What do Islam and a Lebanese fattoush salad have in common? The lemon-herb-sprinkled greens laden with fried Levantine bread became entwined with the religion one evening when I was looking for a restaurant on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. Yes, on the outskirts, because that's what rough-and-ready travelers do: eat amidst the untrodden territories surrounding cities, not just downtown.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of a small nation located in the southeastern part of the Arabian Peninsula, called the United Arab Emirates, which is made up of seven state-like “emirates” of which Abu Dhabi is the richest. Each emirate is ruled by an emir, another term for an Arab monarch. Within each respective emirate, an emir retains absolute power. Like the United States, the United Arab Emirates has a constitution, though not for ensuring democratic rights, but to provide rules ensuring the different emirs get along.
On this particular eve, it was dusk and we were hungry. I was desperately so. Thus it was becoming critical to find a decent place to dine. My husband kept pointing out different holes in the walls. “We could eat there.” Not. The night before, on my husband's suggestion, we chowed in what he likes to call a “workers café." This is a restaurant known for its stick-to-your-ribs dishes at a cheap price, frequented by the common man.
This particular “worker’s café” was in another emirate called Fujairah. Unfortunately, the joint had one thing on the menu. Well, if you can call it a menu, as we were never handed a piece of cardstock in a dingy plastic sheath. We sat down and (without being asked or told) were given a piece of chicken and a piece of fish, which looked like they'd been fried the night before, left out till morning to be fried again, and popped back into the fryer for that last little sizzle of “freshness” before the greasy dried-out mounds of flesh were transferred to the plates before us. Needless to say, I wasn't impressed.
I didn't want a repeat of the previous night's culinary fiasco. I wanted something delicious with new and distinct flavors to tantalize my taste buds. I required something good, no, great, no, wonderful – some food that I could email home about. So, I was being overly persnickety. There wasn't time to drive back to Abu Dhabi proper. I was starving and needed to eat now. Even our car had to imbibe, as the gas gauge was on empty. We stopped along the sandy highway at a station selling some of the cheapest petrol I've ever seen.
With its long coastline, the United Arab Emirates is a shipping center, but the oil fields have made this small desert nation into a world-class oasis. Just the previous day, while on our way to Fujairah, we stopped to buy fruit at a highway stand. Suddenly, rumbling engines shook the sky as two small jets raced over our heads, maneuvering playfully through the firmament, like some kind of heavenly mating dance. We could only assume it was a couple of Arab princes out for an “evening stroll” in their private jets.
The restaurant was so non-descript, it's amazing I noticed it. My husband had to circle around in our rental car a few more times before seeing it himself. On entering the patio, I realized the café was just as I'd imagined from the street: the terrace was cool and lined with palm trees that kept the otherwise-dry desert air fresh. I relaxed in a chair with my bare feet on the cool concrete. We were the only customers. A man behind the counter chopped meat while another man approached.
Unlike the prior evening's café from hell, this restaurant had a menu. Yet, as I quickly perused it, my heart sank. The menu was in Arabic and our waiter didn't speak English. Neither did the dude behind the counter, nor any other employee. I don't want to sound like those people who expect everyone in a foreign land to use their native tongue. I'm not a California girl who's only fluent in Valley talk and sarcasm. I speak Spanish and took two years of French in college. Still, how were we supposed to order?
I knew one thing. There are many Lebanese in the United Arab Emirates who immigrated during the Lebanese civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. I started to name off Lebanese dishes: “fattoush, humus, babaganoush, kabob, pita, tabbouleh,” making sure to pronounce them in a nasaly fashion with that extra oomph, in the hope this would help convey my message.
Well, it worked. Our waiter nodded and scurried off. Soon, plate after plate was landing on our table. I had pronounced each item with a question mark, meaning “Might you have such and such?” I never expected our waiter would bring all of it. Before long, we had an impossibly large dinner spread. However, the food was absolutely delicious: fresh warm pita stuffed with spicy lamb, the most delectable olives I've ever tasted, heaping portions of tabbouleh, babaganoush and humus, plus fattoush. Glorious fattoush. Fattoush with large chucks of fresh tomato and cucumber, sprinkled with the Middle Eastern herb sumac to give a delightfully sour taste.
As we dined, the screeching sound of a voice suddenly rent the air. The voice was broadcasting through a loud speaker right above our heads. On closer scrutiny, we realized one of the restaurant's patio walls was part of the foundation of a mosque's minaret. This is the tall slender tower situated at one corner of a mosque structure from which the muezzin leads the call to prayer five times daily. I watched as every employee walked to a sink located in the patio to wash their arms from hands to elbows and their face. Then everyone disappeared.
We were left completely alone. We weren't done with our meal and hadn't paid. Noone had even brought our drinks yet. I had no idea when anyone would return. The muezzin had stopped, and it was like the whole town was asleep. This lasted five minutes. Just as suddenly, the employees filed back into the restaurant. Our drinks were served. When we couldn't eat anymore, we conveyed through sign language that we wanted our leftovers packed up in doggy bags. It was time to rest our bellies back in the hotel room. What do fattoush and Islam have in common? I guess I just told you.
Lara Sterling authors Twisted Vagabondage Tales for travelers who like it rough. She is prettier than Vagabonding author Rolf Potts (though Rolf is very pretty) and could kick his ass (though only if he'd like that). She has written for Playboy and Larry Flynt Publications but now hosts an online radio show and blogs at yourplotthickens.blogspot.com.