyptian food. The six-minute interview with an Egyptian chef was on loop. It was one of my series of sincere attempts to learn Arabic. As I pulled up outside Souk Ash Shabi, I consoled myself that this third time listening to the chef had yielded an additional nugget of understanding. I now knew that in Palestine and Jordan, falafel is sometimes made with a mix of fava beans and chickpeas. ‘Makhloot.’
Souk Ash Shabi is one of the paradoxical ‘new traditional’ souks in Dubai. It hibernates in the neighbourhood of the old Maktoum Hospital, nautical miles below the radar of most tourists and residents. The only people milling around are men living or working in the area. I have fallen in love with this silent souk; its antiques, carpets and other wares feel ‘shabi’ rather than the gimmicks often hawked at the city’s more popular souks.
I turned off the car and paused the podcast at ‘kamoon,’ cumin. I was not at the souk to shop but to have an Emirati breakfast at Khalid Huriah Public Restaurant. This restaurant is a ‘public kitchen,’ the term used in this country for restaurants that prepare feasting quantities of traditional Emirati food like harees, ouzi and thareed. The owner is a well-known Emirati, the ex-chairman of the UAE Football Association and a cook whose culinary reputation precedes him.
Most Public Kitchens are takeaway-only operations or have grim dining areas that convince you why you’re better off eating at home. They also rarely have menus. An exception to that rule, Khalid Huriah is surprisingly inviting. It is a no-walls restaurant that spills into the souk, with a menu displayed along backlit panels on the columns around the gallery. The décor is a rather appealing mix of areesh-style (palm frond) lattice work, Persian carpets and embroidered pastel-hued cushions from Alice and Wonderland’s tea party. Makhloot.
There were seven minutes to go before the restaurant officially opened. I stuck my head into the kitchen and badgered the cook with a slew of questions, oscillating between my favourite Emirati breakfast dishes: balaleet versus khameer, dango versus regag, chebab versus luqaimat. I finally restrained myself to two and sank down on a pink cushioned bench, replaying the podcast from where I had left off – ‘wa basal akhdar’. And green onions. As I laboured over the technique of making Egyptian-style falafel, a veiled lady strolled up and sat across me. ‘We will eat breakfast together.’
My breakfast partner had been scoping out the restaurant when I entered, Snapchatting the décor as two tiny doll-like children flitted by her side. A third doll skipped into view. Her husband was in the background, occasionally appearing and then melting back into the corridors of the souk.
‘We come from Saudi’ she chirped, as if she could read my mind. The voice behind the veil was eager to connect. It was the perfect opportunity to practice Arabic. So I unplugged my earphones and did exactly what one does in such situations – I began talking to her in English. The fear of humiliation usually wrestles my determination to death.
The Saudi family was staying in a hotel all the way on the other side of town in Barsha. I was impressed that tourists had found the restaurant in such an obscure location. ‘We go everywhere in the car! Google maps! In Dubai, with Google Maps you can go everywhere.’ True, I had used Google maps to drive to the souk myself.
We had coincidentally ordered sweetened vermicelli capped with sunny tufts of omelet, better known as ‘balaleet.’ I stirred the aromatic sprinkling of powdery cardamom into the noodles, took a bite and found the nerve to utter a tentative phrase in Arabic. The veiled stranger was ecstatic – ‘Qwais! T’ekallam arabee! You speak Arabic!”
With my newfound confidence and windfall membership into the Arabic speaking community, we preceded to converse in a clumsy patchwork of broken English, broken Arabic and broken sign language. Between mouthfuls of fragrant noodles and savoury egg, we spoke about why she loved Dubai – everything here is ‘qwais!’ Qwais was exclaimed so many times with such gusto, I finally realized it meant some version of good: Nice! Excellent! Amazing!
We chattered on about where she lives in Saudi, why Dubai can be dreadfully expensive, how she adores Shah Rukh Khan, how Saudi and Emirati cuisine are very similar, how they drove eight hours from Riyadh only to see Dubai Mall full of Saudi tourists like her. How did she learn English? She gestured back by plucking imaginary laundry clips from the air; she picks up new words when she can from her husband, an English teacher in Saudi. Did her husband not want to eat? ‘No.’
Our istikhans of tea grew shallower as we compared our lives – mine with my cat, hers with her five doll-children, ‘mashallah’. Another two had since come into view, eaten a mouthful each and then flickered away. Minutes later, all five dolls rolled back into view on a cart ‘borrowed’ from one of the souk vendors, bursting into bouts of uncontrollable laughter as their makeshift train careened around the gallery.
As my breakfast partner rose to leave, we hugged over empty plates and tea cups. She and her family, each of whom had soaked up the souk in their own amusing way, receded into the shops until I was alone again. The cook brought out a second order that I had since forgotten – lacy, crêpe-like folds of regag glued together with egg and Kraft cheese – and another round of chai.
As I emptied my second tea cup, I left my earphones unplugged and the podcast paused. I was still mentally digesting the lingering scent of cardamom, the residual streaks of Kraft cheese, the sweet reminder that food can be a powerful broker between strangers if only we make ourselves accessible and even vulnerable. If only we seek to connect across cultures. If only we lower our thickest veils – our phones – and focus on the people across from us. If only we had more of these encounters in multi-cultural Dubai, how qwais would life be.