Conversation starters - UAE 2022 - Magazine | Monocle

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All in good time

by Ghassan Bagersh

You’re never far from great coffee in the UAE but the nation’s rich tradition of sharing it – slowly – is worth taking time to understand.

In a city as fast-moving as Abu Dhabi, where I live and work, you need to move quickly to keep up. I’m proud of how far the uae has travelled in so short a time but when it comes to my own business in the coffee trade, I’m always happy to take my time. What’s more, there’s something about the bountiful beans that is key to understanding Arabian culture. There are now plenty of places to get a flat white but there’s much more to this mystical, enlivening and ritualistic drink that has been traded and consumed here since the 15th century.

I was born in Ethiopia – from where coffee beans and culture have long been fruitfully exported – but further back my family hailed from the Hadramout in Yemen, where coffee has been consumed for centuries, first by chanting Sufi mystics and then by traders and nomads. My own family has been part of the coffee trade for three generations, during which time we’ve grown, sold it and even experimented with it a little. 

My grandfather made coffee the family business and he used to tell me that as well as the beans we sold barakah. This hard-to-translate Arabic word loosely means “blessings”. And though I didn’t always know what he meant (how can you sell a blessing?), my time in the uae has helped me to understand it better. To me, barakah is about the goodwill that comes from meeting new people, forming communities and creating meaningful moments between deliberative sips.

The first thing to understand about Arabian coffee culture is how different it is compared with that of, say, Italy, where small, scalding shots are downed standing at counters. Here we drink slowly. Spending hours over a brew might seem extravagant but it’s worth it. Since starting my own coffee shop, Auro, in Abu Dhabi, I’ve learned to value the process and have seen what’s missing in the shiny third-wave concepts of recent years.

Coffee can be a pick-me-up for busy people in cities but in Bedouin culture and life here before the building boom it was so much more. Coffee, then a rare and expensive commodity, was a way of building trust between strangers. It created a forum in which to share news. Bedouin tribes often had little but were generous with what had and would often lavish guests with favours they could ill afford to spare.

Old habits die hard. Life in the uae has changed unimaginably but I’ve still never visited anyone’s home and not been offered Arabian coffee, or gahwa. I’m always impressed by the pride with which the coffee is served and the reverence for what is a relatively inexpensive product. Coffee is everywhere in daily life. Luckily, embracing Arabian coffee culture is simpler than it seems. All you need to do is slow down, take a deep breath and start a conversation as you sip. Oh, and don’t forget to count your blessings. 

About the writer:
Ethiopia-born Bagersh is founder of Auro Coffee in Abu Dhabi and recently opened a new space at Warehouse421.


Home soil

by Kathy Johnston

From street food to haute cuisine, the UAE has something to suit every taste. And many plucky new businesses are now rethinking the concept of “local”, while growing their own ingredients too.

While I was researching traditional Emirati recipes for a cookbook project, I interviewed an elderly fisherman called Bu Rashid. I wanted to ask him about his version of traditional stew called saloona. Some signature version of this recipe can be found in nearly every Emirati household in the uae, and also in many homes across Oman, Yemen, North Africa and India. It’s usually made with spices, vegetables and meat or fish. It’s eaten with rice but beyond that there’s little consensus.

Saloona has always been here,” says Bu Rashid. “It’s made with fish by people who lived by the sea, and sometimes in the desert if they could catch a rabbit. For a long time it was pretty much just water, salt and dried lemon.” In the uae, where arid conditions and a traditionally nomadic lifestyle made crop cultivation hard and ingredients tough to come by, the recipe was a simple affair made with three ingredients and in two stages. It shows just how far that food here has come in the past 50 years.

The idea behind my cookbook was to preserve these traditional dishes and also to hand them over to younger chefs who were tasked with creating something original. Until recently the notion of “local” ingredients was hard to define in the uae beyond what you could fish, hunt, find from a camel or pluck from a date palm. Even the spices and chillies that were used to flavour many “traditional” dishes were imported from Oman or India. Establishing a culinary identity was further hampered by a culture that often prized achievements in the boardroom or classroom over those in the kitchen. Thankfully this is starting to change. Emirati food folk such as pastry chef Sahar Al Awadhi and Home Bakery founder Hind Al Mulla (see page 36)are showing that culinary careers are worthwhile, while many other trailblazers are also focusing on the once-improbable idea of growing food in the uae rather than simply importing it.

Over the past five years, the road towards food security has been getting rather busy with fish farming, a profusion of hydroponic greenhouses, the cultivation of quinoa varietals that can be grown in salty water and experiments in vertical farming. There are also now farm shops, oyster farms and even some novel uses for camel milk (not to everyone’s taste). It’s now possible to find fresh, leafy greens grown within a short drive of downtown, all year round. And that’s not forgetting an astounding pilot project from the Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority that can produce raspberries by the tonne on the best mid-season days.

