Majlis means “place of sitting” in Arabic and is a large part of Emirati culture. In typical households, the Majlis consist of a room where guests congregate to discuss affairs of a personal or political nature. The word can describe the sitting area, the actual seats, the room where the sitting is done, or can even represent a council or congregation of elders.
Mashakeek is a “fast food” chain in the Middle East that serves kebabs with vegetables and yogurt in a traditional Omani flatbread. We acquainted ourselves with the place while visiting one of the ubiquitous malls in Al Ain, ready to venture out from the buffet of the hotel we’d been staying at for the first two days of our time here.
So what do Majlis and Mashakeek have in common, you may ask?
To me, they represent a slower pace of life. They represent cleaner food and cleaner living. Mashakeek may be a chain, but the food is Halal – a distinction that carries with it more stringent regulations on how the animal (and then the meat) can be treated, slaughtered, then prepared. The food is considered, as well as the seating and the visiting, to be a sacred thing. They are to be revered and enjoyed for their own sake, not as consumable calories to keep working or a place to get off your feet for a few minutes while ingesting calories or texting someone.
Though western encroachment into these practices has meant that they are dwindling in usage, they are still part of the Emirati culture that I have come to acknowledge and appreciate in the last couple of weeks that I’ve been here. I have had visions of friends visiting, sipping tea or coffee, while we lounge on our own traditional Emirati couches and talk through a pleasant evening. Families and friends that sit together and enjoy each others’ company have a higher chance of maintaining strong and healthy relationships. Perhaps the Majlis maintain halal friendships?
I am always struck by how many lessons can be learned by appreciating little things from every culture I encounter. As a United Statesian, I am humbled when I leave the States and discover that the rest of the world is more like each other and less like us than I would like to imagine. People take pride in speaking more than one language – it is often a necessity. Peoples’ needs don’t change, but it is refreshing to be around those that need less. There are gluttons in every culture – those who have either bought into the marketing of things or those who have tethered their own personal value to the value of the things they have acquired. See The Acorn for more on this…
For every mega mansion that we’ve seen here, there are a dozen in disrepair. Broken windows and crumbling concrete belie the hulking masses of rooms, spiral staircases, and vast corridors left to wind and sand. The rich have spent the money to build the homes, then have either gotten bored or stepped off the gravy train. It is even more glaring when the labor classes live meters away in makeshift hovels and patched-together shelters.
But I digress… Mashakeek serves kebabs that originated in Turkey when soldiers grilled chunks of meat on their swords over an open flame. The shish kebab and Shawarma were imported from Turkey, as well, continuing a sharing of cultural traditions that dates back to the eighth century when the Turks and Arabs fought side-by-side against the Chinese at the Battle of Talas. Food, language, horses, and many other significant cultural traditions were passed back and forth and remain to this day.
For desert cultures, the Majlis was a tent set aside for important discussions. Men would gather all night and hash out weddings, battles, and treaties. They would convene to share stories and laugh with one another. Over the vast distances of sandy seas, the Majlis were a welcome respite for gathering groups of people to meet and greet in a welcoming and natural setting. I imagine that swords were used to cook meat over open flames, then passed around on platters to the men sitting in the Majlis.
Centuries later – my wife, son, and I sat on couches eating kebabs in Al Ain, the longest continually inhabited place on earth. In an airconditioned mall in the United Arab Emiratese, we were participating in one of the oldest traditions on the planet… and discussing the significance of Majlis and Mashakeek.