Seven trips to Jordan, and I still can’t stop thinking about the food.

It’s been almost two decades of living and traveling in the Middle East for me. In all this time, the best Arabic food I have had is in Amman, Jordan. After making seven trips over a two year period, I am convinced this is also where you find the region’s best hummus. My Syrian friends like to point out the best food is actually in Damascus. Which could very well be true, but since travel there is severely restricted I will have to stick to reminiscing about my incredible meals in Jordan instead.

I ate at all kinds of places – dives, hole-in-the-walls, nice restaurants – and tried traditional home-cooked dishes. My mother-in-law makes excellent makloubeh, a Palestinian dish of rice, chicken, spices, and eggplant that is served upside-down (makloubeh in Arabic literally translates to ‘upside-down’). In general, Arabs rave about mansaf, a fragrant rice and meat dish served with hot dehydrated yoghurt. While tasty, it is also extremely heavy. I prefer the flavours of makloubeh much more, probably because all the ingredients are slow cooked in one pot and taste so good together.

Hummus with meat and pine nuts, baked eggs with potato, falafel, fattoush, tea with fresh mint and khubz bread. The Arabic breakfast pictured below can be found in a small unassuming restaurant called Al Usra in the trendy area of Abdoun, and is a real treat. Dishes arrive within minutes and the table set-up is simple: no plates; just a napkin, Arabic bread and a plastic spoon. Mezze, or starters, like hummus and salads are served family style, so everything is dropped in the middle of the table for sharing.

Hummus with meat and pine nuts, baked eggs with potato, falafel, fattoush, tea with fresh mint and khubz bread
Arabic breakfast in the heart of downtown Amman

Too many tasty meals to name them all, but here are a handful of highlights:

  1. Knafeh, ubiquitous and abundant in Jordan, is used to mark just about any occassion. Knafeh is a Palestinian pastry made with flakey dough and stuffed with a salty cheese which melts when baked, and is topped with rosewater, syrup, and chopped pistachio. There are a few spots popular with the locals, and some are owned and operated by newly arrived Syrian refugees escaping war in their own country. We were frequent patrons of Nafeesah, and also tried Al Quds, which I thought was better. We didn’t get to try Habibah, which many consider to be the best (in hindsight, not necessarily a bad thing because I have overdosed on knafeh on multiple occasions). Read more about this delicious dessert and the unifying cultural role it plays in Jordan in Daoud Kuttab’s piece, “Jordanians celebrate sweet success with kanafeh.”

    A man serves traditional knafeh pastry at a sweets shop in Amman, Jordan
    Platters of different kind of knafeh, a popular Palestinian pastry made with flakey dough stuffed with cheese and topped with sweet syrup, rosewater, and pistachio
  2. Lamb shawarma from Reem. My husband can’t stop talking about this shawarma. In fact, most people can’t stop talking about this shawarma. So much so that it made it to the front page of the New York Times. Read about it here.

    People line up for shawarma at the super popular take out joint Reem
  3. Chocolate eclairs and petits fours from Fairuz Bakery. Located in the bohemian neighbourhood of Jabal Webdeh, this old school bakery makes incredible eclairs and delicious petit fours in a variety of flavours. They stick to the classics and have wisely stayed away from trendy desserts and fancy, complicated pastry. It is owner-run, and right across the street from Cafe Rumi, my favourite cafe in the world.
  4. Turkish coffee at Cafe Rumi. It’s certainly not the best Turkish coffee in Amman, and definitely overpriced. But this joint adds a lot of character to the bohemian vibe of the neighbourhood. Inspired by the Persian poet Rumi, everything from the concept to interiors and coffee cups have been created by the owner. It has indoor and outdoor seating consisting of small chairs and tiny tables low to the ground. It is wildly popular with expats and locals, and packed every day of the week.

    Decorative cups, Turkish coffee, and Turkish delight at Cafe Rumi in Amman, Jordan

High fashion, (more) music, and coffee in Lahore. A lot can change in for 4 short years.

A man walks across the street in the scenic neighborhood of Defence, in Lahore, Pakistan
A man walks across the street in the scenic and affluent neighborhood of Defence, in Lahore, Pakistan.

