Daily Archives: May 22, 2011

Restaurant with a view, Dubai-style

A view of the Mall of the Emirates. See the ski slope?

As you’ve probably guessed from the subjects of these two most recent updates (they’ve been a long time coming, haven’t they? I’ve been a terrible blogger of late), I’ve been on a visit to Dubai. While there, I was living not far from the massive Mall of the Emirates — otherwise known as the mall with its own indoor ski slope — which pretty much dominates the landscape in the area. I mean, you can see that damn ski slope (covered of course, can’t have all that artificial snow melting in the desert sun) jutting out of the top of the mall’s roof from miles away; it looms in the horizon as you zoom down Sheikh Zayed Road and prepare to  turn off into Al Barsha (the area of Dubai where the the mall is located). With the possible exception of the local LuLu Hypermarket with its unapologetically garish, hard-to-miss red, green and purple signboard (part of a chain of huge and kitschy stores in the Gulf that Indians head to for all their needs, and the ultimate symbol of Malayali pride in the Middle-East, owned as it is by a Mallu who’s giving the sheikhs a run for their money), Mall of the Emirates is the single largest landmark in the area.

Which is why I found the name of this tiny roadside restaurant tucked away on one of the side streets by the humungous mall so very perfectly apt. Above a cheerful red and white canopy, the signboard of the restaurant proclaims simply, “Mall-View Restaurant.” It even has, beneath said canopy, little tables and chairs set out on the pavement, so its patrons can, presumably, sit, sip coffee, smoke a sheesha, and drink in the view of The Mall. Even if all you can see are tall, sand-coloured side walls of said mall. After all, everywhere else in the world, you have restaurants and bistros and hotels enthusiastically named “Sea-View” or “Ocean-View” or “Lake-View” or “Mountain-View” or “Spring-View” or “Park View”, even if you can only glimpse at a sliver of the ocean waves from one corner of the restaurant, or if you need to lean waaay over the rails of your hotel room balcony to actually see a dash of green from the park. It’s all about location, and owners have for years and years taken advantage of any sort of proximity to city landmarks to make their establishments seem more attractive.

Well, what are the landmarks of Dubai? Malls, malls, malls and more malls, right? Okay, there’s the sail-shaped super-swish Burj Al Arab hotel, and the world’s tallest building (at least I think it still is… who can keep up these days?), the Burj Khalifa (which, incidentally is linked to — what else — the city’s biggest mall, the Dubai Mall). But apart from that, all you have as distinguishable landmarks in a city covered with homogeneous, glass-fronted skyscrapers are its malls. You have the ridiculously exclusive pyramid-shaped Wafi Mall, you have the Aspen of Dubai, the Mall of the Emirates, you have the Persian domes and Chinese pagodas of Ibn Battuta mall (it tracks the travels of Ibn Battuta, see), you have Madinat Jumeira, a mall modeled to look like an old-world souq (ironically one of the few chances you’ll have to see any traditional architecture in Dubai), and you have the mall that’s so big, it’s called a city and has its own waterfront — Festival City. Everything in Dubai revolves around these malls. You give directions based on these malls. Visitors plan their itinerary around how many malls they can cover in a day. Residents mark the passing of time by counting the number of new malls that have come up recently.

And so it is that Dubai boasts of probably the world’s first ‘Mall View Restaurant’. It makes such perfect sense, doesn’t it? Why waste your time on Sea-View or Desert-View restaurants in this city? This savvy restaurenteur has it figured out just right; he’s positioned his property close to and named it after one of the landmarks that really matter in Dubai’s landscape — that mecca of merchandising, the mall. Wish I’d taken a picture of it!

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Travel: Falconry in Dubai

Photo: Shyam Krishnamurthy

The sun is beating down hard on us when we arrive – a motley group of tourists from across the world – to watch a falconry display in Dubai late one afternoon. We’re on the edge of a vast expanse of open desert, smoothly undulating sand dunes as far as we can see. The setting couldn’t be more perfect.

