On the Spirit of an Afghani Bakery

A reminiscent account of the food, scent, and people of a local bakery

Nov 29, 2023

![Image description: An image of a small, sun-lit bakery with baskets of baked goods and people moving about the space. End ID]( of rec.png)
Shortly after my mother’s departure to Lebanon, an Afghani bakery opened up just around the corner of my apartment building. Situated in the heart of Al Warqa in Dubai, it was about a two-minute walk from my home. Spotting bakers was a breeze for they were always dressed in orange t-shirts and khaki pants; much like the prisoners do. Now that I recall, I never understood why someone would choose a tiger orange shade for their employees’ uniform.
A traditional home is a kitchen and a melting pot of aromas that tingle your senses. My grandmother’s tales tell me of mothers, widowed women, and little girls. She tells me of their intangible heirloom: baking. An Arab woman is a skilled cook and baker. I know that because of my mother. From childhood, we were taught that love was to share, and sharing meant exchanging baked goods during family functions.
Last year, my mother left home to fulfill a lifelong dream—to finish her last semester of university and obtain a degree. To be an Arab woman and a mother of three, dreaming of university was far-fetched. Yet my mother always used to say, “What God wants, God wills”.
And so God did. Agreeing to live without her for an entire year, my senior year, was one of the most challenging things I have had to endure. She is my number-one supporter, my confidant, and my best friend. Without her, life is unbearable. It was hard to navigate everyday obstacles, let alone survive on food that knows not her touch.
My father, siblings, and I found ourselves in a pickle. Metaphorically, or maybe quite literally. Cooking and baking were truly tough tasks. Who knew chopping onions could hurt my eyes so much? Who knew cookies burnt so easily? I was a beginner at feeding three mouths other than mine- four including my cat. I say this because I am the eldest and a daughter. I have been told women are actually much more patient when the chicken is boiling, the bread is rising, and the pasta is softening. I believed that for too long. Much to my surprise, women weren’t the only ones skilled at such crafts.
By physical space, this was possibly the smallest bakery I had ever seen in my life. About the size of a prayer cubicle, serene yet dark. With an Arabic calligraphy sign written in a bold black font, I read: “In the name of Allah''. This little bubble instills in me the kind of tranquility I only experience in mosques with bedazzled mosaics and a fresh breath of air, like that in Sheikh Zayed mosque. In this so-called bubble, there's just enough space for two bakers, the heat, and the bread to rise.
People from all walks of life stop at this very same bakery. Students, employees, labor workers, and locals all make sure to order something on the go. The street always smells of grains and flour, like soft summer sunshine. Like an early Friday morning, and a promise I made to my mum.
I always find myself standing about six feet away from the bakery to order. Even if it were your first time ordering Afghani bread or a spicy egg parotta, the bakers’ mandate is almost always the same: keep away from the (albeit inevitable) heat , tell me what you want, and wait till your order is ready.
'Al Reef Al Afghani' bakery, which translates to 'the Afghani countryside' bakery, is but a glimpse of the people of Afghanistan. Hussein is as sweet as the sugar-coated sesame bread. The rest, whose names I do not recall, are just as affable and kind. Even at dawn, they smile at me while I order various types of manakish for my siblings and I to take with us to school.
As an Arab woman, I have always had a deep-rooted love for bread. Pita, baguette, and naan are some of my favorite selections, though my top choice at the moment is Afghani bread. Like a guitar-shaped pillow covered in flour, in a feather white powder that is soft to touch. With a crisp wooden brown streak that is of a burn from a hideous oven and a scent like a charming melody.
This pillow has a mellow taste—a brush of warmth on a bristle tongue. I tear off big chunks like muscles tearing, stretching, and pulling tight. I tear off little chunks to place inside a little mouth and feel them melt to become nonexistent, like ghee. With an aftertaste that takes me back to last Ramadan, where 4 a.m. suhoor was incomplete without the warm embraces of bread. During iftar, they would send yogurt drinks and dates along with our orders, even if it were a single loaf of bread.
Sometimes we had manakish for lunch, not because we lacked meal options nearby, but because we were addicted to the bakery’s dough. Later, we would ask for Nutella pies made with the same dough used for manakish, filled with the hazelnut spread. And Although we ate our hunger away, I soon realized that I was eating my loneliness away too.
At night, the bakery’s scarlet lights dazzle from streets afar. While I know this advertising tactic is supposed to induce appetite, it is unneeded for me. I tell my dad to stop the car and let me off right before driving into the parking lot. I walk anxiously. It is night, and I am a woman after all.
A well-groomed middle-aged man with a long grey beard takes my order almost always during the night hours. Although the street is quiet and desolate, a variety of neon lights shine life into this bare place. The bakery, however, seems to own a small land around it that is never free from the whispers of people. Plastic chairs and stools that serve as tables eavesdrop on what the neighbors have yet to share about their day. The baker asks me what I would like and instructs me to go back home; he says he will deliver my dirham bread to my door—all while grinning from ear to ear.
Even when they sit outside the bakery on a dusty mat on the floor, having their much-needed meals, they stop to make sure our order is given to us right away. Their hunger is not like our hunger. Their hunger can be neglected. Sometimes, my brother would pass by them and salute them, only to find himself being greeted with the sweetest smiles and a handful of almonds.
I recall that, at times, they would not take money from us. Plenty of orders were suddenly “on the house”.
A sense of community is what the bakery was able to cultivate in a sleepy neighborhood. My family and I had to find a way to make up for all the missed homemade meals we craved, and although Al Reef Al Afghani was not able to replace my special mother, it had enough warmths to serve this purpose.
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