But back to the book. Bu Rashid’s tamarhindi tuna saloona recipe from 1971 was reinterpreted by Faisal Naser from Abu Dhabi and transformed into a rather toothsome grilled-fish taco. Naser’s soft-shell taco was made using fermented dough and he grilled the vegetables and fish in a mix of 14 spices – both fresh and dried) – all served with black garlic-and-tamarind aioli. The tasty bit? That everything, except the vinegar on the pickles, can now be grown or made locally.

About the writer
Kiwi-born Johnston has lived in the uae for 30 years and runs Mirzam Chocolate Makers in Dubai. She is the curator of Emirati Cooking from 1971 to 2021.


Self portraits

by Lamya Gargash

The UAE attracts creative talent from abroad but it has taken longer for homegrown artists to feel confident about training the lens on their own lives. Here, one artist recounts the moment when she decided to devote herself to making art in the land where she grew up.

On the eve of my graduation from the American University in Sharjah, I found out that I had been accepted on the Communication Design programme at Central Saint Martins art school in London. I was excited. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was interested in but I knew that I was ready to start a new chapter abroad – away from my home and the life I had known in the uae.

That said, the first term in the UK was a challenge. I needed to come up with ideas every week, and my course instructor and classmates would always pose me the same question as I struggled: “Just what are you trying to communicate?” After that term, I went home for my winter break feeling discouraged and ready to drop out. Still contemplating my future, I went for a family lunch at my grandparents’ home, my f50 Nikon film camera slung across my shoulder.

I had spent the first 16 years of my life in this family compound in an area of Dubai called Al Hamriyah. It’s a vast plot of land encompassing three villas with staff quarters, a goat enclosure and chicken coop located at the back. My grandparents lived in the central villa with my great grandmother, while the remaining buildings were inhabited by my immediate family and uncles.

By the time of that family dinner I was in my early twenties and it had been six years since I moved out. My old house was a few steps from my grandparents’ dining area and after we’d eaten I ventured into the dusty villa alone, clutching my camera tightly.

What I saw changed me. I saw Quranic verses that I had scribbled on the walls as a child to ward off evil spirits; I saw my parents’ beautiful chandelier dimmed by the dust; and the teak interiors disintegrating because of the heat. It triggered something in me.

Right there and then I felt the need to document and preserve the memories of my house and, more than that, my home and city. Not only did this moment yield the idea for my final thesis project (a documentation of Emirati dwellings) but it also spurred me on to stay in the uae as an artist, contributing something tangible and long-lasting to the city that so many people visit so fleetingly. These days, if anyone asks me what it is I’m trying to communicate – I just point them towards my pictures. 

About the writer:
Gargash is an Emirati artist and photographer represented by The Third Line gallery in Dubai. She has published books including Presence and Uncommon Dubai +


Who needs a plan?

by Alamira Reem Al Hashimi

A construction boom in the 1960s and 1970s formed the backbone of the UAE’s cities today. But look a little closer and there’s also life blooming in the spaces between the buildings.

A mere half-century ago the uae had a population of fewer than 280,000, most of whom were living in small towns. Today it numbers 10 million people from 200 countries. Before the skyscrapers, palm-shaped islands and vast highways that define the nation’s modern image, there were seven sheikhdoms centred on settlements on islands, near oases and in deserts, many made from coral, palm fronds or stone.

In the 1960s this long-established way of life began to change, spurred by money from oil, gas and trade, triggering a building boom that has continued to this day. This new wealth and lack of regional resources led to the arrival of hordes of “experts” from the US, Europe, Japan and across the Arab world, many of whom were airlifted in to plan and build entire cities from scratch. These chosen few were mainly trained during the heyday of modern architecture, which – although well-meaning – tended to loftily prescribe a rational, top-down approach to planning. Blueprints were hastily drafted for new cities and lines were drawn in the sand to transform the structures of the past into the architecture of a forward-facing nation fit for the 20th century and beyond. This was when cars became status symbols and driving became the de facto way of getting around.

Despite these plans, the pace of globalisation and influx of ideas brought with them a hungry private sector that was keen to speculate on property. New free zones and freehold ownership flourished, which spurred growth, urban sprawl and a fair few architectural wrong turns along the way.

Over the decades, as older plans became outgrown, newer ones were laid and fresh developments rose up with ever-increasing ambition and at greater speeds: seven-star hotels, huge skyscrapers and a whole new world made of sand in the sea. A mix of these strict early plans and successful private speculations still form the backbone of the uae’s cities today. However, it’s important to remember that cities are the products of the people who live in them and the way in which they use these spaces.

Several scholars have mapped street use in the uae, from entire neighbourhoods to pedestrian intersections and parks. What they saw was that the spaces between buildings and in the shadows of tall towers were being used by children, amblers and neighbours shooting the breeze. They observed how car parks are regularly transformed into cricket pitches or used for football matches, and how overlooked pavements could be transformed meaningfully into community gardens.

