I should have taken photos. But I didn’t.
Last night a teacher friend and I went to a student’s camel farm. His family’s farm, really. I’ll post about the whole experience shortly. For now, let me just describe the meal.
At the end of the evening, we were treated to a true Emirati meal. Everyone (all male, of course) gathered around a mat on the floor where there was a feast spread out before us: there was a huge platter that took two men to carry in, loaded with biryani spiced rice, and atop the bed of rice, there sat a freshly roasted goat or sheep, or some mystery animal. Spread out around the edges of the mat were numerous plates with hummus, freshly prepared flat bread, roasted and fresh veggies, various other meats, and so forth.
All the kandora-clad folks settled down, not cross-legged (“Women only sit like that,” one of the boys told us, “Men sit like this.”), but with one leg tucked under and to the side, and the other knee up, foot flat on the ground. My friend Pj and I were seated next to the elder man of the household, the grandfather, which must have been an honor. We waited to sit down until after the old man did and he invited us to. Everything was eaten with the hands. Or rather, basically with the right hand. That includes rice. “You want yogurt on rice?” We were asked. “Sure.” They poured plain yogurt on the rice, or rather, on portions of the rice. Then the challenge: eat rice with no utensils. I made a mess. The yogurt helped the rice stick together, but I’m not well practiced at this whole thing, and I had to scoot closer to the mat. The old man, whose name I was never told, cut some slices of meat and set it before me (on top of a ton of other stuff, of course). I made a gesture of declining and thanks, but the signal seemed to go either ignored or not understood. Everyone ate, other than the initial exchanges I mentioned, in complete silence. The father of my student grabbed the skull from the butchered beast and ripped the jaw off from it, and removed the tongue. That exposed the brain, and he placed the skull in front of me and gestured for me and Pj to try it. “Good,” he said. We both declined. I feel positive I’d have declined even if I were not vegetarian. Eventually I told them that I did not eat meat, and then there was a sort of look of relief on their faces, and the old man passed me a whole tomato, and presented me with half of a raw onion. I laughed, and they seemed to be entirely okay with me not trying the mysterious meat after that. Once, when I cracked open a can of 7-up, I noticed a young man across from me kind of murmur something to the guy at his side. He was indicating my drink. I noticed I was holding it in my left hand, and watching his face, I switched it to the other hand, and he grinned a little and gave me an approving look.
When folks were done, they just sort of disappeared from the, er, not table. My students weren’t in the room, as I guess there wasn’t space at the…rug…for them. After enough people had eaten their fill and migrated out, the father called, and in came a new batch, this time consisting entirely of youth. Pj and I finished our food and headed out to the living room, but the first stop was to wash our hands.
At the sinks, we looked at each other and just grinned. “That was incredibly awkward,” I said. “I know,” he replied. “And yet it was incredibly cool.”
The hummus was delicious. The bread, fresh and good. The veggies, both roasted and otherwise, tasty. When I managed to get the rice into my mouth, it was good. I left quite stuffed, and despite feeling more than a little out of my element, I think that I got to be a part of something I’d have never even witnessed, were it not for my students.