Lost with no translation

Who: me
What: the Middle East’s largest media event
Where: the Atlantis hotel in Dubai (you know, the one on the human-made island shaped like a palm tree)
When: a warm and humid morning in May
How: . . .


I walked into the conference with a confident stride.  Feeling fabulous in my black “I-am-serious-about-the-career-I-don’t-have” dress, Kenneth Cole heels and a Hermes scarf lent to me for the day by a dear dear friend (who lends out Hermes scarves anyway?).

I set my stuff down on a chair in the crowded hotel lobby so I could take a look at the program.  The lobby was filled with the who’s who of the Arab media world, after all the annual Arab Media Forum is the Middle East’s largest media event.  I had talked my way in to the free affair by spouting off some monologue about being a journalism student in the states and gently eluding (maybe adamantly stating) that I worked for my friend’s production firm in New York.  A little white lie never hurt.

A thorough examination of the program indicated that I had to pick one of three television workshops for the first session and then the rest of the sessions were to be held in the main ballroom (including one being patronized by…

———…Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, UAE Prime Minister and Vice-President, and Ruler of Dubai…

—————–– yup, they write that every time his name is mentioned in print:

———…Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, UAE Prime Minister and Vice-President, and Ruler of Dubai)…

IMG_0392I settled on a workshop entitled “Egyptian TV Channels: Will They Restore Glory to the Egyptian Media??” because what can go wrong when there are two question marks at the end of a sentence?

After a quick cup of coffee I located the breakout room, showed my conference badge at the door and found a seat.  The talk didn’t start for another 20 minutes so I took some time to read through the remainder of the program and text a friend who was most likely sitting in her office.

I looked at my watch: five minutes until this thing gets started.

I wonder if this will be in English?

Wait, where did that thought come from?  Of course it will be in English…right?

Time to use a lifeline.  I’m going to text a friend.

“Do you think this will be in English?” I write and hit send.  Message sent.

IMG_1031I glance around and notice for the first time that I am one of only six women in the room – one of which is on the stage as a presenter.  I also notice that every one of the sixty people looks Arab.

“I would think so,” says the text in response.


Then a follow-up text appears.  “But you never know…”

Damn.  Two minutes to go.  If I have any chance of sneaking out with my ego still intact I would have to make my move soon.

I know Arabic is the official language of Dubai and the UAE and the entire Middle East, but practically everyone speaks English here.  Seymour Hersch is speaking later and I’m pretty sure he is not fluent in Arabic…or is he?  And didn’t I see a couple other Americans in the list of presenters…?

Static in the speakers interrupts my thoughts as the room falls silent.  The panel of five presenters settles into their chairs.  The moderator steps onto the low stage and raises the microphone to his lips.

IMG_1909I wish I could type what he said, but I can’t – because it was all in Arabic.  I waited for the translation, but everything that followed was also in Arabic.  Every word – Arabic.  I casually glance to my left and see a room full of people listening intently.  My chances of escape now are less than slim.

“It’s in Arabic.  No translation.  What do I do?!” I quickly type and shoot the text out.

I should probably tell you where I am sitting in the room.  Front and center.  Okay, not first row middle seat, but pretty damn close.   One row back and four seats from the center.  There are lovely fluent Arabic speakers on my left, my right, and for rows behind me.  In front of me is another full row of these fantastic Arabic speakers.  I’m surrounded by people who know exactly what is going on here.  They understand every last word.

“Sit with a pretty Arab smile and meditate,” says the return text.

IMG_1970I’m not sure how a pretty Arab smile differs from a pretty American smile, but I pull it off.  For the next 90 minutes I sit and listen.  Listen to the presenters and the moderator.  Listen to the audience as I pass the microphone from the man asking a question of the panel on my right to the woman waiting to ask her question on my left.  I nod at times that seem appropriate and smile when the audience responds to a statement with laughter.  I perfect the art of being studiously attentive.

At the end of the talk I applaud the panel and slowly gather my belongings to leave the room.

Once I leave this room I can pretend none of this happened.  Not one of these thousands of people will even know.  I can go through the next two days without being “that girl.”

IMG_1634I find the main ballroom, which is conveniently enough the location of all the remaining sessions.  I ask the woman in the abaya scanning my badge at the door if there will be a translator available for this talk and she hands me a set of headphones and tells me to switch to channel two for English.

