How the art of ‘round­ing’ is forg­ing friend­ships

▶ Sip­ping on karak while meet­ing peo­ple and show­ing off your num­ber plate is part of UAE cul­ture. For Na­tional Day, Anna Zacharias vis­its the coun­try’s most-pop­u­lar round­ing spots

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE -

Tea is tea, and tea is not for our stom­achs. Tea is for our heads. Tea is some­thing for our brain and minds BASHEER CHANGOTH Cafe owner

It is midafter­noon in Ras Al Khaimah’s old town and the streets are empty, the doors to its sword shops and henna par­lours shut­tered tight against the heat and dust.

As the sun sinks be­hind the sea, a few cars pull into park­ing spa­ces. Min­utes later, oth­ers park be­side them.

By the time dark­ness falls, the old town’s streets and car parks are filled with the sounds of mu­sic and po­etry com­ing from open car win­dows.

The driv­ers and their pas­sen­gers have come for tea. They have come for round­ing.

Round­ing is the Khaleeji art of cruis­ing in cars and sip­ping tea with friends, a pas­time prac­tised by peo­ple of all ages and na­tion­al­i­ties in the Gulf.

It is the prod­uct of good in­fra­struc­ture, cheap petrol and a pro­lif­er­a­tion of tea shops.

In the hours be­fore and af­ter sunset, thou­sands of peo­ple cross the city to park out­side hole-in-the-wall cafes well­known for tea.

Usu­ally, it’s karak – car­damom-spiced milk tea that sells for a dirham or two.

Driv­ers and pas­sen­gers fol­low set eti­quette, chat­ting to peo­ple in other ve­hi­cles from car win­dows and even com­mu­ni­cat­ing word­lessly through mu­sic.

Romances are started, old friend­ships rekin­dled. It is a time to see and be seen. The rit­ual is re­peated at ev­ery sunset and goes on late into the night.

The phe­nom­e­non has trans­formed neigh­bour­hoods, cre­ated a bil­lion-dirham li­cence-plate in­dus­try and made karak tea part of UAE iden­tity.

Above all, it is about com­ing to­gether. Peo­ple know if they head to the right tea shop at twi­light, they are likely to meet friends.

For Na­tional Day, The Na­tional

vis­ited some of the UAE’s top round­ing spots to find out why the prac­tice is so pop­u­lar.

“In our house we say, if you lost some­one, you’ll find them here,” says Athari Al Hayyas, an Emi­rati parked out­side Ras Al Khaimah’s fish mar­ket.

Although she is from Shar­jah, Ms Al Hayyas says she knows she is in the per­fect place for food and friend­ship.

Karak cafes are plen­ti­ful and the best have na­tional rep­u­ta­tions.

A decade ear­lier, round­ing mostly in­volved young men.

But as women got be­hind the wheel, they staked their place.

“So­cial me­dia changed ev­ery­thing,” says Ms Al Hayyas, 31.

“It opened all the win­dows, it opened all the doors. This was like a closed area for us be­fore and now it’s open, mashal­lah.”

Some say round­ing be­gan decades ago, when power cuts caused peo­ple to seek refuge from sti­fling homes in air-con­di­tioned cars.

The prac­tice has re­mained pop­u­lar, in part be­cause it is cheap. An ex­pen­sive karak is Dh5. This means any­one can idle with friends in the car park of a mosque, fish mar­ket or the Cor­niche, con­tent to let time pass.

“When we went round­ing, we would buy what we wanted but we would never just buy some­thing to stake our claim to be there,” says Ab­dulla Moaswes, a Pales­tinian raised in Shar­jah and known as the Karak Mufti for his aca­demic re­search on the bev­er­age.

“If you want to go to a mall, you have to at least buy a bot­tle of wa­ter.”

With city spa­ces of­ten com­mer­cial in na­ture or re­served for fam­i­lies, Mr Moaswes says the dirt car park on Shar­jah’s Karak Road was a wel­com­ing space for young men.

