Sunday, June 2, 2013

Scenes from Matajer

1. Took the free shuttle to Matajer shopping center tonight for the last time, not really to buy groceries (why buy groceries 24 hours before departure?), but to visit the place one last time.  En route the shuttle driver, a kind Indian man, asked, "Where's Madame tonight?"

2. Got a man'oushe with soujuk (a spicy sausage that's popular in Armenia and parts of Lebanon, but is often on menus at man'oushe stands all over the region) and cheese at the bakery there.  The woman at the cash register asked, "Where's Madame tonight?"  Only took a couple months to become "regulars" at the closest bakery.  I told her Nicole's already in the U.S. and that I'm joining her tomorrow.  "Going on holiday?" she asked.  I was really sad explaining to her that the U.S. is home.  She was, too, and I don't think it's just because she's losing a loyal customer.

3. A gaggle of Catholic nuns was walking around the shopping center.  I'm kicking myself for not introducing myself, because now I'm wondering what in the world a group of nuns was doing in Sharjah.  Nuns rarely go on holiday, what with the vow of poverty, and nobody really goes on holiday here in June.  There are a couple Christian churches in Sharjah, and ex-pats are free to worship as they please (the sheikh even donated a bunch of land on which to build churches for us, which was a pretty cool thing to do actually), BUT...proselytizing is very illegal.

4. Earlier, my friend Hamada and his family took me out to lunch in al qasbah neighborhood for some great Lebanese food (Shababeek restaurant) and company.  A nice farewell lunch with a great new friend.

The international language of the photo-op

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince sits by roadside with ‘lost’ schoolgirl till dad comes for her

 Really interesting news report.  The story mostly serves as an extended caption for this picture:

The story is a features story, not a news report, and, really, is not all that different than coverage given to royal families in the West.  I could totally see a story about a member of the British monarchy doing something kind to a person-on-the-street.  It makes for a cute story.  Fascination with the life of royals is something that exists in the "East" and the "West."  And the notion and function of "the  photo-op" also crosses cultural boundaries.

What is more interesting to me, though, is the tone of the article.  Granted, this is from a feature story, not a front page news story, but, still, note the tone: "In another incident that shows the great humility and love that the leaders of the UAE have for their people..."  The press does not necessarily have the prerogative to critique leaders here, to be sure.  And there's a tradition (which is the case in most monarchies) of speaking in flowery language about royals.  The story goes on to list a bunch of words of praise that various people on facebook used when they saw the picture: "Like son like father. God bless the UAE."

Actually, this reminds me of how conservative a.m. radio shows in the U.S. describe American media's descriptions of Barack Obama.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Nicole and I decided that Bahrain was our honeymoon, even though our trip there came nearly fourteen years after our wedding.  On our last weekend together in the Emirates (at least this trip!) we took a very short flight from Sharjah Emirate to the island nation of Bahrain and found the country pretty, interesting, and maybe best of all distinct from other places we've visited in the region.

Bahrain's actually a collection of islands (think of Hawaii) but they're small and very close to one another.  If not for the constant vistas of the blue waters of the gulf, you wouldn't even notice you were crossing a bridge from one island to the next.  Bahrain's one of the only countries where Shi'a Muslims comprise a majority, though the Kingdom is ruled by Sunni royalty closely aligned to the ruling families of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.  The ruling elite has kept recent demonstrations and uprisings pretty much in check and we saw absolutely no evidence of the protests, even in the capital city of Manama where a lot of the demonstrations have occurred.

Bahrain's connected to Saudi Arabia by a 20-kilometer bridge which facilitates easy travel between the countries (at least for Saudis and Bahranis--it's hard for non-Muslim Westerners to get visas to Saudi unless they work there), and there are loads of Saudis most everywhere in Bahrain.  They're visible because they are generally wearing traditional Gulf Arab clothing.  Their money is everywhere too.  Literally.  When you buy something, you often get part of your change back in Saudi money.

We stayed right on the beach (thus it felt like a honeymoon) and swam A LOT during the weekend.  The Persian Gulf is very warm, very salty, and very blue.  Good seafood, of course, and one night we ate at a little dive along the water and had grilled kingfish (very popular all over the Gulf), and also a really rich and tasty combination of shrimp and crab meat in a cream sauce.  The National Museum was walking distance from our hotel, so we managed to learn quite a bit about the ancient civilization that inhabited present-day Bahrain: the Dilmun, made famous in the Epic of Gilgamesh as the dwellers of an island where nobody gets sick.  Fun fact: The Dilmun created burial mounds, humongous ones, and buried the dead with sacrificial snakes housed in their own decorative bowls.  The Qulat-al-Bahrain, the centuries-old fort, is the very, very unique centerpiece of the island's heritage.  The outermost walls were built during Portuguese colonization but inner portions are much older, for example, dating to early Islamic dynasties who ruled here just a few years after the birth of Islam.

One of the great things about the region is that, if you love history, you can learn about eras and peoples more obscured compared the Greeks and Romans.  It's one of the reason going to Petra, Jordan, home of the Nabateans, is so unforgettable.  Same goes for visiting Bahrain and finding out about the Dilmun.

Pics here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What is Emirati cuisine?