“Were these available for the last sessions?”  I hesitantly ask.

“No.  Not for the workshops.  Only for main ballroom,” she responds in nearly perfect English.

I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I didn’t just put myself thorough all of that for nothing.  In actuality though, it was a good experience.  As is the case with most Americans I can only speak one language, but even though I travel a lot and only speak English (and un poco Espanol) I am rarely in a situation in which I am left completely in the dark.  We should all be in the dark sometimes.  I think it’s good for our constitution.

IMG_2046The subsequent talks go off without a hitch and the handy headphone translator is oh so helpful.  A couple of the sessions, I find, are even in English (I was right Seymour Hersch does not speak Arabic).

I will pretend that nothing was amiss with the morning session.

An attractive man introduces himself to me at one of the next talks and we meet up later in the afternoon for lunch.  As we sit down to enjoy a beautifully catered spread he sparks up some conversation.

“Let me ask you,” he says.  “I saw you first at the workshop on Egyptian TV in Arabic.  Then I meet you in next session and you use translator.”

I swallow my bite of Arabic bread dipped in hummus.  Crap.


How did he recognize me?

“I do not understand,” he presses.  “Do you speak Arabic or not?”

A pretty Arab smile spreads across my face.

“Well…” I begin.


Hail to the Arabian fish gods

A perfectly toasted pinenut, the sunset in Southern Utah, Skyping with my Dad, and the Deira fish market…these are a few of my favorite things.

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I love the Deira fish market.  Everything about it.  The long taxi ride to get there in midday traffic.  The smell of the sea after it has been sitting out in the hot Arabian sun.  The passionate vendors that adamantly fight for each sale.  The rows of fresh produce both exotic and mundane.  The smiling faces.  The boisterous voices.


Help! My shrimp has turned into a lobster.

Help! My shrimp has turned into a lobster.

There is an art to shopping at the fish market.  The finesse with which you conduct yourself dictates an experience that goes far beyond stopping at your neighborhood grocer.  The process starts at the moment you step into your taxi…

“Hello!  How are you?”  I chirp in my normal amiable tone.  “Deira fish market please.  And if possible could you wait at the market for the return ride?”

“Fish market at Deira…are you buying fish?” the driver responds as he glances into the rear-view mirror.

“Yes, of course!” I announce as I go on babbling about how much I love the fish market.  “It’s my favorite place in Dubai.  Well, there and the aquarium.  Have you seen the fish tanks in the…”

“No fish in my taxi,” he interrupts in a thick Indian accent.

“Oh…really?  You have a no fish rule?” I say feeling slightly defeated.

“Fish smell.  Other people no like fish smell.  They say ‘What that smell?  What is bad smell in taxi?’ No fish in taxi,” he says obviously determined to put a snag in my shopping day.

As I get out and wait for another taxi to take me to my little slice of culinary heaven I consider the decision I just made.  Getting dropped off at the fish market without a guaranteed return ride is a dangerous predicament for a few important reasons.  First, the taxi stand is not close to the market, which means a short walk.  Second the taxi stand does not always have a taxi at it, which means there could be considerable waiting involved.  Third, there is no shade at the taxi stand.  Not a building, a tree, an overhang.  Nothing.  You wait at the side of a road hoping that a taxi might stumble upon your remote location.

And finally the reason that makes all the above reasons legitimate…at noon on your average June day, the temperature is about 47˚ C.  Which is, oh, about 117˚ F.  One hundred and seventeen freakin’ degrees.

I may have lived in a third floor walk-up in South Philly with no air conditioning and it’s true that I have camped in the desert in Southern Utah in August, but, call me a wuss, none of that comes close to standing on the pavement in Dubai in 117˚ heat.

IMG_1049My next taxi driver has no bone to pick with fish (pun intended) and whisks me away without a second glance.

I can already smell the mixture of seafood and sun as the taxi door slams behind me.  I take a deep inhale and try to remember when fresh seafood and hot hot humidity ever went so well together.  Before my foot has a chance to land on the curb a swarm of Pakistani men pushing wheelbarrows is upon me.  I wave and give a confident nod to one and the rest fall back to prey on the next arrival.

