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An Arab Lunch

October 19, 2006

The sand and dust create a haze around the sun but not sufficient to ease the 46 degree heat or the glare that radiates off buildings, and walls, even those whitewashed ones on either side of the lane down which we bounce. Acacias bend in the oven wind and move their shade from one side of the street to the other, their fine leaves coated in dust and adding to the sense of oppression. The streets are deserted even though it is the middle of the day. Turn down a narrow, wind whipped, dusty lane with high whitewashed walls, sad acacias, barred doors and few windows. We pull up at a bronze coloured metal gate with bulky levers and bolts. For a brief moment we are the only ones in the street but are quickly urged inside and the bronze door, as heavy as that on a vault is silently pressed shut to keep out the heat. Immediately in front of us is the arched ceiling of a fairly cavernous house, the main accommodation. In the hall is an old Bell and Howell projector, gathering dust. It is sitting on an equally weathered Phillips turntable, the timber of its base warped and split. When was a turntable last made with timber?

The main house is not our destination. Like lions the men always eat first and we turn right and stoop through a doorway into the “men’s room”, a cool pleasant place with cushions lining the walls and a TV screen running a movie in Arabic. Seven men are standing and welcoming us, all with the air of guilty children having been caught out. They shuffle their feet, all bare, and are very self-conscious. I try my “salams” and offer my hand to the closest person. He offers his hand but the minor gaff soon sorts everyone out – I should have shaken hands with the host. He presents himself immediately for to embarrass a guest is a sin. From there I am introduced around to everyone after which I am asked to take a seat on a cushion. Everyone relaxes rapidly, taking their cue from my “salam” and having a shot at “hello”. They laugh and grin and reveal themselves to be a very friendly bunch. Carefully bend towards the cushions in a kind of knee cracking squat, then collapse, making sure every move you make does not have you point the soles of your feet at anyone. Try that in a crowded room and see how much a conscious effort it becomes. A plate of dates is offered and a small cup. Unlike in China quaff the hot contents as quickly as you can and accept the offer of more. They call it coffee but it is not like any coffee you have ever tasted. A dash of powdered herbs is thrown in your cup before the hot fluid is added, a mix that I have yet to completely discern. Cinnamon, yes. The rest, I have no idea. But it is hot and sweet and spicy and nicely mulled and you can’t get enough of it. But you have to wait as one of the men offers a dash and a dollop to everyone else.

Pleasantries are offered. Everyone tries one or two words of English then offer, in English, an apology for not knowing any more English. A bit like my own trick of having my own most fluent Bahasa being an apology for not being fluent in Bahasa. But somehow we all get through. Our host is a Saudi diplomat based in Yemen. We share jokes about the drug chewing Yemeni’s, my puffed cheeks emulating a qat chewing Yemeni and immediately everyone is laughing and doing the same thing. One of the younger fellows is a cadet in the air force. He knows Tornados and F-15s but when I show him photos of Soviet aircraft in Yemen he is lost. But no less intrigued, and later I draw pictures and scribble names in an aircraft recognition lesson that gets across the language barriers and has everyone engaged. A drawing pencil is a catalyst for much humour, usually at my own expense, and a good way to bring down barriers. Short of being able to speak the lingo in the first place which would always help.

Coffee and date aperitif behind us our hosts motion us to the centre of the floor. Someone jumps up to wash his hands and we all follow. Then we are back on the floor, mindful of where the soles are pointing. Most sit on one foot and lean on the other knee to avoid causing an offence. Others tuck their feet away and I copy them. It costs me later when I try and stand up. We are spaced around a large shallow dish a little over one metre in diameter, all under the wraps of aluminium foil. Other smaller dishes of hummus are placed around and each is given bread to rip apart and otherwise use as a spoon or vehicle for getting various foodstuffs into your mouth. The foil comes off. For some reason I was expecting chicken. It is mutton. With a difference. The cadet, with some command of English, proudly declares “sheep”. I smile and nod and try not to look surprised. The sheep’s head is lying in a bed of rice. My grandfather was a butcher and would have been appalled at the lack of finesse in delivering this meat to the table. The nostrils have been cleavered off and the face bones remain splintered up the nasal bridge and across the forehead. What has been the skin is drawn tight across the head and has been reduced to a highly psychedelic yellow, no doubt the result of however many herbs and spices infused in the fat. The eyeballs are blackened and shrunken but remain in place. And the cheeks have been smashed off to reveal the teeth and lower jaw. The effect is that of some bizarre animal grinning at us while we eat. Sweetmeats, as in our own European heritage, are delicacies and various cooked pieces are placed among the sea of rice. Liver was the obvious and I happily chewed away on these, knowing that while I was doing so they were unlikely to dig out something more exotic and insist I try it. I was content to let them prize the jaw open and squabble over the tongue at the end, pushing their hands into the grinning maw and getting their fingers around whatever slippery tongue they could. Right hand only and no utensils. A bit tricky. Apparently the eating of the tongue signalled lunch was over.

Indeed, observe through all this that you are only allowed to use your right hand. Use one hand only to try and pull mutton of splintered shanks. An extra set of fingers would help sort through those bone fragments. Try and separate tendon from muscle with one set of slippery fingers. It’s all good fun. Fortunately a large plastic sheet has been spread under us so spillage is expected and accepted. Plunge your hand into the bed of rice, crimp it into as tight a ball as you can and get it into your mouth. The rice is laced with saffron, and sultanas and pepper, and is as light a feed of this grain as you will ever find. I love it. But that fist full never quite compresses correctly and if we were outside the pigeons would have been in heaven. I had rice all over the place although careful watching of the others helped me refine the technique to the point where most was getting to my mouth on the first attempt. Alternate mutton with rice with hummus, take a swig of Pepsi to remove the taste of the hummus and start the cycle again.

Signalling you are done is easy but only if you have any circulation – simply push back from the centre of the room and recline on the cushions. I discovered I couldn’t push back, my legs were so locked up, so did the most idiotic thing and tried to stand up – those rice covered hands needed a wash after all. Rising to low couch was about all I could do before falling back and realising I would have to wait until the blood got going again. After washing our hands one of the men went around splashing a perfume into them, which everyone vigorously rubbed across their necks and arms. The moment we were so scented and all back on our cushions the uneaten food was whisked into the main house where the women and children took over. Hot, sweet, honey tan coloured tea is then poured into shot glasses and a few of these see the ritual complete.

However the visit is not. The diplomat’s father takes me into an adjoining room where he proudly shows off a collection of old bits and pieces which he calls his museum. Old grain grinding stones, ancient looking tools, not so ancient record players (he has a thing about these), swords, a 1929 .30 calibre German Mauser, medals from goodness knows where and more fabrics with family stories than I could take in. A heart stopping moment when he threw me a plastic bag of old cartridges to admire, most corroded with lead salts, but including several large 48 calibre Holland and Holland elephant busters along with the usual Enfield .303 suspects. I relaxed a little once I was able to see that all of the primers had been impacted. We “talk” guns and swords and old times and admire all sorts of flotsam and jetsam before repairing back to the cushions to smoke, pick toenails and shoot the breeze. Then all of a sudden it is “shookrans”, “you’re welcomes” and “come again”s and we are out the door and into the oven of a street where, after the dim light of the men’s room (there are no windows), the light hammers off the walls and out of the dusty sky and makes you pause to consider. The street is still deserted.

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