My friend looked on, aghast, as oil spilled down my shirt.
One second earlier, I had bitten down into, quite simply, the greasiest sandwich I have ever eaten, purchased for the equivalent of 12 US dollars from an operation calling itself The Cheese Truck. The oil poured from a molten block of English cheddar the size of a day planner, mingled with butter from the griddle. And then there was the truffle oil, literal puddles of it, which I had ordered on a whim for an additional ten dirhams. I was eating a fat sandwich, fried in fat, with more fat injected into its belly. But I once heard truffle oil is actually a “good fat,” and anyway, you can’t not order the truffle oil when you’re at the Love Food Festival.
Described on its website as “a celebration of extraordinary food,” the Love Food Festival could be construed as a more refined and self-conscious version of a county fair. Over the course of a mid-February weekend, a plot of turf in pristine Mushrif Park is filled with tents, kiosks, bandstands, demo stages, and “15 of the best street food traders from the streets of London,” trucks and all.
Yes, they literally transported 15 food trucks from London to the UAE. It’s fun to imagine that the trucks drove here through the Balkans, or that they floated lazily through the Suez Canal. Perhaps they went around the Cape of Good Hope. But why would you ship 15 food trucks 3500 miles in order to park them, immobile, in an open field?
The festival is put on by a company that has organized similar events across the UK since 2008, though the Abu Dhabi arm is in its second year. 38,000 people visited the inaugural round of UAE festivals and, if I were to guess, I would say there were 38,000 people there the day I visited this year. I was excited to check it out – in my 18th month of living in Abu Dhabi, I was in a bit of a food rut. I had recently (re)discovered a love for cooking and eating, a realization quite in opposition to my growing feeling that all food in Abu Dhabi tasted the same. The prospect of food trucks (“From London! They have a real food scene there!”) appealed to the vaguely elitist, bougie, West-Coast-USA part of me that was succumbing to food ennui. I chose to see this festival not as a one-off “cultural event,” the type of which come and go in Abu Dhabi all the time, but rather as a harbinger of good things to come. An indication that the people of Abu Dhabi – all 38,000 of them – were hungry for an enjoyable eating experience, an innovative culinary scene, and more creative, varied options for reasonably priced food.
The Fruit and Vegetable Souk at Mina Port (photograph by the author)
In some ways, the restaurant options in Abu Dhabi run parallel to the city’s demographics. There is no lack of good food here, of course. And most of it you can purchase for less than 20 dirhams. South Asian, Levant, Khaleeji, and East African food is plentiful and almost universally delicious – or, at least, well worth the very modest price. Swing the pendulum to the other extreme, and you get the bedazzled and boozy “fine dining” establishments in the beach resorts and high-rise hotels frequented by wealthy tourists. Almost none of these spectacles can offer particularly great food or ambiance (minimalism is not a strong suit in Abu Dhabi restaurant design), and even those that do serve skillful haute cuisine are not worth the money (the exception being Zuma, which is the best restaurant in the city). Of course, most cities have their fair share of not-worth-the-money fancy restaurants – these suspicions are occasionally, gloriously confirmed by scathing NYT reviews such as the recent Per Se debacle – but their foodie reputations don’t rest on tasting menus and wine pairings. Cities stretch their culinary legs smack in the middle of the $-$$ section of Yelp, Zomato, and Tripadvisor.
As I wander around the food festival, peanut oil mist beginning to hang in the air like airport-closing fog, I reflect on the many personal biases that play into my attitude about food in this city. I have tastes that are totally dictated by my background, my hometown, even my parents (who basically thought meat was frivolous, a deprivation that I have been making up for with a lot of steak every since I moved out of the house). I have some small amount of disposable income that I can devote to eating for pleasure and intellectual curiosity, rather than just needing to fill my stomach. And when I talk about food, about cuisine, I’m thinking on a more conceptual or categorical level than just “things we eat.” I’ve never been an artist, but food is like art for me. I can look at and swish around and prod at and slurp on a plate of food the way that some people interact with a painting or a performance. And I suppose cuisine, in the way I’m envisioning it, is a performance. Someone creates something new, exciting, and thought-provoking…and then it’s gone, and won’t happen quite the same way again. But whoever saw it happen might be inspired by it, try to replicate it, and make something new themselves.
