27 October 2021

Finding Home Around the Table: By Hanan Sayed Worrell

One of humanity’s most profound paradoxes is that we cannot travel, in the sense of leaving home and coming back, until we have a home to leave. The question of ‘Where is home?’ or its corollary ‘Where are you from?’ is one many of us living in the UAE often pose.  Is home where you are born, where your family resides, where your passport is issued or where your ancestors come from?

It is also a question I have pondered from a young age growing up in Kuwait, to an Egyptian father and a Lebanese/Syrian mother, amongst a large Palestinian diaspora, with a strong South Asian work force and a hybrid Kuwaiti population. Decades later, after studying in California, working in New York, marrying a southerner and raising a family in Abu Dhabi for over a quarter century, I continue to wonder if home is a real place.  

At some point though, I realised the answer to the questions of home, rootedness and belonging that most occupied me, was the same: to cook! Cooking had always been part of my life, but not as an object of scrutiny, much less a passion. I did not grow up in the kitchen, but food and hospitality were central to our life. The Emirates, however, is where I discovered the power of cooking to nurture a family and create a community. 

In a country where three quarters of the people are from somewhere else, a prolonged homesickness can permeate our lives. For many of us moving to a new city and feeling rootless, we go to markets and we cook. We cook to comprehend the place we have landed in. We cook foods that are familiar but also foods that seem strange. We cook because eating has always been a reliable way to understand the world. And we cook for the oldest of reasons: to overcome homesickness. 

In 1993, my husband Steve was offered a position in Abu Dhabi developing an onshore gas field. Reluctantly, I agreed to leave our base in New York and my family in Kuwait for what was supposed to be a two-year assignment. Steve’s first job was in the remote desert of the Western Region where he lived during the week and came home on weekends. While setting up home with two toddlers and navigating a new city, I was determined to pursue my engineering career. I began managing aviation and environmental projects for the government. 

At work, my Emirati colleagues introduced me to their culture through the morning office ritual of rutab (fresh dates), gahwa (coffee), and bakhoor (incense), and the mid-morning snack of chbaab (Emirati pancakes) and chai karak (cardamom milk tea). I joined them with my family for Friday lunches at their farms in Al Ain, falconry training in Sweihan, royal weddings in palaces, Ramadan iftars and Eid feasts. The South Asian workers on my job site shared their tiffin of channa with naan wrapped in newspaper, washed down with hot chai. 

Over time, I learned that the UAE’s diversity and how it caters to everyone from the labourer to the executive, is special.  I recall, during a meeting on the landscaping of the highway approach to Abu Dhabi Airport, the chief engineer informed us that the date palms lining the median had to be of a limited height. That was the directive of Sheikh Zayed, so workers passing by could help themselves to the low-hanging fruit, thus sharing in the bounty of the land. 

I also recall the collection of specialty stores that imported ethnic foods, when we first arrived, which were most welcoming. There was the cheese and pickle shop, with its huge tubs of torchi (pickles), large wheels of kashkaval cheese, mish (a salty white cheese), and feseekh (dried fish), a specialty for the spring celebrations. For any Egyptian, a visit to the cheese and pickle shop would cure homesickness in a jiffy. There were similar shops for Indian, Filipino and other ethnic cuisines. By catering to the different food cultures, the Emirates was welcoming  expatriates to their new home.

Living here is an experience in connection, a connection that transcends locality.  Again and again I saw people arrive, leaving behind their countries, creating transitory homes and then moving on. Yet, at the same time, they leave such a big impression on our lives, on who we are, who we become and how we see the world. I learned from Emirati friends how the rapid changes had impacted their lives and how their native food and customs had become infused with global flavours and spices from their own travels as well. I realised that if we can conjure something of substance from the flux of our life, in this multicultural place, we can find an anchor for our rootlessness, at least one meal at a time.  

What I also realised is how fortunate many of us living in the UAE are today. We have access to almost any food or ingredient, even during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed’s words in the spring of 2020, “la tshloon hum” and “food and medicine are red lines”, were comforting and reassuring. As the world struggled with the far reaching effects of the pandemic; shortages of food supply; separation of loved ones and families; working from home and restrictions on travelling back home,  I’ve come to realise that home is where you feel you belong, where you feel welcome and where you feel safe. Thank you, UAE, for being home to me and my family for the past three decades.

About the Author

Hanan Sayed Worrell is a specialist in the formulation and development of complex international and cultural projects. She has contributed professionally to several of the most impactful projects in the region including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). She is also the author of Table Tales, The Global Nomad Cuisine of Abu Dhabi.

This article is part of the “The UAE’s 50” series, featuring stories and journeys of people who call the UAE home. You can share your personal stories in the UAE via www.UAEYearof.ae 

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