One of my favourite holiday destinations is Lahore, Pakistan, where I lived and worked for a year after finishing my graduate degree.

These days, I don’t travel to Lahore as often as I would like, but had the opportunity to visit last month after more than four years. Pakistanis make up one of the largest expat communities in the U.A.E., so both Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways have daily flights to different cities across the country. Admittedly, my timing was terrible. May marks the beginning of summer and unbearable levels of humidity. The short walk from the front door to the car leaves your fresh, starched kurta a damp mess. Frequent power outages in developing countries like Pakistan makes insulation from the heat a daily challenge.

But the weather in Lahore was nothing like I remembered, and evenings were pleasant enough to sit outside or explore the city. About a decade ago when I was intern with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, my drive to work meandered past a wobbly mound of garbage and household trash. The streets are still lined with beautiful old trees Lahore is known for, but swept clean of litter. From my base in central Lahore I saw lush greenery and people of all ages pounding clean pavements for their daily errands and walks. The megacity of Karachi in the south – population 27 million –  has outsourced it’s waste management to a Chinese company, and a similar arrangement had been made for Lahore. I would soon discover that this was just one of many changes that had transpired since my last visit.

It’s easy to summon despair over Pakistan’s prospects, given the reams of negative press it receives. But alongside the very real problems of poverty, corruption, illiteracy, and water scarcity, exist communities of creators, thinkers, problem-solvers, entrepreneurs, and celebrations of sufi saints.

Here are some of the things I discovered during my recent trip to Lahore:

  1. Pakistan Railways. In preparation for my trip, I spotted a stunning photograph of a train at a railway station in Lahore on Instagram by Pakistani photographer Salman Alam Khan. The caption read: “Lahore Railway Junction is the central railway station of Lahore. It was built in 1860. The station served as the the headquarters for the Punjab Railway before partition.”
    A photography by Pakistani photographer Salman Alam Khan of the Pakistan Railways station in Lahore, Pakistan. Taken from Instagram @thesalmanalam
    Photo credit: Salman Alam Khan @thesalmanalam

    I took a screen shot of the image and quickly sent it to my friend; I absolutely had to check out this historical site. Further research revealed it was one of many tracks laid by the British during colonial rule of the subcontinent and stretches from Torkham in the north to southern port city of Karachi, operating both passenger and freight trains.Holding a platform ticket at Pakistan Railways station in Lahore, Pakistan.

  2. We purchased platform tickets for 10 Rs. (10 cents American) and walked around, venturing inside a dining car which had tables adorned with white linen and a single red carnation. Our arrival coincided with the departure of an overnight train to Karachi. As the horn reverberated through the still night air, throngs of last minute passengers pushed and pulled, crushed by the weight of belongings packed in rope, plastic, cardboard, unstitched cloth, and suitcases. Amid hoots and cheers, the train heaved and pulled away from the platform. My friend remarked that many were probably on their way to celebrate an urs, or the death anniversary of a South Asian Sufi saint.  In a country with a staggering gap between the very rich and the very poor, it was heartening for me to see a relic of the past working to serve the needs of so many who cannot afford air travel, or the purchase of a vehicle.
  3. Cafe culture. There has been an explosion in the number of cafes since my last trip to Lahore four years ago. Both indoor and indoor, these cafes are serving up Italian espresso, handmade pastries, and artisan pizza in cute and stylish interiors. No Starbucks, which means homegrown, independent establishments have space in the market to compete. They are popular, and none more so than Rina’s Kitchenette, which I visited three times at their new location in Gulberg for their killer banofie pie. Yum.
  4. Organic, locally made beauty products. Pakistani women are known to put natural ingredients in their hair and on their skin. While making things by hand is the norm in Pakistani culture, commercially successful organic beauty brands are popping up. Leading the charge is KishMish Organics, a line of handmade skin and hair care items that is 100% natural and organic. It is the brainchild of Mariam Omar, a fierce, multitasking entrepreneur who simultaneously manages a beauty salon and is a single mother to two young children…and 10 pets! I tried the Papaya Fruit Mask and Miracle Cream, and noticed a marked improvement in the texture and appearance of my skin within days. If you can get your hands on these awesome products, be sure to stock up.
  5. Beautiful (and very expensive) high fashion. Pakistani textiles are beautiful, and the textile industry is the largest manufacturing industry in Pakistan. In the last decade, the fashion industry has seen explosive growth. Whereas a few designers dominated the retail landscape for high end traditional wear in the past, the market today is crowded with designers big and small, comfortable designing Pakistani and western wear alike and often blending the two to stunning effect. Top tier designers produce one-of-a-kind pieces, and charge heady prices. I walked into Faraz Manan’s boutique on M.M. Alam Road to enquire about the price of an outfit. Made with beautiful hand-stitched embroidery and gold beadwork on handmade rose-colored cloth, it had already sold for an astonishing USD 10,000. (Yes, totally outrageous. In a country marred by poverty, this is a reflection of the deep divide between the very rich and the very poor). Fortunately, one can find more reasonably priced options. While the trend is one of high mark-ups, today there is more choice and creativity in textiles.

