Sunday, November 30, 2008


Hijab [he-jab] or Al Malfa'a [al maa-al-faah] are the names given to the scarf worn by about 80% of all Gulf women who have started to menstruate. It conceals the hair, but leaves the face open to view.

A woman who wears the hijab is called a Mutahajiba [mut-ta-hajj-ji-bah] and once she starts to wear a hijab she will only show her hair to females, close male relatives and her husband.

There seems to be an entire etiquette of how to wear the hijab, depending on your religious preferences. It can be tight around the face, covering all the hair and coming almost to the eyes, or it can be pushed back with most of the hair showing on the crown of the head.

Some women wear a skull cap under the hijab to keep it in place and Kuwait is thought to be 'the place' to buy these items. In the Gulf the usual colour of choice is black, although there are other colours seen occasionally. A recent trend is to wear hijabs at women only functions - in case the photos are seen by a non-male relative.

I think if I lived in the west I'd presume it was the men who expected women to wear the hijab or cover up. My experiences here tell me it's often the women who expect women to cover up; I've only ever been asked to cover up by other women ...

Urban Legends
I was attending Arabic classes and sat next to another English woman who was completedly covered from head to foot in black; hijab and abiya (the all-covering black garments). The next morning I was recalling the story to an Arab woman friend (who dresses in exactly the same way) and her reaction was, “What on earth is she wearing that for?”

I remember once seeing a woman breast feeding her baby with her hijab on. I was shocked and the experience really did point out to me the differences between western and Arab attitudes; to her mammary glands were simply a means to feeding her child and it was her hair which should be covered. I felt it should have been the other way around and was embarrassed to see parts of her body I thought should be covered.

Another story I remember is the housemaid who, when she worked for a Bedouin family in Saudi Arabia, was instructed to wear her hijab whilst she sleeping in bed at night.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Men's Dress

Although each country in the Gulf has a slight variation on its traditional dress, most Arab men will wear a similar outfit for work and formal occasions. The thobe [thobe] is the traditional white dress, the gutra [gutt-ttrrah] the traditional headcover and the black rope or agal [aa-Gaal] keeps the headcovering in place.

Thobe [thobe] or Dishdasha [dish-dash-ah]
For most of the year most, if not all men, will wear white to reflect the sunlight (although Omani men also wear a light purple coloured thobe). In the winter months men often wear a darker, more heavy-weight thobe.
Most thobes have a breast pocket on the left hand side and all will have a vertically slit pocket, just above the hips, on both of the side seams. In the UAE and Oman a tassel [fu-ra-kha] is sewn into the neckline and hangs down the front of the thobe.

Traditionally there are two garments worn under the thobe; 1 - a white cotton tee shirt and 2 – under-trousers, made from the same material as the thobe and known as a sirwal [sir-waal]. On the head will be a 3 piece covering consisting of a gutra, an agal and a thigyah.

Gutra [gutt-trrah] or Smagh [saa-maa-Gh]
Gutras come in light, plain white material, whilst the smagh is made from a heavier cloth and has an all over red or black check design (think Yasser Arafat).

Agal [aa-gaal]
Agals are the black cords which are worn on top of the head, by men, to keep their gutras in place. Traditionally boys would need to reach puberty before they were taught how to wear an agal – it was a sign of entering manhood.

It is said agals were originally used by camel herders to ring the legs of their camels, this was done to stop them wandering off when the nomads bedded down for the night. It is also said that in the UAE only Gulf nationals are allowed to wear the agal.

Qatari agals, unlike the other Gulf states, have two long black cords attached to the agal which hang down to the small of the back. At the end of each cord is a little tassel, known in slang Arabic as 'tea bags'.

Thagiyah [tha-gey-yah]
Under the gutra you will find most men wear a large crocheted skull cap or thagiyah to stop the gutra slipping and the hair in place.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

More coffee anyone?

Arabic coffee is always served in small cups with no handles, all about the same size and shape as an egg cup.

When serving your guests Arabic coffee, hold the coffee pot in your left hand and stack several cups in your right hand (left hands are only to be used when going to the toilet). Fill the top cup about half-full with coffee (this means guests keeps receiving piping hot coffee) and then stretch out your hand and offer it to your guest.

Most households will have hot coffee and tea available at all times for guests - and you will mostly be offered your first drink from the boiled pot. Once you've drunk your first cup it's probable you'll be offered freshly made coffee.