Some things are constant, comforting. I go to a place like Foodlands because it offers stability – the man at the counter will reliably give you a couple falafel while you wait, and your shawarma will be spicy and creamy every time. I don’t expect them to do a “deconstructed shawarma with uni and gold leaf,” and I don’t want that – that sounds lame. But for a person who thinks about food as a stimulating, literally and metaphorically nourishing part of life, even shawarma stops being inspiring if you eat it every day. It’s a sad place to be in your life when you start to get sick of shawarma, but I’m only human. And the so-called “fine dining” in Abu Dhabi simply doesn’t offer a better alternative.
Abu Dhabi is putting a lot of effort into defining itself as a cultural hub, a place where the local and global interact to produce expressive, international, boundary-blurring innovation. Whether or not that is happening is food for another essay. But to me, it seems that developing “food culture” should be an obvious part of this type of “development” and “redefining” and “global positioning.” To say Abu Dhabi has no food culture is, of course, absurd. Tell that to the naan guy with the tandoor behind the dry cleaners! So how do I define the gap I’m identifying without using my Western upbringing as the backbone of my argument? What does it mean that I saw a glimmer of hope in a festival modeled on others from Britain, of all places? The best I can say is that Abu Dhabi has a lot of room for thoughtful, intentional, accessible, reasonably-priced food. And, judging by this year’s Love Food Festival, there is a lot of demand.
And, judging by this year’s Love Food Festival, it seems to be a rule that food trucks must incorporate wordplay into their names. Bangwok. Crabbie Shack. Hip Pops. I suppose they are trying to lure us to the window, where the man in the cycling cap will be reliably sardonic and grumpily flirtatious. The “funny names” trend sets a very grim tone, however, when you have purchased a sad and overpriced meal that has been cooked in a bright yellow motor vehicle emblazoned with the words Fried Egg, I’m in Love. (I only use this food truck as an example because of the striking ridiculousness of their pun – this Portland staple actually has excellent food and I endorse them wholeheartedly).
Questionable marketing practices aside, as you walk around the festival grounds you see people truly enjoying themselves. For every British hipster food truck, there’s a local restaurant getting in on the fun. The whole enclosure is filled with a muffled buzz of “ooh”s, “oh!”s, and near-explicit “unngggh”s. Emiratis, expats, tourists, pre-teens, and families line up for Moti Roti. A pair of local mothers, their children playing with the nanny, watch intently as a Food Network Arabia star shows them how to use up their wilting spinach in a coconut noodle sauce. And the food is pretty good! A sushi burrito, a bagel burger, a bread bowl of biryani. Amongst the overwhelming crowds, between the hastily-erected pavilions, under the piles of soiled paper plates, through the muffled dubstep emanating from the halfhearted DJ’s laptop, I see the hint of an emerging culture of food that values unique, whole, thoughtful, reasonably priced foods of all kinds.
So, I get on board and buy the grilled cheese sandwich. The oil drips onto my shirt. Yes, it’s indulgent in a particularly Abu Dhabi way. But it’s playful. It’s make-able at home, though maybe a bit better for being slung from a truck by a man with full sleeve tattoos.
Of course, there are a lot of lingering questions. How does this type of food become a more reliable part of Abu Dhabi’s urban fabric? Is it so easy for a city to simply change its thinking around cooking and eating? Is there a way to do that responsibly? Moreover, who am I to impose my values on this adopted city of mine? How are we defining “creativity” and “good cuisine”? Is this simply a matter of adding more food trucks, or is there something deeper at play? Is this even important? Who would actually benefit from all this?
