Dubai rarely puts me in a receptive mood. I don’t know if it is the same for everyone, but I don’t notice as much minutia when I am in this, my current home city. This could simply be my senses shutting down due to lack of stimulation, because in spite of all the glitter and hype, Dubai is still a proto-city that lacks real character. When I’m in Bombay the assault on my brain is such that my consciousness expands to take it all in, and there is an almost surreal cognition of the strangest insignificant detail on a crowded street. Such insights rarely grace me when I’m living in Dubai.
It is not all hopeless. If you walk the streets of old Dubai, dive into its fragrant souqs, and get a taste of what this place is like below the surface, what it must have been like before the coming of the glass-fronted buildings and the too numerous sports cars at every street light, you sense a twinge of hope and also feel a sense of loss for a world that is being systematically destroyed by ruthless and thoughtless modernisation. You can sometimes feel the same twinge of greater things in a few of the modern developments, when you look around and realize that you are surrounded by people from a hundred different lands all carefully ignoring the stark but stunning display of lingerie in the latest Calvin Klein store front, but these occurrences are rarer than they should be. While the mass of differences mingle, this city has a way of getting them to average down to a lesser whole rather than rising to a harmonic crescendo.
Such are the perils of existence in the world’s current ‘it’ city, where the sum of the myriad variety of parts is often a luke warm whole, and where the collective hallucination of glamour eclipses all else. That being said, living in Dubai does have its flashes of reality and sometimes even down-to-earth humanity if you catch it when no one is looking. I was at one of the numerous fast-food and juice serving cafeterias a few nights ago. I’ve been going there for years, and being the curious observer that I am, I have always made mental note of some of the interesting people who come there and the exchanges that follow, but yesterday I noticed more. Perhaps it is a side effect of having recently returned from Bombay, and my mind desperately searching for detail, pattern, and interest in this tiny desert of a city, but yesterday I saw the forest and another ray of hope for Dubai living.
The establishment in question is located near Lamcy Plaza on a relatively busy side street of the Oud Maitha area, home to hospitals, schools, social clubs, and all manner of similarly respectable and dangerous places. In the 80s and 90s this was not much of a residential area, in spite of being adjacent to Karama, the most densely populated piece of real estate in the entire region. As the population exploded over the last decade and demand for new housing grew, with new waves of immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe, the Far East, and other foreign shores, this area began to sprout a wide selection of typically featureless, moderately luxurious apartment blocks that were the staple of Dubai living through the 90s. I remember scouting around the place for an apartment myself about 6-7 years ago, before my family moved into our current home. Even back then the place boasted an eclectic mix of people, with a Korean, Russian, and a Japanese food store all within spitting distance of each other, nestled between sprawling coffee houses where the largely local clientele flocked to get their fix with the latest flavour of shisha (the hookah pipe, or hubbly-bubbly). The advantage of this place is that it lay smack dab in the middle of the economic scale of things. It was not as unapproachable as some of the posher sections of town, nor was it as decrepit as some of the older areas. This encouraged and continues to encourage residence by a healthy mix of inhabitants from many walks of life and many more cultures.
Like the majority of small fast food outlets in the city, our cafeteria in question is also run by a group of enthusiastic Indians. Hailing from the heavily communist influenced southern state of Kerala in India, this community makes up for their constant state of politicking and striking back home, by being one of the most hard working and widespread peoples of the world today. It is a common quip amongst those who know that there is no country or place on this globe where you won’t find at least one small tea shop run by a Keralite. While that is said in jest, I like to think it is also said with a healthy dose of guarded respect for this enterprising bunch.
Parking in busy places such as these is one of the challenges of living in Dubai, and since we generally do not like to take the popular but strenuous route of stopping on the side of the road, we found some readily available space a short walk away and went in on foot. It was getting late and the place was a cauldron of activity. Bright mercury vapour lamps illuminated the three tables on the side walk, and inside the few tables were occupied, with the waiters buzzing about carrying plates and packages. Places such as this possibly receive the majority of their revenue from take-away orders and that’s exactly what we had in mind. We stepped into the tiny place to give our order to the man at the counter. Although we now know almost the entire menu by memory, we picked up the cacophony of colour and bad photography that usually serves as the menu in these places and browsed.
The small group of Filipinos on the table behind us exclaimed appreciatively as the waiter brought in their order, which consisted of various wraps and sandwiches, and a selection of phantasmagoric liquid concoctions in tall glasses. We waited at the counter as the man there dealt with another customer. A heavy set man of African descent, wearing a light tee shirt and jeans, was trying to decipher the photographic menu.
“What is this?” he asked, pointing.
“That meal,” said the man at the counter. “Fish Burger Special, with juice.” Special is the local cafeteria lingo to say that it is served with some French fries.
“What juice?” inquired the man in the tee shirt.
“What you want?” was the reply from the counter, more as a statement of fact rather than as a question.
“What you have?”
“Orange, pineapple, kiwi, …” The oratory went on as a decent list of fresh fruit juices were rattled out.