But I’m feeling rather cynical, jaundiced really, after the camel ride we’d just been fobbed off with. The horsey ride I took on the Marina as a four-year-old was longer and more thrilling, and when (like said four-year-old) I’d tried to wheedle for a longer ride, I’d been denied with a firm ‘Yalla!’ by the Arab in charge.

Still, I wait patiently. After all, falconry in the U.A.E. is supposed to be something special, an ancient tradition that has morphed into a modern sport patronised by the rich and the powerful of the land. The falcons and their falconer arrive in a smart white four-wheel-drive vehicle, and I’m mildly disappointed as they dismount. I’d vaguely assumed that the birds would be bigger (I’d been picturing something more majestic, along the lines of a Bald Eagle), and their falconer would look more fierce.

Instead a slim, unassuming-looking young man in blinding white traditional garb goes about setting up his paraphernalia expressionlessly. The falcons – they’re Peregrines, I later find out – are tethered to a perch in the sand, with a delicately ornamental hood covering their eyes (it seems cruel to me that they’re blinded, until I find out that it’s needed to allow the birds to adjust their powerful vision to the new surroundings).

Still, with no change in expression, the falconer gets one of the birds to perch on his arm (covered with a cushiony cuff), and the tourists promptly erupt in a volley of photo-clicking. The bird is then transferred onto the arms of the more intrepid visitors and there’s even more picture-taking. After about 20 minutes of this, I’m convinced that the gentleman is soon going to pack up and leave, and if I asked for more, I’d get a stern ‘Yalla!’

Boy, am I wrong. Because once the pictures are taken, the real show begins. Out of an old bag comes a hapless pigeon tied to a long rope (the prey, I realise in a dawning mix of horror and awe), and one of the falcons is released from its hold, its hood removed. With a single shout, the falconer swings the pigeon into the air, and the falcon takes to flight. Swooping through the air, gliding and diving, the falcon suddenly doesn’t seem that small. Suddenly, it’s just as majestic as I’d imagined it would be.

Now begins a cat-and-mouse game between the falcon and the falconer, as they recreate the age-old chase of predator and prey, the pigeon swinging just out of the reach of the falcon each time it nears. Centuries ago, the Bedouins captured and trained these falcons to hunt for meat that would supplement their diet of dates and camel milk. Today, the falconer might be merely putting on a show for a group of tourists who ‘ooh’ and ‘ahhh’ with each swoop of the bird; but, I realise, some things are unchanged. Such as the intensity of the falcon’s attack, as it pounces, withdraws, re-assesses the situation and swoops down again in increasingly aggressive motions; and the skill and training of the falconer, as he matches wits with the predatory bird.

It’s like an airborne bull-fight, between the falconer who swings the prey away in increasingly wide loops, and the hungry falcon bearing down upon him. It’s fascinating, a little scary and borderline cruel, especially when the victorious falcon is tethered again after getting just a couple of pecks at the pigeon. Now falcon number two is released, and it becomes clear very early that this one isn’t following the script. It’s bigger, more ornery and less in control, and swerves dangerously close to the watching group of tourists a few times.

Turns out it’s because this one is newer to training although it’s older by six months (they’re both females, I’m told, and the first is just a year old). How long does it take to train them? I ask our laconic falconer later. He shrugs. “It depends on the brain of the falcon,” he says in his heavily-accented English, tapping his head. “Sometimes, a week is enough. Sometimes months.”

When the show is done (the second one brought to heel by our ever-calm falconer), the falcons are cooled down with water, and then, finally, allowed to have at the pigeon. As a group of delighted little kids watch (with gleeful shouts of ‘Ewwww gross!’), they rip into the pigeon in a National Geographic-style moment that’s both impossible to turn away from and faintly nauseating to watch.

The whole thing really is quite an adrenaline rush, and this is just the tame, touristy version of the sport. Definitely better than the camel ride. Yalla!

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