To make Arabic coffee
First roast your beans to taste, then ground to the right ammount of coarseness and then add the ground cardamom, saffron and finally the boiling water. It was suggested the reasoning behind taking all this time to prepare the coffee is to keep guests in the house longer and to be able to offer more hospitality.

Coffee Pots [da-laaH]
Traditionally Arabic coffee was only served from a vessel similar in shape to a large coke bottle with a conical lid, with a very large handle and spout. It is said original coffee pots were designed on purpose to engage all the five senses:
1. the smell and taste from the coffee brewing and being drunk
2. sounds from a bead in the lid which rattled when the pot is moved
3. feeling of warmth from the heat of the fire
4. vision through reading the engravings carved into the coffee pot

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Every day during the date season we watch the date-pickers put on their harness, wrap themselves around the tree trunks and then swing up the palms to remove ripened dates. Knives are sharpened and the dates are cut at the root of the branches.

Waiting for the smell of the date harvest and then the endless chewing of just-harvested dates is something we look forward to all year long. Countdown begins in February and the wait goes on until July, with regular tree inspections to ensure we're on target for first harvest.

We try to keep four or five varieties washed, cleaned and available at all times for our guests. Dates have been served with Arabic coffee for longer than anyone can remember and are offered from small woven baskets or glass dishes. Tahina [taa-Hee-nah] or sesame seed paste is always on hand for dipping.

My favourite dates are called suqarie [souQ-kar-ree] and come from just one town in central Saudi; Qaseem. These dates are both perfectly chewy (not too chewy, not too soft) and have the exact ammount of sweetness (not sickly sweet, just sweet enough to remind you of your childhood).

Putting those in your mouth and chewing is like entering food heaven; all talking stops and the whole brain enters the realm of ectasy and concentrates on the flavour. It shocks me every time that this perfection can grow from the middle of a desert, how is that?

When the man from Saudi brings us these dates once a year he is greeted as a hero throughout the house and there's never, ever enough to go round. Friends fornicate themselves upon us to have more and more; once eaten, there are simply no other dates that compare to these.

Types of Dates

Al Khunaizi [KH-nai-see]
Large and red. The most sugary and the driest, your mouth feels like it's lost its salavia when you chew these. Sold in September.

Al Khalas [KHa-las]
Enormous, very long. Often described by date addicts as the most delicious. Harvested in July/August.

Al Mebselli [meb-selli]
Deep yellow. Good to eat these 'half-half' (half soft, half hard). Sold in late July.

Barhi/Barni [Barr-ni]
Sold September/October. Coconut-sugarcane-apple flavor. The softest, most maliable date. Used for cooking and freezes well.

Gorah [Ghooo-rrah]
Yellow, eaten when half soft, half dry. Crunchy and sweet.

Medjool [med-Jool]
(To Be Possessed) Sweet. Larger than other varieties.

Perney [perr-ni]
Big and dark, like big cockroaches. Endless chewing on sweet gum.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ahlan and Welcome to this Blog

Let the tales of the thousand and one coffee cups begin ...

Arabic Coffee [gaH-wah]
To make Arabic coffee you'll need a cooking pot, a flask and some heat. Try to buy your ready mixed Arabic coffee in, or from, Saudi Arabia; their flavour is more punchy, far more alive and clear tasting.

You'll need 1 tablespoon of the mixture for each glass of cold water or cup. Combine the mixture and water together in a saucepan and put it on the heat/fire until it boils. Reduce the heat/flame and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Whilst the liquid is cooking, add ¼ teaspoon of crushed or ground cardamoms [Hail] for each 1 glass of liquid into the flask. Pour the coffee into the flask, making sure to pour slowly and carefully as the coffee will be hot and sometimes air bubbles form in the flask.

Wait half and hour for the flavour to fully develop and then serve half a coffee cup, piping hot to your guests. Remember to always accept Arabic coffee with your right hand even if you're left handed.

Urban Legend
When you've finished drinking and have had enough coffee you should shake the cup back and forth to let the person pouring know you've finished drinking. I remember someone thinking this same rule would apply to all crockery when you were full. This lady picked up her empty plate in both hands and shook it. NO NO NO; the hosts found it highly amusing to see the westerner attempt to rock their plate from side to side.