I don’t know the answers. The more I think about it, the more questions I have. And yet, I see Abu Dhabi (whatever and whoever that means – and probably only some of it, the part that I can see) becoming more interested in the things that create a culture of culinary experimentation. Perhaps people are thinking less about consuming, and more about producing, embracing, savoring, innovating, and making food local. And we are creating spaces for eating that are built around community, inquiry, and pride in the people who love their food and the flavors they bring to the table. And, because it’s Abu Dhabi, we pay 40AED just to get in the door of the food festival. If there is a shift in the food scene, and it’s not just my imagination, that will come with all the pitfalls and tensions of any other scene that purports to refine and enhance a place’s culture. But, judging from the Love Food Festival, it’s happening — and it’s oily, and messy, and delicious.
The original is unfaithful to the translation.
— Jorge Luis Borges
Translation is everywhere at NYUAD. Students and faculty read in translation, translate their own work, and confront the question of what is “lost in translation” every day. Some classes, including Fundamentals of Playwriting (taught by visiting playwright Abhishek Majumdar last semester), integrate translation directly into the writing process — students were encouraged to write their first drafts in any language, and present a final portfolio with the play in the original language and in translation.
The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland. The artist, Eila Hiltunen, attempted to translate the composer’s music into sculpture. (Photograph by Hannah Walhout)
It is common for Writing Fellows to hear from students, “I always write in my first language, then translate later,” or “I am translating in my head every time I write a sentence.” How can this process of translation affect the way we think and write? What can we gain from the act of translation? What can we lose? What amazing things can we create with language on a campus with a hundred different mother tongues?
With this tension in mind, Writing Fellows Claire Pershan and Mohit Mandal have been working for months on a new project they call the Translation Network. The site aims to get the GNU community creating work across languages and grappling with questions of translation and meaning. Electra Street sat down with the team to discuss their work.
Electra Street: Tell us about the project – what are you building here?
Claire Pershan: So, the Translation Network is a digital platform for anyone in the NYU community – anyone with an NYU email address, basically – to post texts that they have written (in any language), and those texts will be available to be translated into any other language. The idea is to create a space to encourage translation, to encourage languages that are not English, to encourage the creation of texts in languages that are not necessarily used in classrooms here. Because, obviously, the student body is so polyglot, and not necessarily encouraged to draw on that amazing resource they have.
Mohit Mandal: I see this website working as a very messy and complicated and dynamic space – because it will kind of mirror how messy and complicated and dynamic translation is. And it will also open up conversations, not only around the production of written work, but also the translation of written work. Because there is a lot that is lost and gained when one crosses from one language to another. As it is right now, in terms of spaces for students and other writers on campus, there isn’t much conversation around translation.
ES: What got you interested in translation? How did this project come to be?
MM: Well, Claire was the one who started this idea. I’ve always been interested in the question of translation and what possibilities there are in the amazing hybrid space between languages, so the two of us started working together in September, and went from there.
CP: I actually thought of this as a ridiculous idea that might happen if I got the job here – this was before I even arrived. I was working at a small Los Angeles publisher called Phoneme Media, and doing some thinking about translation for them. Then, I encountered a project through them called the Enemies Project, which was an event between poets in London and Mexico City. These poets exchanged work, translated each other’s work, and then read simultaneously. So I liked this weird communication across traditional boundaries, and this idea of translator also as creator, and this collaboration and polyphony. And I thought, “Well, NYU has a similar setup between these different campuses, and between different students and faculty who come and go here all the time.” So it seemed like an amazing space to test this project and facilitate more translation.
ES: Why is translation important? NYUAD students certainly read a lot of scholars and writers who have theorized about this (Borges, Derrida, Eco, etc.) – but why is it important on a more tangible level, especially in the NYUAD context?
CP: It’s just everywhere. I think language is an essential technology that we’re using all the time – we haven’t found a better one yet. We have emojis, so we’re working on it. But as long as we’re using language, we’re translating, necessarily.
