Of Felafels and Kerala saloon Merryland Nursery…

by sidin in ,


Of Felafels and Kerala saloon

Merryland Nursery in Bateen. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve that grey walled building and the tiny mitsubishi van. Growing up in Abu Dhabi was a surreal experience. I guess my life changed for good when I landed up at the old civil aviation airport, also in Bateen, a few minutes away from Merryland. Sometime in 1979. All of four months old. Today the old Bateen Airport is an Air Force Base. Which means the Sheikh does what he wants with it. The old parking lots and bus waiting sheds is now a huge park with slides and rides. And plonk in the middle is a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. 20 years ago it was run by another outfit called Wimpy's that sold cheap hamburgers. Only Indians and other Asians ate there. Some people still call the place Wimpy Park. Abu Dhabi is like that. Spit and polish. And still the rough patches peek through.

Contrary to what most people think today Abu Dhabi is not a bit of concrete in the middle of the desert. The capital of UAE today can give any international city a run for its money. (We will not talk about Dubai, we Abu Dhabi types hate the place and their hep lifestyle... sort of like how we hate everyone who comes for Chaos...) But all those years ago as I grew up it was a very different place indeed. I could talk on and on of how much things have changed and life has changed. And the American Born Confused Desi wont come close to the Abu Dhabi Grown Confused Mallu. I think I'll let my mind wander a bit...

Friday has always been the weekend. Friday was also the only day when we had fun. We ate out on thursday alright. But the fascinating things in life happened bright and fresh on a friday morning. A visit to the fish market. When I was a kid, the fish market was where it all happened. Those were the days when life in the Gulf was innocent. Noone had visas and everyone made a little money. The fish market was a maze of concrete cubicles covered with grime and scales. I watched all the big fish with morbid fascination. But why I really came was for the guy who sold "Junior News". The fish market had grown over the years and there was a new section across a small walkway. And in the middle of the covered pathway in between sat the "Junior News" guy. "Junior News" was what dad bought me if I did all my homework right and got three stars in everything. It had cartoons, a poster, some puzzles and reviews of movies and songs I'd never get to see or hear. It cost all of two dirhams to buy and I can still remember trying to read it incessantly while my dad dragged me from fish booth to fish booth. Hundreds of people thronged the dark gloomy market. But with my Junior News it was a pleasant warm place. On the way home, if I had been really nice that week, he'd buy a box of assorted sweets from a gujju sweet place called ... Bhavna's I think. I faintly remember eating Barfis and things...

You really dont understand what it means to be a mallu in the Gulf till you've been there. Friday also meant a haricut sometimes. And you always walked to the "Kerala Saloon" where Usmanikka and Venuchettan always promised to make you look like Mohanlal, Mamooty, or even Amitabh or Mithun. I must have gone there for a cut every month or so for ever 14 years. And it was always the same procedure, they'd conspire with dad and make digs at my obesity (I had a troubled childhood in parts...) and then settle into this long rambling discussion on Indian politics and football and local life, while the scissors kept snipping away. I think for many years all the mental pictures I had of India were what I got sitting in those huge red barbers chairs. I sat on a plank of course, tenderly balanced on the armrests listening to them talk of Indira and Congress and Maradona with my mouth open. Alas if my memory went beyond the images...

The "Sandwich". The Greatest of weekend pleasures. Instant handheld gratification. Some weekends we'd go shopping for stuff to the old market. There was a fire there a few years ago, and most of it burnt down. Taking with it so much of where I ran around, cried, pleaded and shreaked as a child. January to May were the shopping months. You bought stuff for back home and somehow tried to get maximum value for the twenty kilos you were allowed per head on Air India. We bought packs of everything from batteries to umbrellas to milk powder. We bought tons and tons of clothes. And almost everything was bought from "Liberty Stores". Yes yes... you guessed it. Yet another illegal visa bearing mallu setup. Horrible stuff made in Thailand, Malaysia and, ironically, India. But back then anything new was good. And after we all had over 20 huge plastic bags between us, the kids would start pleading for the "Sandwich".

Technically called the "Shawarmah" by the locals it is God's gift to the gourmand. Its something like a rolled up arabic bread with stuffing. Nowadays you get authentic Lebanese sandwich at every nook and corner. Back then you only got it in the old market at a few shops run by Iranians, or Indians. Outside each cafe-like setup, there'd be this guy sweating it out in front of a vertical grill. And sizzling away would be a vertical skewer of meat some 2 feet tall and a feet round. A huge chunk of it. The guy would deftly turn it around every few second so it would get roasted by the grill. "Thalatha Shawarma, Dejaj". When Dad said the magic words, I died and went to heaven. Four sandwiches, chicken. Sweaty griller man would quickly pick up a huge knife and pick and shred off some grilled meat from the heavenly mega-kebab. The aroma still drives me wild...

The meat was quickly packed into a split open arabic bread. The bread is called "khubz" and is part of EVERYONES dining table. Nation, religion no bar. A dash of humoos (a chickpea dip), tahina (sesame dressing), pickled cucumbers, chillies, french fries, some green salad and broken wheat. Tightly rolled up into two wax papers. One bite into the concoction and you orgasmed. There is no other word. And for the veggies they made it out of felafels (deep fried broken wheat and chickpea dumplings). The "Shawarmah" alone is why some mallus never return from the gulf. Whenever I pop back to meet family, we tend to stop over at the neighbourhood Shawarmah store on the way from the airport. Its as much a part of the family as many people I know.

So many many memories of a country fighting to create an identity and masses of people fighting to survive and eke out a living. A french neighbour, a Bangladeshi plumber, a Pakistani laundryman, a Goan class teacher, and a swiss american benchmate in school. Cultures and identities lost in the quagmire, with only the Shawarmah standing supreme. I have rambled on and on again... Forgive. Have a great weekend. And best of luck for all the lats guys...