It’s this mixture of different people, places and backgrounds coming together that defines the nation as I see it today. You might think of the Louvre Abu Dhabi or the Burj Khalifa when you imagine the uae but I’d also encourage you to look a little closer to really understand it. The country’s inclusivity, multiculturalism and strength can’t all live in tall towers.

About the writer:
Al Hashimi is an urbanist, architect and historian, and the first Emirati woman to be awarded a phd in urban planning.


The starchitects’ sandpit

by Robert Bound

The ambition, oddity and trajectory of the UAE can all be read in buildings big and small.

Elsewhere in these pages, the celebrated architect Wael Al Awar – winner of a Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, no less – writes eloquently about the charms of low-rise Dubai. I’m with Wael. It’s the right thing to think and the right thing to build. But can you blame people for looking up and around and – wow – gasping at the ambition of it all? Sure, there’s a sprinkling of ego, maybe a smidge of hubris and perhaps Shelley’s “Ozymandias” should be put on the syllabus for architecture students eyeing up careers in the Emirates but, also, just look.

The uae has been a sort of exotic starchitects’ sandpit since John Harris unveiled the 39-storey Dubai World Trade Centre in 1979 and opened the floodgates to glass-curtain walls, exposed steel and the era of ubiquitous air-conditioning. Things got very tall quickly: the Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Almas Tower, The Torch, The Landmark, S Residence and the world’s tallest building very literally looked up from there and the region’s “shade wars” began.

There have been some amusing wobbles: the Al Yaqoub Tower is Adnan Saffarini’s hilarious (or genius?) misreading of Big Ben’s Elizabeth Tower in London; Atlantis is named after a city that drowned and the Dubai Frame is a fishbone in search of someone to choke. But hey.

Things got interesting too: the Burj Al Arab’s “sail” has aged well; Yusef Abdelki’s Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi is a vision; Bryn Lummus’s hanging gardens- cum-pyramid for the Raffles hotel in Dubai is memorable and witty. Norman Foster’s Masdar developments are meaningful and his forthcoming Zayed National Museum looks to be beautiful; Zaha Hadid’s Opus Hotel is suitably contemporary; while Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum and Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi are waterfront joys to behold (and they’ve taken their cues from low-rise lessons). This is what building better looks like.

The skyline of the uae is a silhouette of civilisation; a unique Arab outpost striding forward, stepping back, stumbling a little and then getting up and galloping onwards. The starchitects’ sandpit? Sure. But that skyline is also just this: a very human picture of progress and, if needed, a frame through which to peer on it with wonder.

About the writer:
Bound is monocle’s senior correspondent and host of Monocle On Culture on Monocle 24 radio.


Breathing space

by Pradeep Sharma

An ambitious rejuvenation of Abu Dhabi’s old port will create a walkable neighbourhood with shade, greenery and spaces for spontaneity.

Even though this region boasts some of the oldest cities in the world, several of the uae’s urban hubs have developed at an amazing pace in a few fast decades. It’s a relatively short history but we are now in a position to think about repurposing existing buildings and spaces; to think, not at the level of a masterplan as many did in the past, but on a more human scale. We can think about how to make spaces for people to meet and interact outside their cars, homes and offices.

This means thinking about neighbourhood intersections and street corners rather than whole cities. It’s in spaces such as these that we can bump into new people and experience spontaneity and surprise.

I have thought a lot about the warehouses around Mina Zayed, the old port in Abu Dhabi. Envisaged by Sheikh Zayed in the late 1960s as a way of bringing the world to Abu Dhabi through trade, the warehouses have been gradually emptied and today offer an opportunity as spaces for people rather than goods.

We are starting with a small corner of the warehouse district, around Warehouse421, an excellent art gallery and learning space (see here), by sensitively regenerating the venues while honouring their past. We’re thinking about sikkas (the narrow paths between buildings), shade, trees, wildlife and people. This isn’t a typical development for creative talent but we’re growing it with creative people.

Let’s see what happens. Like many things in the uae, there is some room to experiment as the neighbourhood takes shape. We call the neighbourhood Miza, and whereas some free zones clump businesses and people together by industry, we hope Miza will be a place for innovation that encourages people from different walks of life to stride beside one another.

I believe that fostering these connections between people and ideas will be key to forging the creative cities of the future, whether they are in Addis Ababa, Abu Dhabi or Auckland. The first step? Slowing the pace of engagement from driving to walking, and getting people out of their cars and tall towers in order to talk. It’s about people slowing down so they are able to look around them, soak in the local culture – old and new – and see beauty and inspiration all around them. I would argue that if it’s not walkable, it is not really a city. 

About the writer:
Sharma is the former provost of the Rhode Island School of Design and current director of arts, culture and heritage at the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.

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