MM: I think translation is one of those things which is so embedded in our day-to-day lives. Just for our student body, who is constantly translating between languages – and a large part of our student body is bilingual, if not trilingual, which is just crazy to think about. We have so many of these languages roaming around in our heads, so we wanted to have them come together and see what would come out of these interactions.
CP: And I think translation is necessarily political, and necessarily represents (and perhaps reinforces) systems of power and knowledge. So in that sense – I mean, in the United States, there’s that famous percentage: only 3% of all texts published in the U.S. are in translation. Meaning the U.S. is just reading anglophone stuff again and again. I see translation into other languages, from other languages, as working to equalize that and share voices.
MM: We wanted to start within the NYU network, because the notion is that the Translation Network is founded on community. It might even be counterproductive if it’s open to everyone, because that reduces a kind of intimacy that exists in the NYUAD community and the larger GNU.
CP: The student body obviously speaks so many languages other than English. Students are also learning so many other languages, and have the desire to know so many – and to know each other. So I think of the Translation Network as a space where they can do that, in a small way. It would be problematic to extend it outside the GNU, because we shouldn’t be putting translators out of work. It would be dangerous for translation to just turn into a wiki. And the Translation Network is about community, about practice, about small pieces of text. It’s not supposed to be producing the next novels.
ES: How should people use the Translation Network?
CP: The ideal use of it is just for people to put drops in this bucket, and to experiment. I think of this as kind of a heuristic for translation, and as a way for anyone to see themselves as translators – since they’re probably already doing this all the time, without thinking about it in that way. So this is something someone could do in that half-hour break they have after lunch. They read a post, and are inspired by it, and want to translate it into another language. We would also love to see the Translation Network integrated into classroom spaces, since it could be a great tool. But that’s mostly just to get the ball rolling. I want it just to be an open, fun thing. I see it as also a portal for communication, where some student here is maybe practicing Italian – and they can go and read some student’s post from Florence, and translate it into English, or vice versa. This idea of crossing those paths through dialogue with other current students.
MM: Just to add on to the idea of the Translation Network as a tool for community – I see a lot of potential for people learning different languages, especially for, for example, security guards on campus who are taking “English in the Workplace” classes. A lot of the security guards actually write poetry themselves, in Urdu, or in Hindi, or their own native languages – and it would be lovely for these poems to be translated into English, and then translated into other languages as well. And for them to work with their own translations, as they’re learning different languages.
CP: And also, this is not supposed to alienate monolingualism at all. I’m basically monolingual myself. It’s about showing the nuances within language – I would love to be seeing English to English translations, or Arabic to Arabic. It’s about just thinking about words, and there are so many languages that exist within our delineations of “one language.” So I would love to see students really pushing at the border – I would love to see a submission in half Spanish, half English. Any quote-unquote “weird” stuff.
ES: Awesome! So what should people do if they want to submit or get involved?
CP: We’re looking for anything, any text – the Translation Network is really open with the idea of text, because we don’t want it to be just something literary. It’s not necessarily a projection of literature at all. Haikus are something that would be a nice length, because it’s approachable. But if someone wants to give an excerpt of something longer – a journal entry, anything. Anything goes. It’s really easy to go through our website, and people should submit whatever they want, about anything they want. I would also really love to see more translations of stuff that’s there, to be interacting more in the space.
MM: People should definitely feel free to submit work that they’ve already produced. We would love to see snippets of things people have written for class, or journal entries, or personal projects. And eventually, our website will have a neat visualization which shows the relationships between different posts – how one post was changed into another, and what that was changed into. Which I think will make the spiderweb, messy nature of what we do more visual.
The Translation Network is actively looking for contributors, translators, and curators. To submit or translate, simply visit the “Contribute” section of the site. Original submissions will be reviewed for suitability, and translations will be briefly checked for relevance, but no edits will be made.
A team of curators is responsible for reviewing all contributions submitted to the network before posting them to the site. If you are interested in joining Claire and Mohit and participating more closely with the project as a curator, email email@example.com.
