The Middle East has more than its fair share of conflicts, and even the simple act of choosing where to shop for food can highlight the cultural tensions between tradition and modernity, Arab nationalism and Western-led globalization. Food, after all, is not only a basic necessity but also a symbol, a unit of cultural currency whose meaning comes from the way it is prepared, packaged, sold, and consumed—which is why the French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin could declare, “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
The Persian Gulf coast is a part of the world rife with superlatives, and so it’s no surprise that the big Western-style grocery/big box stores all call themselves hypermarkets. These are the same big-aisled, brightly lit monstrosities that you might find on your native soil as a Wal-Mart Supercenter or Super Target. In the UAE, for example, the big names are French, like Géant and Carrefour, while Kuwait boasts regional chains like Lulu’s. Complete with plastic-wrapped vegetables, mid-’90s soft rock, familiar brands, and ubiquitous English signage. Many of them feel a lot like American or European exclaves.
Their customers consist mainly of the rich, which usually translates to Western expatriates and liberal Arabs; you wouldn’t see many women with veils over their faces, for example. From their corrugated aluminum and linoleum surfaces down to their choice of music, hypermarkets represent the antiseptic lull and omnisecular embrace of the international market.
Besides an absence of “local flavor,” whatever that might be, hypermarkets tend to be a bit pricey. During my two-week visit to Kuwait last December, I ended up more often than not at local, independent grocery stores. Unlike hypermarkets, their shelves lacked any sort of celebrity endorsements or product tie-ins (save for a Fulla doll-branded line of cereal). Even the produce looked different: blemishes, wrinkles, and other surface imperfections abound, and sizes varied immensely.
Your standard Western shopper—me, in this case—can only wonder how many fruits and vegetables get repurposed in the quest for a uniformly good-looking product (for the record, even the knottiest-looking tomatoes taste just fine). Then again, you would be hard pressed to find any Western shoppers in these independent shops at all. The local co-ops are instead full of immigrants from South Asia, the Philippines, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Arabian Peninsula—in other words the majority of the population, which does not have a high-paying, white-collar job. And unlike hypermarkets, independent stores close during prayer times. If their larger and flashier cousins symbolize the Westernization of the Arab world, then these independent stores embody how most of the Arabian Peninsula experiences it: cramped, confusing, a little bit shoddy, and unapologetically Arabic, from product choice to price tags.
As it turns out, my grocery store education didn’t stop at cultural surveillance. Attached to the co-op closest to me was a bakery that sold fresh Arabic bread—khubuz—the size of hubcaps for 20 fils each (about 9 cents). The place wasn’t much, just a tiny 8’ x 12’ room with two huge, cylindrical clay tanoor ovens and barely enough counter space for the two bakers to knead and stretch their dough. People waited behind a big, crooked table that blocked the entrance to the bakery and would jostle each other to get their orders in. I visited often enough that, each time I walked by, one of the bakers would greet me with a smile and a loud “hello, how are you”—which he particularly enjoyed, I suspect, because he rolled the r around for about a full second each time—even if that meant shouting straight into the faces of four or five waiting customers.
About three days before I left, I went there to buy my usual bread, and since it was probably the last time I was going to see the place, decided to make what little small talk my limited Arabic allowed. I ordered, paid, and mustered up the courage to ask, “mneen inta (where are you from?).”
“Afghanistan,” he replied, “wa inta mneen?”
As soon as the word “America” left my mouth, his mood instantly changed. His smile disappeared, and he practically slung the bread at me once it was done, refusing to make eye contact with me even though no one else was around. I took my newspaper-wrapped bread and left, crestfallen. Immediately the rationalizations, the well-I-don’t-blame-hims and the it’s-completely-understandables sprung to mind, but I felt like I’d been punched in the gut, and for once, it wasn’t because of the smell of the live chicken store nearby.
It’s been drummed into most Americans’ heads, subtly and unsubtly, that the Middle East is a dangerous place full of radicals and militants. Even moderate countries like Kuwait have extensive “safety and security” advisories on the U.S. Department of State’s website, and the U.S. Embassy there advises Americans to “keep a low profile,” with good reason. Local papers contain plenty of anti-Western editorials, and I even watched two thousand demonstrators shout “death to America” and “death to Israel” in protest of Israel’s attack on Gaza.
Of all the time I’ve spent in the Gulf Coast, though, this was the only occasion that American foreign policy, as it were, had a direct impact on me; indifference trumps hostility by far. But nothing else on my whole visit affected me nearly as much as that brief exchange. And if the resentment of a Kuwaiti baker is any indication, it will take more than an acquaintance with a temporary expatriate to repair the reputation of the United States and its citizens in the Middle East.
According to the English writer G.K. Chesterton, the difference between travelers and tourists is that “the traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” In other words, the experience of travel is only appropriately mystical—as the whole of the Western canon, from Euripides to Dave Barry, thinks that it should be—when it’s more than passive observation. Of course, not all epiphanies are pleasant; they can also be reminders that some cultural attitudes are too deeply entrenched for a single person to change.