The Muslim call to prayer is “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset”. ~ Barack Obama
The wet heat of Bali evaporated into a dry mirage of Dubai: My maiden voyage to the United Arab Emirates and the Middle East. The limousine driver stood expectantly holding my name. I smiled in recognition: “Welcome to Dubai, Dianne.” He took my bag and we walked to the exit, hit by a wall of heat that roused me from my fatigue. Blessedly the car was in close proximity and I slid into its cool, leather embrace.
The landscape revealed herself as we wound through a man-made enclave to the Old City. The flaxen earth glistened in the heat like gold. Miles of concrete and glass stretched skywards; a ceaseless, proud testament to commerce and opulence. Men floated on flushed paths, white linen trailing like apparitions, save for black beards and sunglasses. Date palms watched in fertile, verdant silence, mocking the sun.
The driver pulled into the hotel reception as I slid across the seat to open the door. Simultaneously, a strikingly tall man, his keffiyeh framing kohl eyes, smiled broadly as he opened the door: “Welcome Miss Monnier.” His ivory robe shifted effortlessly around his frame which seemed carved out of onyx. “Thank you,” I said returning his Cheshire grin, trying not to stare in open appreciation.
Glass doors opened onto a marble portico framed by wood panelled walls. Brass lanterns rested against a jali — an ornamental, pierced stone screen of Arabic geometric patterns reminiscent of The Alhambra — under the luminesce of cylindrical stalactites that hung like an oblique waterfall.
The portico revealed a reception and lounge area, dotted with high-backed taupe lounge chairs, promising respite around low, hexagonal tables. A side table hosted culinary pleasures, taunting under glass cloches: orange stuffed dates, pistachio baklava, basbousa semolina cake. Rose and saffron; honey and cardamon infused the air and senses. A crystal tumbler of iced mint tea arrived, my morning ablution as I sunk into the sofa.
The porter gestured at my suitcase and we ascended the elevator to my room. I walked to the window and opened the curtains, revealing the Burj Khalifa — a steel monolith that dwarfed all in its reflection — impossible to contain in a single glance. The bed resembled a billowy cloud, enticing me into her velvet embrace. Travel and heat conspired as I surrendered to cotton, feathers and the sweet, smoky aroma of apple tobacco.
The sun’s decline roused me from dreamless sleep. The heat lost its fervour so I grabbed my sarong and bikini. The pool was located a level above the main courtyard, providing a bird’s eye view of proceedings below. A pool boy greeted me with an alabaster smile and matching towels. I arranged the towels on the deck bed and gingerly tip-toed to the water’s edge. My limbs descended into tepid water as the city embraced dusk.
The call to prayer rose from mosques across the city, a harmonious endearment that vibrated through me. It felt strangely familiar. And maybe, on some unconscious, cellular level it is. Genetic testing revealed my matrilineal line originated from the Arabian Peninsula. I swam to the side of the pool, resting my head on stacked hands, silently absorbing the invocation.
Sated by the swim, I sunk into the daybed. The hint of a breeze, teased and tantalised until a grin formed on my lips. Salt and chlorine dried in patches like disparate snowflakes, revealing their unique identities. The courtyard below began to buzz with people, music and tobacco. The sticky scent of molasses-infused shisha spiralled upwards towards the pool. Hunger finally prodded my exit.
Later, I descended in a long, black dress and crimson scarf. Candles danced across tables and plants that revelled in their fecundity. I wove my way around chairs and hookah pipes until I found a small table in a discreet corner of the courtyard. From here, I could observe my fellow diners with inconspicuous delight.
Arabic found no cognisance as I listened to its guttural gait — reminiscent of my parents’ native Dutch — save for two words I shall never forget: Keefik(hello) and meeheh (good). Following my parent’s divorce, my brother and I had before and after-school care with a Lebanese family: the Dahdahs. I remember the particular way of correctly pronouncing their name. And my joy when they praised my linguistic aptitude.
It was 1977. Civil war had brought many Lebanese refugees to Australia. Even at the age of eleven, I sensed and witnessed discrimination and marginalisation. And it raised my ire, as it still does today. I loved everything about this family. They left an indelible impression as I clearly recall my short time with them.
One particularly fond memory was arriving one morning before school. Large, round, flatbread was sliced in half and used as a wrap. I sat in the kitchen and watched Mrs Dahdah whisk eggs in oil, arrange bread, and lower a bowl of tabbouleh on the table. She sliced the bread, filled it with scrambled eggs and herbs; wrapped it up like a pancake and presented it to me.
I slowly picked it up with my hands — unsure of how to eat this new dish — and she smiled reassuringly. It was a wonderful culinary experience, so far removed from cereal with milk; toast and honey. I savoured every morsel. I ate tabbouleh with relish — much to her delight as her own children were less enthusiastic.
Meanwhile, Mr Dahdah was on the porch, brewing coffee in a brass rakweh. This wasn’t simply a case of putting on the kettle. There was care, ritual. And now, as I reflect upon my time with them, ritual permeated their lives on myriad levels. Their familial bonds and loving respect for each other touched something deep, especially at a time when I felt so alone and unsettled. The rhythm and routine soothed me.
Mr Dahdah emerged with a porcelain cup: “Enjoy,” he smiled. The smell was intoxicating. I cradled the tiny cup with something bordering on inquisitive reverence; observing the colour and crema. I carefully brought the cup to my lips and tasted coffee for the first time in my young life. That experience is perfectly described by an old Turkish proverb:
Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love.
The combination of bitter and sweet was one I would measure all future brews against — for the most part, unfavourably. I was now an eleven-year-old who screwed up her face at International Roast.
I learnt so much from the Dahdah family. Language and love; resilience and respect. Perhaps as a first generation Australian, with parents who had an accent — who looked and sounded different — I was naturally empathetic.
But for all our familial dysfunction we shared fundamental values: The importance of education; treating others as you want to be treated; and that everyone — irrespective of gender, sex, colour or creed — deserves a life of peace and prosperity. We’re all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.
Or, as in my case, a daughter of Lilith.