My feet hit the pavement, walking between the stands filled with the vibrant greens, oranges and reds of fresh fruit and vegetables.  Watermelons, oranges, radishes, arugula, eggplant, mangos stacked so tall around me appear as if they could topple at any moment.  My man with the wheelbarrow keeps pace just behind me.  He is dressed just as they all are in a dark green jumpsuit with snaps up the front, dark leather sandals and a white towel folded on top of his head to provide a small relief from the unrelenting sun.  His skin is as dark as a piece of stained walnut and looks as if it has spent most of its 50 years on this planet in the company of the midday sun.  He smiles at me with an crooked grin as we turn to head past the produce and into the fish stalls.

IMG_1037It’s getting close to 1 PM, which means that the hundreds of vendors are packing up their wares for the afternoon rest (local businesses close from about 1 PM to 4 PM each day).  I look around the sea of light blue uniforms on the fish merchants and the faces, tanned and dirty from the morning’s work until my eyes meet a familiar pair.  He smiles broadly and motions for me to come over to the white plastic fish tables I front of him.  The chaos of packing up, negotiating, outselling, laughing and yelling beats around us like the rhythm of a drum.

“My customer.  Yes.  I pack up.  Market close.  You want?” He begins in broken English as he reaches into the ice in the box at his feet and pulls out a glistening hammour.

In 10 words he accomplishes so much.  First he establishes that I am indeed his regular customer.  This he does partially for the vendors around him to claim his possession over my sale, but mostly he does it for my benefit.  It’s a courtesy really.  It’s as if he is saying in the kindest way possible “Listen, white lady.  I know that we all look alike to you especially since we are all dressed in these grungy blue outfits and I just want to assure you that it’s okay that you don’t know me from the next guy as long as I get your sale.”  In the next five words he let’s me know that the market is closing and that is why the fish are not on display but in the midst of being packed up.  And in the final two words he confirms that he knows which fish I prefer and is ready with a gem of a selection.

I love the efficiency of a country that knows how to run on multiple dialects.







I make my selections.  Pretending I know something about the fish types, the quality of the oversized prawns (correct me if I am wrong, but the word shrimp means small, right?) and the art of negotiation.  My English teacher in high school taught me a lot, most of which I promptly forgot, but one thing she taught me sticks with me at moments like this.  “Fake it ‘til you make it.”  I’m faking it Mrs. Esther.   Definitely faking it.

The man pushing the wheelbarrow grabs the bags containing my purchases from the merchant and promptly commences a fight with two other men in green jumpsuits.  I sigh and roll my eyes as a smile creeps across my sweat-drenched face.  These guys are serious about their commission.  You see, the man pushing the wheelbarrow is my assistant for the time that I am at the market.  He pushes the cart.  He collects my bags as I go stall to stall. He gets my fish cleaned.  He loads my purchases into the taxi.  And when necessary, he looks after me, his customer, with vehement protection.  He will not have someone else handle my fish from the vendor to the cleaner.  He will not take the chance that some guy gets a piece of his commission.  He is determined and I appreciate him for that.

“Clean and cut?” he asks as he swats at the hands around him vying for a piece of the action.

“No cut,” I say.  “Only clean.  No filet.”

“Okay, Okay, Okay,” he confirms. “Clean?” he asks holding up the bag of prawns.

“Yes.  Clean. Shukran (thank you),” I respond following his direction by using as few words as possible to aid our communication.  “I go to produce,” I say as I point to the fruit and vegetable vendors.

He nods understanding that I am telling him where to find me when he comes back from having the fish cleaned.  He throws the bags back into his wheelbarrow and shuffles off to the fish cleaning station – an open air facility with 50 men clamoring to scale, clean, gut and filet anything that attempts to come close to their sharpened knives.  I head the other direction and turn towards the vegetable stands.

My regular vendors smile and wave vigorously for me to pay attention to the fresh vegetables they shake in my direction.

“Hello.  Hello.  Excuse me.  Hello.  Bitter melon!  Cauliflower!  Lemons!  Fresh.  Very fresh.”  The two young men yell in my direction.

“Hello!  How are you?” I smile and start pointing to items and naming desired quantities.

