Eating Out In Dubai...Satwa Style

  It came as a longing for cheap food, the kind you find in Saudi Arabia in every corner. Foul. Tamees, Shawerma. Roz Bukhari. It’s oddly uncommon here in the UAE. But then maybe that is due to the fact that Dubai is levels more organized than, say, Jeddah.
  City life, run by frigid corporate systems, has been getting to me. I was starting to feel desensitized and isolated in a shell of routine and pretenses. I wanted to come alive again even if only for a few hours. Eating out in Dubai, I am often presented with dazzling options. But I needed more. Perhaps the better word is less.
So I sent a shoutout to my friends on Facebook. Who knows where I can find cheap food places in Dubai? By cheap I did not mean 30 dhs cheap, or even 20 dhs cheap. By cheap I meant developing country cheap where you not only sample the flavor of the food but also the flavor of the person who made it.
  Osama responded to me right away. A Saudi entrepreneur who lives in Dubai and a friend of mine. Satwa, he said. In a big dazzle ‘em city, it’s the part that reminds me of Jeddah the most. So off we went in search of the drippiest, greasiest food the price of birdseed.
  Cheap food we did find and so much of it. But what we did not except to find were two things that we could not acquire when eating out in Dubai: simplicity and pure childlike fun.
  Here are three places we visited:
  It promised tea under a blue metal canopy surrounded by a hedge. It was a an inviting enclosure that, in the dying of the daylight, glowed in all of its green-tinged fluorescent glory. It was hot and humid and absolutely perfect for Indian food.

We sat on hard metal chairs and laughed our hearts out it was simple and silly. All the cosmopolitan pretenses fell apart to let our inner Jeddawi children through. This was all very familiar…Indian food came at last along with sweet lassi and not a drop of tea.

The conversation came faster: The meaning of life. The masks we put on in our lives in Saudi Arabia. Spiritual ascension. The real meaning of depression. Intuition…and all those gorgeous topics.

The waiter, we tried to engage but he very little English and was as shy as a moth so we left him alone. He was not a part of our quest this evening. But I knew someone would be.

Second: The hardware store. The two Indian men must have thought I was a loon because of the way I was cooing at how the PVC pipes were stacked. To them, the pipes were simply items to be used in menial jobs. I saw lines and shapes, art tumbling around the store. For some reason I’ve always been fascinated by hardware stores. Never used anything, mind you, but tools present to me possibilities of all the things you could do. And nothing is more seductive than that.

  This store was not the only spot where I could see lines and shapes. I saw lines and shapes everywhere, in the light breaking the shadows and in the people in their small moments and almost imperceptible expressions that gave away everything about them. In Satwa, in contrast with the rest of Dubai, life was revelational and revealing. Osama and I felt it in ourselves. No pretenses. More wonder. A sort of melding with the weather so that we ourselves became the humid breath of the world.

Third: We found our guy. The character of the evening. 3ammo Al Irani, I called him. You know how you can get into a deep conversation with a stranger and then realize hours after you’ve parted that you never asked them their name?

Osama and I walked into an apothecary, quite by mistake. My impression, by the straw hats hung outside the door was that it was a handwoven goods store. As soon as you walk in, however, you are overpowered by all those spices and perfumes that, when stored up together for too long begin to weave a thick magic of their own.

  Some of the ingredients were used for magic too. The Iranian man told me that Morroccan ladies often come to him to buy raw pearls in a jar to cast love spells with.
  The guy must have been in his sixties or above. As sweet and shrewd as Saffron. We talked with him about the ingredients in his store, his life of forty years in Dubai, the Arab world. He spoke to us with an acquired Arabic that often tripped and fell and quite endearingly. Finally, I got to ask him the question I’ve been meaning to ask someone in Satwa who had something of meaning to offer.
  “What is happiness to you?”
  He smiled like he’d been waiting to be asked. He immediately told us with the confidence of a man who has lived long enough to exclude all the wrong answers: “My health. If you have your health then you don’t need anything else. And gratitude. Everything else comes when you have these two.”
  I was humbled. Could I ever come to this conclusion myself in my own path? Or something similarly bare and stripped of excess?
  “Your shop is all about health, isn’t it?”
  “Yes! Yes it is!” he said, laughing.