“The thing I en­joyed was the fact that we could just go and take up space and no­body would hound us for be­ing there,” says Mr Moaswes.

“One of the things for young men is if you go some­where and hang out, peo­ple will tell you to go away.”

All cus­tomers are equal. “You’re all there for the same thing, no mat­ter what you’re driv­ing, and you’re all treated the same,” says Mr Moaswes. “There’s no wasta in karak.”

Round­ing is at once a pri­vate and pub­lic act.

The car it­self can be an ex­pres­sion of per­sonal iden­tity.

In the UAE, li­cence plates carry sym­bol­ism ac­cord­ing to where the plate is is­sued and

the sym­me­try of the num­ber on the plate.

Abu Dhabi plates have as­so­ci­a­tions with pa­tri­o­tism and power, while a Dubai plate might de­note glam­our or fun.

Vicky Tadros, a doc­toral stu­dent at the School of African and Ori­en­tal Stud­ies, Univer­sity of Lon­don, stud­ies Emi­rati lis­ten­ing prac­tices.

She con­sid­ers cars to be a place where peo­ple can ex­per­i­ment with eth­i­cal ideals by play­ing mu­sic that their par­ents might not ap­prove of, such as death metal or gangsta rap.

“Un­like ear­phone lis­ten­ing, it en­ables you to play that sound out loud, which is quite em­pow­er­ing,” says Ms Tadros, an English-Egyp­tian raised in Shar­jah.

Mu­si­cal tastes and val­ues are shared with dif­fer­ent au­di­ences on so­cial me­dia while peo­ple are round­ing.

“By play­ing with the pri­vacy of the car and the some­what pub­lic na­ture of so­cial me­dia, you have the op­por­tu­nity to show dif­fer­ent sides by ac­tively se­lect­ing which song gets played to which peo­ple,” says Ms Tadros.

“It can be as spe­cific as sharing one rap song with one fol­lower, or sharing an Ah­lam song with your close friends, to sharing a Me­had Ha­mad song with the pub­lic.”

In 2015, round­ing en­joyed a re­vival. A surge in pa­tri­o­tism had fol­lowed the in­tro­duc­tion of manda­tory na­tional ser­vice in 2014.

Sud­denly, karak was claimed as a UAE drink, avail­able every­where and in ev­ery form.

En­tire neigh­bour­hoods were

trans­formed by dozens of new cafes.

“It’s very good busi­ness, ac­tu­ally,” says Ab­dul Ba­sit Basheer, whose fa­ther built his fam­ily busi­ness on tea. “Af­ter wa­ter, peo­ple drink tea the most.

“My fa­ther says ‘a fa­ther can­not take the mother’s place’. In the UAE, tea is the mother and cof­fee can­not take tea’s place.”

His fa­ther, Basheer Changoth, was a co­conut ker­nel mer­chant in Ker­ala but in­vested in a Shar­jah cafe­te­ria when he came to the Emi­rates in 1994, on the ad­vice of friends who as­sured him cafe­te­rias were a sound in­vest­ment.

They were right. Today, Mr Changoth co-owns sev­eral, in­clud­ing the renowned Dubai cafe Al Rab­bash.

“No drink can get re­placed by tea,” says Mr Changoth, 58.

“Tea is tea, and tea is not for our stom­achs. Tea is for our heads. Tea is some­thing for our brain and minds. What we serve is for the peo­ple to re­lax from their pres­sure and ten­sion.”

The pop­u­lar­ity of round­ing could prove its un­do­ing. With so many cafes, the cer­tainty of meet­ing friends has di­min­ished, while paid park­ing, traf­fic junc­tions and paved roads are at odds with a pas­time built on flu­id­ity.

But the com­bi­na­tion of tea, friend­ship and the open road is still a po­tent brew, says Mr Changoth.

“It’s a craze for the pub­lic,” he says. “Peo­ple need to re­lax in the open air by look­ing at the sky, look­ing far away while drinking tea – not in a closed room.”

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