It's almost as difficult to answer that question as it is to answer the question "What is U.S. cuisine?"  Emiratis are in the minority (somewhere around 15-20% of the population) in the Emirates, which partly explains why "Levantine" (Lebanese, Syrian, etc.) Arab dishes, not to mention Indian and Iranian foods, are more common here.  And for a whole host of cultural and historical reasons, Lebanese and Indian folks are more likely to open restaurants, which makes their cuisine more accessible and familiar to outsiders.  (I remember when the Super Bowl came to Detroit in 2006 and the local papers tried to tell visitors what "Detroit foods" they should try: shawarma sandwiches, gyros, coney hotdogs...)

Anyway, our friend Rana took Nicole and I to the northern Emirates yesterday.  Rana and I needed to conduct some interviews at a college in Ras al Khaima (RAK for short) and, of course, Nicole's goal is to visit all seven Emirates while we're here, so she joined us for an interesting drive an hour or so north of Sharjah through the desert.  The work at the University went well after an exciting diversion.  We stopped in "downtown RAK" to get directions at a cell phone store.  The manager, a Syrian like Rana, happily offered to have us follow him to the campus since the route there is confusing thanks to road construction.  We inadvertently followed the wrong car.  Our "lead car" pulled into a driver's training facility, which seemed odd.  We pulled up next to the car, which had tinted windows, and the driver didn't roll down his window, which also seemed odd.  Two Indian guys got out--that seemed oddest of all.  We laughed pretty hard at that point, got directions, and were on our way.

We met with various administrators at the small, "start up" campus and had a productive couple of hours.  Afterward, cruising RAK, Nicole spotted a traditional Emirati cafe along the Gulf (here's where the cuisine comes back into the story...): low tables, outdoor seating on cushioned benches, no plates and silverware--sharing from common bowls is the norm--unless you really pester the waiters, great views of the water, no ladies present except Nicole and Rana.  Is Emirati eating really all that different from other Arab restaurants?  Put it this way: they didn't have bread.  Yes, you heard that right.  No pita.  No khoobez.

We shared some interesting dishes.  Dango, actually more South Asian than Emirati, is like a boiled chickpea dish with lots of cumin sprinkled on top.  Harees is also pretty hard to connect to one specific geographic or cultural group--we had it in Armenia and Lebanon too and it's very popular in Iraq, especially around Ashoura commemorations.  It's boiled wheat and chicken, cooked down into a porridge (Rana hates it).  Fu'ul (fava beans) was served room temperature with salt and lemon.  More "purely" Emirati was the sweet treat khabees, a kind of paste made from sugar and semolina (and possibly saffron and cardamom--any experts out there?).  So even a traditional Emirati cafe is cosmopolitan and hybrid, but very very tasty.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Iranian cuisine

Brunch is trendy in nearby Dubai, especially on Fridays.  Schools and most workplaces shut down on Friday to honor the Islamic day of prayer, so many people choose to sleep late and meet up with friends for a big meal around 1:00 or so.  From what we've heard some of the brunches are opulent--sushi, chocolate fountains, champagne (drinking is legal in Dubai, unlike Sharjah), prime rib, Arabic mezzes and sweets--and can cost upwards of 400-500 dirhams (over $100).  Too pricey for us, but Nicole and I found a brunch option that sounded like an interesting, affordable, less touristy experience: The Iranian Club.

The Iranian Club provides a kind of cultural home for Iranians living in the UAE, hosting programs and events and also a beautiful restaurant where Vali Heydari, shown above with yours truly, takes great pride in his craft.  I made him promise to contact me if he ever decides to open a restaurant in the U.S.; in fact, if you look closely, he's holding my card.

Vali's version of "Friday brunch" is popular with Iranian families, in fact I only noticed one other Western couple, but anyone's welcome (women must cover their heads).  At 75 dirhams (about $20) for the buffet, it's probably the most expensive meal we've eaten here, but definitely worth it.  My favorites were the ghalie mahi, a fish stew with greens, and the ash e reshte, a popular breakfast soup with greens, garbanzo beans, and pasta.  Nicole was partial to the rice dishes, most of which had some combination of saffron, herbs, and dried fruits including currants.

They also have great dolmas.  They stuff tomatoes, baby zucchini, and baby eggplant.  Middle Eastern mezze, pretty much obligatory on any buffet, are good too, especially the baba ghanooj which they top with fresh pomegranate seeds.  Khorake goosht was lamb shank falling off the bone (it looked and tasted like goat but Vali says it's lamb so I believe him).  Excellent meal.  Now to convince the chef to move to Michigan.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sheih Zayed Grand Mosque, redux

Okay, I went to the Grand Mosque back in February, before Nicole arrived, with a group from my University.  It's probably the most magnificent site to visit in the entire country.  It's down in Abu Dhabi, by far the largest of the emirates and the one farthest from Sharjah.  Abu Dhabi is about a two-hour drive south, so the ideal thing to do on the second of our two days with the rental car.  Here are Nicole's pictures of the Mosque--it's well worth clicking through and checking them out, as the place is breathtaking.  I won't repeat all the cool facts about the SZGM, just one: the main prayer room has the largest carpet in the world.  Okay, two: it also has the third largest chandelier.  Just check it out--it's United Arab Emirates prestige and extravagance in service to a holy place instead of a shopping mall!  Check it.