    A model walks the runway in an outfit by Pakistani designer Sania Maskatiya at Beirut Fashion Week
    Pakistani designer Sania Maskatiya showcases her collection earlier this year at Beirut Fashion Week
  6. More and more music. I always get to experience live music when I travel to Pakistan. My friend is a talented and successful musician, and through her I listen to all kinds of new Pakistani music and meet other musicians. She showed me the inside of two professionally constructed independent music studios. Like the growth in fashion, Pakistan’s music industry has grown by leaps and bounds. I can no longer keep track of all the musicians and bands that exist today, working inside and outside the country. Musicians are now making their own independent production facilities with state of the art equipment, further expanding the space for artistic expression and supporting other artists. While religious extremists in other parts of the country rant and rave about the illicit nature of music and dance, the reality is they’re up against a formidable grass roots movement of musicians, producers, and increasing musical and artistic output. In fact, they’re pretty outnumbered, a fact that mainstream news consistently misses.

Rest Easy, Dubai. The Writer from The New Yorker Really Wanted To Go Shopping.

I love a thoughtful, well-written article that presents an original point-of-view and makes me think.

Andrew Marantz is a writer for The New Yorker who stopped in Dubai on a 12-hour layover on his way from New York to Sri Lanka with his wife a few years ago. Recently, he wrote an article about his time in Dubai titled “Dubai, the World’s Vegas.” He describes visits to two malls, Ski Dubai, and the top of Burj Khalifa. The essay is supplemented with photographs by a photographer named Ben Thomas.

Yikes. After all these years, was Dubai still being compared to Las Vegas? It was a cultural time warp of an essay. It reminded me almost immediately of another widely circulated article on Dubai from many years ago. Originality, it appeared, was not Mr. Marantz’s objective.

I pulled up A.A. Gill’s now infamous piece for Vanity Fair Magazine from 2011 called “Dubai on Empty.” The similarity between the two articles is uncanny. In his opening lines, Gill references a legendary fable as a lens for understanding Dubai. “The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real. It’s a fable, a fairy tale, like The Arabian Nights.” Marantz also makes a reference to fiction. Specifically, the fictitious life of Walter Mitty. “We passed the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, which boasts “the world’s largest collection of sand tiger sharks!,” and a multiplex, where we considered seeing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” before deciding that our current experience was already Mitty-esque enough.”

When Gill describes Dubai’s skyline as “the cover of a dystopian science-fiction novella,” Marantz proceeds to reprise the sentiment, adding, “The skyline, if that’s the right word for it, was garishly, unapologetically artificial. The city almost appeared to be a non-place in the literal sense, not just the anthropological sense—more like an architect’s rendering than an actual built environment.”

No article in Dubai is complete without mentioning the construction workers who have built this city. Gill describes the workers as Asian drones, who have “… the tough, downtrodden look of Communist posters from the 30s—they are both the slaves of capital and the heroes of labor.” Marantz concurs, albeit with less flair. He says, “We knew that, for many of the non-Emirati laborers who are largely invisible to the casual tourist, Dubai is worse than a non-place, closer to a dystopia.”