Finally, the big decision having been made, the man stepped aside. We gave our order and stepped out. The place is small, and gets stuffy when there are enough people in there, not to mention the fact that the single room is separated from the live heat of the traditional shawarma oven by only a pane of glass for added atmosphere — another common Dubai sandwich place convention. The night air was cool, considering it was almost May. The sidewalk outside the place is an extra-wide one, leaving enough space for a row of tables, a well positioned row of potted hedge, and enough room for the scant Dubai foot traffic to pass by without being inconvenienced.
A blonde woman in a white outfit walked past and entered the cafeteria. The African gentleman still stood resolutely near the counter, as out of the way as was physically possible in the circumstances. The woman picked up a stray menu from a table and proceeded to study it. From the way she did, I got the feeling she was a regular. She was of medium height, sported a pair of stylishly severe horn-rimmed glasses and white trousers. Her shirt had an even black and white chequered pattern, which in my mind made her look like a character in some modernist revival of Alice in Wonderland. From the look of her she was probably East-European, hailing from one of numerous former Soviet states. She gave her order, signalled with her hands that she would be back in a while, and then she walked briskly out on to the sidewalk. Darting across the street, she disappeared into the silver and red trimmed apartment building that stood there. I was right, she was obviously a regular.
Outside the cafeteria, two of the three tables were occupied. A small man wearing a pristine set of semi-official clothes sat alone at one. His table was laden with a whole roasted chicken, a plate of salad leaves and other raw vegetables, and a stack of Arabic pita bread. This is a common meal in these joints. A standing steel roasting cabinet with a glass front can often be seen out front, whole chickens rotating on their spits within. This image is as iconic of these establishments as is the inverted cone of shawarma meat that roasts there through the entire evening. There was something very French about the man’s face. Perhaps he was Lebanese. He sat there in silence, meticulously devouring the well browned bird on the table in front of him.
The occupants of the second table on the sidewalk were not as unobtrusive. A small group of young South-Asian men wearing bright coloured tee shirts and bell bottomed jeans had staked their claim on one of the tables while we were placing our order inside. They too had ordered a whole chicken with the works, amongst other things, and the waiter continued to add to the already over-taxed real estate of their white plastic table. It turned out they were from Pakistan, because a clearly audible discussion about the political situation back home was proceeding over the fast disappearing chicken and hummus on the table.
“Our politicians are worthless,” said one of the bunch, in Urdu. “They do nothing for the people.”
“But you can’t only blame them,” retorted another. “What have our people ever done to make things better or to deserve anyone better in government?”
Universally wise words indeed, I thought, and the discussion continued.
Many cars stop on the side of the road and honk to get their order taken in places like this — a rudimentary drive-through of sorts. A handful had already done so as we waited there, and now there was another loud honk. The man tending to the chicken shawarma stepped out of his hot cubicle and sprinted across the narrow road to the waiting green and white police SUV. Instructions were given through the lowered window. The man from the cafeteria ran back across the road, rummaged through a cooler inside the place, picked up something else from the counter, and jogged back across the street. The can of Mountain Dew with a bendy straw went into the vehicle, some coins came out, and then the Police drove away.
By this time the Pakistani group were completely lost in their conversation, and the lone man was almost done with his meal. An Arab man wearing a traditional white dishdasha walked up to the third table and sat down. From the cut of his garment, he was probably Egyptian or Syrian. He waved his hand about in the air till he caught the required attention, and went on to interrogate the waiter about the wares on offer. The African man, who was still waiting patiently inside, was finally rewarded with a plastic bag containing a tall sealed paper tumbler of juice, and your standard mystery Styrofoam burger box. He seemed satisfied as he stepped out, crossed the street and ducked into a small grocery store adorned in Coca Cola colours. Another police car stopped by and honked. This time the window rolled down and the driver indicated ‘one’ with his index finger in the general direction of anyone from the cafeteria who might be looking. One of the vigilant waiters went in and promptly returned with a small white Styrofoam cup of steaming chai (milky, brewed tea) which he delivered to the waiting law men.
Our order was almost ready. When we noticed the various white paper bags of sandwiches being assembled on a table inside, we went in to take stock. The bill was cleared, and as we stepped out laden with our dinner for the day, the blonde woman from earlier came out of the foyer of the building across the street and headed towards the cafeteria to pick up her food. While we walked towards the car, the Arab man on the outside table was gesturing impatiently, a pair of Chinese women in noisy boots were walking by at a brisk clip, and in a 3rd story balcony across the street, an Arab women with heavy make-up was having an animated conversation on her mobile phone, punctuated by many utterances of habibi (my dear).
Living in Dubai rarely puts me in a receptive mood, as a result of which I often don’t notice the little details hiding behind the exterior veneer of this dwarf metropolis. But sometimes, ever so often, the veil of chrome is lifted and the city reveals flashes of reality and even humanity. It only requires a second look and a fleeting glance at the creatures that pass you by on the pristine tiled sidewalks of the vacant streets.
Photograph: In a previous lifetime, I once did a menu design for a shawarma joint. Despite my better judgement, I was ordered by the client to have a large chunk of chicken shawarma meat graphically depicted on the cover, with bread and an oven lurking on the back. Not one of my proudest moments, but I thought it was particularly appropriate for this slice-of-life about shawarma joints and living in Dubai.