Middle East 2016: The Crust and Crumb

Amman, Jordan

Emotions run high when we think about the Middle East, to many in the United States and other parts of the world the general perception of the land is the many conflicts it is surrounded by. Unfortunately, between the stereotypes and the questions of otherness, several of us decline to look beyond the headlines. Growing up in India, I still remember my first memories of the Middle East; regrettably this too was dominated from the headlines of the first Gulf War. However, in some ways what filled me with curiosity about this region was Disney’s animated movie, Aladdin. Again, even though Aladdin is no perfect vision of the Middle East and is rather full of stereotypes, it does highlight the magical mysticism that comes to mind with the sounds and sights of the region. Unfortunately, the Baghdad of 2016 is nowhere near to what I imagined growing up, but so are many other things and places in this world. However, I am thankful that my first visit to the Middle East in April 2016 gave me an opportunity to look closely at the region and the different cultures and background it is made of.

Burj Al Arab in Dubai, U.A.E

As I landed in Dubai, U.A.E, on April 15, 2016 and searched for my transportation to the hotel, the first thing I noticed was the number of people speaking Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam and Bangla, languages that having been grown up in India had surrounded me. Also, as I walked out of the airport, the humid and warm weather of Dubai embraced me, the very thought of my original home (India) through its people which make a sizeable Immigrant population of the country was a nice welcoming touch. Next morning as I had my breakfast from my hotel with a view of the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa) it truly was a surreal feeling having flown from Middle America to the Middle East. Dubai and Abu Dhabi really felt like Los Angeles and Las Vegas coming together, it was glamorous, shiny and all about the big and beautiful. The Malls in those towns had truly some interesting additions from skiing to large fish tanks filled with sharks and stingrays. Honestly, I have never been a big fan of visiting malls, clearly capitalism and glamour is not my cocktail and yet even in that one finds those authentic mom and pop stores which is filled with goodness when it comes to Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines.

Now, its not everyday that you wake up and get to travel to three different countries within 24 hours, but when you do it does make for one long and thoughtful day. Even before the sun rose on April 18, 2016, we were out of our hotel ready to jump onto the airline that was filled with many excited passengers leaving for Muscat, Oman. Its always stimulating traveling in an airlines, partly at times going through the hustle and bustle of passengers wanting to get in first or be the first one out when the airline lands, or the occasional kid high on his candies and orange juice ready to kick your seat out of this world. Perhaps its just karma, or just another existential way of God asking you to take a hike, but certainly some chilled beer or bad airline wine helps calm your nerves and highlight the better times that await you ahead in life.

Muscat, Oman

Even though, we didn’t get to spend a night in Oman, thankfully between our school visits we had sometime to sip some contemplative coffee near the ocean. What I saw in Oman was a beautiful piece of land with some extraordinary wonderful people. Personally, I have always have had a fascination with the ocean growing up and the endlessness it has to offer, its tidal waves calling to you and drawing you deeper into questioning your own existence. Standing at the beach in Oman looking at the vastness of the ocean was quite a transcendent feeling, one that leaves you both happy and sad.

Souk Waqif in Qatar
Pets for Sale at souk Waqif

As the moon arose and we made our way to the beautiful boutique hotel located in the heart of the souk in Qatar, me and few of the colleagues decided to venture in the old alleys of the souk and find what history and tourism had in store for us. The sights, the sounds and the smells that we found in the souk of Qatar were inspirational indeed. Life in that souk in many ways resembled Noah’s Ark, it had bread, it had chai and it had plenty of animals for sale. Walking through the souk, between the smells of the kebabs and shisha, certain mysticism takes over and you question if this is the heaven that you were preached all about.

The Island of no return in Manama, Bahrain

On April 20, 2016 we reached Bahrain, this was also the day when we figured or tried to figure the existential question about the Papuans. Are they truly magical, mystical or are they merely humans? I am not sure if the subcommittee leading the debate ever submitted its findings on those deep questions, but between the munching of an extraordinarily large cookie and bright glowing Tikki torches on the island of no return certainly brought us closer to the great debate about the Papuans and their future.

Sari shop in Bab el-Bahrain souk in Manama, Bahrain
The Holy Bread of Bab el-Bahrain souk

Now, if I were writing a novel, or if this piece of article that you are hopefully reading now was meant to be a book, then certainly April 21, 2016 would be where you would find the thesis or the very gist of my inspiration for this mediocre and sentimental writing. I mean there is your baguette, which for heaven’s sake is truly a gift of God to mankind and then there is your crusty naan, one that hasn’t risen and yet is defiant in becoming the bread of life. Again, its not everyday that you walk into a souk and have an amazing conversation with Immigrants from Bangladesh baking bread, between the smiles and the hard work it takes to bake the perfect piece of bread, you truly find what mankind is made of. That night at the Bahrain souk I revisited many memories of my childhood, from the sari shops to the children-playing cricket in the narrow alleys of the dim lit lights to the call of the prayer coming from the mosque, life suddenly seemed to have stopped. In fact, that very second or two you question all the wonder years and where it suddenly disappeared and even though you would love to crawl back into the warmth of the good old days, you know it won’t happen again. Suddenly, the past has become a figment of your imagination and all you hear is Ned Stark echoing in your head, “winter is coming.”

The contemplative chai shops of souk Al-Mubarakiya in Kuwait City, Kuwait

On April 22, 2016, we reached Kuwait and once again it was time to discover its beautiful markets. The best part about the souks in Kuwait were certainly the tea shops, sipping on some aromatic tea topped with cubes of sugary goodness there is a sudden urge for some cucumber sandwiches and in that very melancholic moment you realize that even though Her Majesty has lived a good life, the sun has set on the British Empire. Reality is a fact of life, one that can be hard to swallow and yet in the Middle East when your down and out, it is time to stuff yourself with some delicious kebabs, hummus, baklava and more chai, for that is a fact that acceptable in every shape and form.

A bread shop in downtown Amman, Jordan

All good things have to come to an end, fortunately or unfortunately that is the way of life, for us in the CIS Middle East 2016 tour this was Jordan. Between the walks and the moments filled with cloudiness, you realize that each individual in this world has to find their own inspiration. Perhaps as Jean Paul Sartre once said it is not about finding yourself, it is about making yourself, “Existence precedes essence.” From recruiting International students to baking that exquisite piece of loaf, there is no set formula. Often in the crumbs of life we find inspiration, it is there we know life once existed and it is there we know that life will come to an end.

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