The collective use of identical words and ideas extends beyond publications like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. While observations about constructions workers are legitimate, accurate, and require urgent attention and immediate rectification by authorities, it is the reduction of a dynamic and rapidly changing city to a tyrannical wonderland that peddles a “harsh form of commerce” that is so pervasive it is now officially cheesy.

Photograph of man with camels in the dessert.
Stereotypical photographs of desert dunes and camels accompanied the writer’s article for The New Yorker Magazine. Photo credit: Ben Thomas

And a cover for ulterior motives. Emirati columnist Sultan Al Qassemi wrote a thoughtful reply which he broadcast to his half-a-million strong following on Twitter. He points out, “It’s not the city’s fault that this person chose to visit two malls and a skyscraper in his multi-hour layover.” Right on. That he chose to do so is a reflection of who he is. What I got was a glimpse of a man who really, really wanted to go shopping with his wife. I have no reason to believe he is particularly cultured, or remotely interested in anything like art, history, or even Arabic food.

As a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College many years ago, I learned that Orientalism, or representations of the ‘other’ in stereotypical ways, teaches us more about the cultures that produce it than about ourselves. It is the freezing of this frame, and the multiplication of it, that underpins the success of orientalist discourse and thought. It’s objective is to validate. In this case, it was a deliberate attempt to withhold validation of what Dubai has achieved in such a short period of time. Dubai is no where near perfect, of course. That is hardly relevant. How else do you explain that most of these articles are written by people who have never stepped foot in the country, or are passing through, like Marantz?

Marantz did not bother to experience anything outside the malls because he didn’t want to. While he was successful in recycling stereotypes about Dubai, he inadvertently also reinforced a stereotype about Americans: uncomfortable venturing outside their own comfort zone and confronting the unfamiliar.

Deborah Williams, a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi, wrote an opinion piece for The National called Dubai, New York and lazy cultural stereotypes in response to his article. I would go one step further and argue it’s the continued use of cultural stereotypes that produces lazy journalism. Which makes Marantz a writer of questionable ability. His article is practically a succinct version of Gill’s, structured around the same ideas in a shockingly similar way.

So rest easy, Dubai. It’s not about you. Next time you come across an article like this – by now, you should know there will be plenty more – consider the context of the writer. Start by asking yourself what it says about them, rather than focusing on what it says about you.

No Culture in Dubai? Why UNESCO Might Think Otherwise

Dubai has a reputation for being a fake city. A city known for the tallest building, the fastest cars, endless construction, oil riches, and fast living. A concrete jungle devoid of culture and flush with cash. Expats are quick to tell you nothing is authentic here, that the real world exists outside the country.

Could these ideas be misplaced? The UAE is in it’s infancy as a nation, but the area is not. In fact, the Arabian peninsula is home to a number of relics of the ancient world.

Which is why The National Council of Tourism and Antiquities has been busy compiling an inventory list of heritage sites for UNESCO. Included on the list is Ed-Dur, a large archeological site in the Emirate of Umm Al Quwain that predates the arrival of Islam.

Also listed is my childhood haunt and personal favourite, Khor Dubai, or Dubai Creek, and the commercial markets in it’s immediate vicinity. Dubai Creek is a natural seawater inlet of the Arabian Gulf in the heart of old Dubai. It has played a major role in the economic development of the region throughout history, and is a flourishing port of trade where the city of Dubai emerged.

Old wooden dhows, or ships, docking at Dubai Creek
Old wooden dhows, or ships, dock at Dubai Creek to offload goods
Trips to the Creek are incomplete without a jaunt through Dubai’s “City of Gold,” a historic gold market located right along the waterway. My first visit to the Gold Souk was at the age of four. While my brother and I happily ate ice cream, my grandmother, an expert haggler, carefully inspected chains of braided gold pulled from spotless glass cases. While certainly not as old as Ed-Dur, the souk has been around since the 1930’s. Many of it’s merchants have been selling gold for generations.

Emiratis make up a measly 6% of Dubai’s population. Despite tumultuous change, they celebrate deep ties to this part of the world and have a vibrant, fluid culture influenced by traders from Iran, India, and Pakistan, who still dock at the Creek. You must be willing to make the effort, once in a while, to leave the malls and look for it.