A Taste of Kindness

I snap out of my daydream only when the plump form of an older woman in a black abaya swishes past me, stops abruptly and turns to face me. A flood of Arabic spills from her lips. My eyes widen, and I smile and shrug my shoulders in incomprehension. The eyes peering at me from behind her face mask are stubborn and insistent. She is not going to let me off easily, and says so. Well, that is what I imagine her saying. She looks at the paper in my hand, takes it from me, and marches me with a firm grip on my right arm towards counter number six. She pushes the paper towards the young woman behind the counter, not paying any attention to the tall Emirati man, whose business we are interrupting, with the well-practiced poise of a matriarch, who is not used to anyone flouting her wishes.

Another stream of Arabic ripples in the direction of the young woman, and from the corner of my eye I can see a big grin slowly spreading over the gentleman’s face next to me, although he does not acknowledge our presence in any other way, but simply occupies himself with renewed interest in the papers in front of him.  With her orders issued, and without waiting for a reply, the matriarch pats me on the arm and turns towards the exit. My feeble “shukran” follows her retreating form like a sigh. She does not look back or indicate that she heard me.

“I am so sorry,” I mumble, but the young woman behind the counter smiles brightly at me. “No worries. She is very kind.” I wish I knew what the old woman said, but I do not dwell for too long on the exact words that were spoken, as before long I leave the post office with my new Emirates ID in my hand, grateful for having jumped the cue by about forty places. The kindness of strangers is often unexpected and astounding. For me, it never fails to conjure up images of the legendary hospitality of the Bedouin tribes, who once roamed this desert landscape.

In a world where everyone is pre-occupied with their own lives, and technology brings news to our fingertips and ears no matter where we find ourselves in the world, it is hard to imagine a life filled with vast empty spaces, where only human voices and camel grunts interrupted the silent movement of the dunes. News and life’s essentials were brought by people travelling on foot or camel, and the Bedouin tribes, living in the isolation of the desert, treated  these travellers as honoured guests. Their hospitality was shown by sharing their precious gahwa, traditional cardamom spiced coffee. Drunk, not with sugar or milk, it was and still is served in small ceramic cups, no bigger than an over-sized thimble.

Gahwa2 resizedBrewed and served in distinct coffee pots called dallah, the coffee has always been spiced with cardamom, but other spices such as saffron, ginger, cinnamon or even rose water can be added. Although not strong, the cardamom gives it a distinct taste, and the bitter after-taste lingers for a while on the tongue. Brewed on an open fire, the coffee ritual can be seen as a symbol for sharing news, stories, and friendship, whilst strengthening the bonds between the people gathered around the dallah.

The cups were re-filled until a gentle shaking with the wrist indicated the drinker had enough, yet polite guests would never have more than three cups, as coffee was an expensive commodity that had to travel a long way from Yemen to reach the Bedouin tents, where the hosts were honour-bound to feed and protect their guests. A dhaif, or guest could, however, only avail of this hospitality for three days, during which food, shelter and drink would be offered.

The preparation, serving and drinking of gahwa still forms and integral part of Emirati hospitality, and the dallah is a favourite centre piece on roundabouts, and enduring emblem for the traditional life and hospitality of which the older generation often reminisce about. A time, when, despite hardships, hunger and poverty, people had time for one another.