By the time I have picked out my selection of vegetables, my pal with the wheelbarrow is back.  I flash a big smile (anyone see a pattern here?) and open the bags to ensure that the prawns were cleaned and the fish was gutted, but not filleted.  I pay for my vegetables as they are loaded into the wheelbarrow next to me.  We head across the aisle together to the fruit stands.  After a warm greeting I go about picking golden pineapples, bananas and papayas, dark green avocados and bright maroon pomegranates.  The seller hands me a lychee fruit to taste and I crack the skin to get to the sweet flesh inside.  The juice drips down my chin and mixes with the sweat pooling on my chest.  The sun glistens through an opening in the overhang as I reach into my purse once more to complete the purchase.

We walk towards the parking lot to meet up with my taxi driver and load the purchases into the boot.  The sun and sweat have adhered my clothes to my body.  I pay my loyal assistant for his help and climb into the back seat waving and smiling a final good-bye as he shuffles away with his wheelbarrow leading the way.

My very first fish filet.

My very first fish filet.

I relax into the air-conditioned cab and discuss Pakistani-US relations with the driver in as many words as we can find in common as we fight the infamous Dubai traffic on our way back to Business Bay.  Back in the apartment I put everything away and pull out a cutting board and my favorite filet knife.  As much as I love the fish market, the most beloved part of the crazy ordeal comes at this moment of solace in the kitchen.  The moment when it is just me and my fish.  Face to face.  I thank him for being so beautiful and for nourishing me so well.  And then, I firmly place the knife against his skin and make my first cut.

Coffee and Dates

Omani coffee and dates are very different from an Omani coffee date, but I wouldn’t mind having one of those as well.

Omani coffee in a majlis in A'Roos

The sun glimmers off Omani coffee in a majlis in A'Roos

Dates conveniently enough grow on a tree called the date palm. Okay, it has some fancy Latin name like Phoenix dactylifera, but let’s make this easier on us. The date palm grows everywhere in the Middle East: farms, roadsides, parks, the tiny patch of soft ground in the middle of a turn about (that would be “a traffic circle” to Americans). The fruits of its labor are an acquired taste – one that I did not have the pleasure of acquiring until I entered Oman.


A date tree full of, well...dates.

A date palm full of, well...dates.


I have eaten dates on a number of occasions in the states – the benefit (or disadvantage as the case may be) of living with a family that spends half of their time in the Middle East. As a self-proclaimed foodie I will put just about anything in my mouth twice (once to try it and the second time to make sure it was as bad as my memory understood it to be). The continuous date trying exchange would typically go something like this.

“I brought you a present from Dubai…” says the voice coming from the other room.

“Yay! I love presents!” I respond enthusiastically.

“This is one of Thomas’ favorites and Thomas knows his dates,” I hear as the matte gold box is opened on the granite counter beside me.

“Oh…dates…thanks,” I muster up the nerve to reach inside the package for a sample and take a tiny bite. “Mmmm. I’ll have to find a new recipe for these little babies. Thanks for thinking of me,” I manage to get out hiding the hesitation in my voice.

A Date in a Blanket from Aliza Green’s cookbook, Starting with Ingredients: Baking is one of the recipes that has helped me overcome my fear of all things date. You essentially stuff a date with an almond and wrap it in cheddar-curry dough and then bake it. What could be wrong about that? I mean, you could wrap a brick in this dough and I’d eat it.

I knew coming into the Middle East that I was going to have to get over my distaste of dates and fast, but how? Enter the majlis in A’Roos.

boysaroosfixedDriving up the road, the village of A’Roos looks like a smattering of 30 or so houses in the rolling landscape of the Jebel Akhdar mountains in Oman. girlaroosfixedAcross the street, a lone square building and an open-air majlis overlook a spacious valley. As soon as we climbed out of our four-wheel drive vehicles we were greeted by two dishdasha-adorned men and a handful of young children. As the children made their way towards us, we filled their arms with gifts for the village residents – toys, art supplies, games, sewing and shaving kits.


Because a good translation is always needed




With the kids running off to show their mothers their new loot, the young men led us to the majlis where we made English-Arabic conversation and shared photos and life stories.


Dates are considered the most important crop in Oman and have tremendous agricultural, religious and social significance. Coffee and dates were offered to us over introductions. The dates seemed to be the reason to enter the majlis, the means to stay and the way to connect.


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