  There are pockets of genuine experiences in Dubai, opposite to what I thought. Ever since I moved here, I felt the pretenses that people wore, like chain mail but transparent. They were different from the pretenses that people in Saudi wore. In Saudi, it was often fear and shame that caused people to wear masks to hide who they were and what they thought. While here, in Dubai, my hunch was that what drove these pretenses was survival, fear of failure, ambition, competitiveness and the constant race with time. I can feel myself wearing these pretenses as I head off to work in that big glass building that I am currently bound to. I become hard and efficient and mindful of all my mistakes - because there can’t be any! In Satwa, where money is not the friend or the enemy, and only health is happiness - as the Iranian man would put it - I stopped feeling like a machine and the juices of the human fruit that I was, spilled out.
  I miss this, I thought to myself. The corporate world teaches us to count our fun by the minute, by the day and put it all in the system. You watch the clock. You time your meals. You have two days at the end of the week to begin to find yourself again and by the time you’ve found yourself, it’s the first day of the week all over again.
  So where am I going with all this….? It’s a question I ask myself everyday. But I do know, that I was want more evenings like this in places like this, Satwa style, where you peel yourself and operate in the world in complete abandon.

  So next time when you think of eating out in Dubai, how about you drop the glam for an hour or two? You might find yourself.


Ground Zero: Living and Working in Dubai

  I've decided to name my apartment ground zero.
  I came here after a perfect storm of life things that huffed and puffed and blew me in this direction. Too many days, I arrive back from work and curl up into a ball and cry because of the stress, of the heartbreak, the confusion, the worry, the gaping demands of a life in a city that never stops devouring. And I’ve never been completely on my own in my life. I’m a thirty year old who is just learning the things a twenty-year old in the US, for example, is just beginning to experience when she leaves the family nest. That makes me ten years late by US Central Time.
  My body is changing already. My tolerance for being on the go and for staying up all night is starting to dwindle. My heart is beaten up and bruised and I’m only just learning about interest rates on personal loans with the bank. Living and working in Dubai was not what I imagined it would be.
  My apartment doesn’t have much furniture. Most of the time, there are too many dishes to wash as I don’t have a dishwasher. The floors are constantly telling me not to sit down on them because they’re too hard. The sofa I bought from Ikea does not have cushions to soften my fall when I just want to give in to distress. My bed is not accompanied with nightstands yet so my “by the bed” items are either on the floor or in bed with me. The doors don’t close properly and I only have one set of bed sheets.
  I’m not complaining. The reason I’m writing all this down is because for a long time since I’ve been here, I’ve been looking at this place and constantly picturing what it should look like, all the things that are missing, until my head started to hurt. Until my body felt tired and rejected. Until I felt trapped in a place that just will not feel like home. I’ve also looked at my body, at my heart, at my days, at my work here and they did not feel like home either.
  But I let go of that tangle today.

  Today, something different happened. One of the presenters on our morning show, decided to shave his head on air, to express his solidarity with women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t realize that my sun was rising until I was watching him shaving his thick dark Aladdin hair on set. I felt inexplicable gratitude to be a part of it, to have been the person that facilitated this heart-felt gesture.
  It’s these things that happen, sometimes through little or no contribution on your end, that come as a breathtaking reminder of who you are and where you are. I realized I have not appreciated myself. Or maybe I have been appreciating myself over and over in the past four months. I’ve been repeating it, writing it, looking myself in the mirror and affirming it but myself has not been listening. She was still busy moving boulders from the driveway.

  I came home today, after a walk in the park, and looked around. I’m growing here. I was grateful to have been the person who facilitated the growth of me. Just like our presenter’s shaved head, I will grow back, probably in no time at all. And in Aladdin hair thickness.
  Too often, your growth feels wrong, like you’re missing all the steps or mixing up all the words. Something is wrong. With you. Growth actually feels like wrenches are being thrown at your head and you’re not allowed to duck. You’re not allowed to do the “right” thing either. You constantly feel like there’s some cosmic manual out there and you’re failing at every instruction. I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life right now. I really don’t. I only know one constant: I am documenting it.
  So, one way I’m making peace with the path I chose here in this city is this: Dubai is the land of construction. Buildings come up here so quickly, you have no time to admire the beams and the concrete before it’s some magnificent thing spiraling toward the sky. I’ve been nothing but beams and concrete in the past few months, so raw and rigid. Things have been pounding and hurting and hammering, making way for the design to rise from the ground - or from this very sterile white ceramic floor.
  When I was a student in Boston, my apartment was the landmark of coziness and lovely hospitality. If you slept over, I would practically put you to bed. If you came to watch a movie, I would have had snacks and warm creamy things for you to drink. My apartment now might not have the coziest throws or blankets. The smell of cookies is not wafting from my kitchen (although I have been wolfing down Chips Ahoy cookies like there’s no tomorrow). I might not be the best hostess, right now. Because this is ground zero. We’re doing some serious growing here. And if you're living and working in Dubai, maybe we can meet and swap growth stories.

Note: You can share your growth stories on this blog. Just go to Your Story on the website menu. You can drop in and tell a story anytime :)