[soliloquy id=”4474″]A bedouin coffee party. An old man playing a rababa, its body sparkling and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones. A tourist kneeling in the middle of the bedouin coffee party, pointing at the beautiful rababa inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones, his face very close to the singing old man, smiling for a little too long while his partner takes a picture with her phone.
A window washer hangs from the taller World Trade Center tower, perched over the scene watching the swarms of visitors as the sun begins to set. Why is he still up there?
A fisherman casts a wide net into a body of water in which there are no fish. The salty smell of fish in a fishless, man-made sea.
The crowd ebbs and flows: hundreds of abayas, thousands of kanduras, a sea of rubber flip flops and wriggling toes with chipped polish.
Three teachers get henna in the traditional Emirati style. Their hands look like lumpy spiders. A preteen boy with three cameras around his neck bumps into one of them, smearing her henna on her sleeve. Another teacher pours water from a Masafi bottle as she tries to scrape it off, but all she does is rub it into the denim as the muddy water drips onto the sand and between her toes. The smell of the dye lingers as they depart for the saluki park.
Helvetica signs that say HERITAGE. Bad typesetting spells dwindledtothepointhweremanyspeciesarenowendangered. The seas are over-exploited. The sign implies that should probably not eat hammour if you want to be sustainable.
Old shipbuilders with a rusty awl, their dhow perpetually under construction.Palm fronds on the ground and chanting that sounds like it’s emanating from the earth, but is actually blasting from a speaker muffled with a burlap sack.
Fun fact: qasr has the same root as castle. “Wait, you studied abroad in Spain, right? Is alcázar…whoa! That’s so cool.”
A British man expertly explains the burqa to his wife, referring to it as a “face mask.” A man with a belt made of bullets, holding a gold-plated gun, stands in front of a police station. The line of his rifle barrel points to a sand pit full of children in orange vests, digging.
A poster explains the growth cycle of date palm fruit. Can you eat them when they’re green? No, you cannot. But when they’re just slightly unripe you might be able to make juice out of them.
A sand bag with a fax number on it. An LED billboard across the street, advertising the QASR AL HOSN FESTIVAL. A festival celebrating a fort that you are never allowed to enter.
A man with an iPad, eyes wide. “Would you mind taking a quick survey about your experience tonight?”
A wedding celebration.
An antique gramophone.
A prayer rug on the sand.
A tree with fat beanpods, hanging.
A man swinging an axe at a date palm.
A minaret perfectly aligned between two glassy buildings.
A small boy holds a large falcon.
A smile with missing teeth.
A toddler in a tiny kandura is placed on a pony against his will. La, ‘ami, la!
An anchor stuck in a gleaming fishing basket.
A fur-lined abaya.
A woman in a burqa atop a camel.
A man sitting on a pile of crates, wearing a tartan skirt and taking a swig from a clay jug.
Wheelchair hubcaps painted with the UAE flag, black slowly fading to red, to green, to white as the owner wheels up a ramp onto a boat.
Children with gold tangled in their hair.
You can go to the Emirati Salad stand to learn about the edible plants of the region. The first bush looks familiar. “I think I’ve eaten that one! Do you pickle it?” He asks where, eyebrow raised. “…Georgia?” Well – it is a desert plant, he explains. He doesn’t think you ate it in Georgia. He chuckles and gives you a bite of a succulent-type thing that tastes like a sour cucumber.
A family of five eats legaimat on the ground, leaning against a dune in the corner behind the houbara enclosure. Cardamom fog lingers in the air, and you can hear the syrupy rosewater dripping back into the paper bowl, or at least you think you can.
Spotlights shooting from the turret of the fortress, hazy in the night sky and stretching upwards to converge in a many-pointed star. The effect is such that, when you first notice them, you think the rays are coming down from between the clouds, illuminating the tower with heavenly light.
Photo by John Carges, used by permission