Maneesh and Breaking Down Barriers

al reef bakery

Manaeesh is one of the culinary delights you get to experience when living in the Middle East.

It consists of soft white pita bread encasing an Arabic cheese called jubneh. The cheese melts over the pita bread and softens the inner layer of the bread when pulled hot out of the brick ovens. The ovens have been manned by skilled bakers whose families have been a part of this cooking tradition for centuries. With traditional bakeries throughout the region like the Al Reef Bakery.

maneesh oven

 Image maneesh oven. Al Reef Lebanese Bakery Faecbook.

So popular and mouth watering are the breads at Al Reef that people drive from all over the UAE to the beloved hot and sweaty bakery tucked away under a cluster of palm trees off a quiet road in the Jumeirah neighborhood of Dubai.

But although Al Reef may have a reputation for great maneesh, which long lines and a hot crowdy buzz are testament of, the 24 hour bakery also has another reputation in some quarters for indifferent staff.

Jumeirah Street

Image Jumeirah Street.  Paul Fenwick via Flickr

Our neighbor refuses to enter the bakery near my home because of the crowds and attitudes of the employees which outweigh prospect of hummingly good Manaeesh. In fact my mother dislikes going to Al reef almost as much as our neighbor.

Nevertheless, in my family of six, maneesh was a special treat and even now the mere mention of it makes every member in my family start to drool despite the fact that we do not live in Dubai anymore.

At the start of my freshman year I decided I was going to take it upon myself to learn Arabic so that I could brave the Al Reef Bakery for the procurement of some mighty fine maneesh.

Jumeirah Waterfront

Image Jumeirah Waterfront. Paul Fenwick via Flickr.

The first time I entered the bakery alone, I hesitantly opened the door and cringed as the “camel bells” above the door announced my entrance. Immediately, the smell of hot Manaeesh wafted from the hot brick ovens behind the counter and my stomach started to growl.

I jumped as a loud bellowing voice from the back of the bakery yelled, “Salam Alaikum,” which means “peace be upon you.” I froze. My heart started to panic as I contemplated whether to state my greetings in my safe mother tongue, English, or take a leap of faith. A choking sensation I was all too familiar with bubbled its way into my throat.

maneesh middle eastern bread

 Image maneesh delicious Middle Eastern bread. Ruth Folmar.

The panic really started to kick in when for a split second I had forgotten how to say this greeting response (even though I had practiced it a thousand times). It is a frightening thing to open yourself up in any uneasy and unfamiliar situation. I had resolved to conquer my fear of speaking Arabic and enthusiastically responded with, “Alaikum Asalam!”. I remembered,  phew.

My stomach flipped as a massive man in his white dish-dasha emerged from the small door at the back of the shop and stared at me with a look of utter confusion. I began to realize he had extended this loving and familiar greeting to someone from the Middle Eastern region and not to a timid, western girl who spoke Arabic with a thick, yet quivering American accent.

I decided to brave it and salvage the once peaceful air of the authentic bakery and so the next words out of my mouth were a tumble of questions that are part of the traditional Arab greeting. His hardened and confused face broke into a pearly white smile framed with a funky moustache that complimented his chocolate coloured eyes. I could breathe now.

He graciously continued to speak with me as he answered my questions and gently corrected my beginner mistakes. The words rolled off his tongue, effortless and unadulterated. I was mesmerized and embarrassed because I did not do the beauty of the Arabic language justice when I spoke, it sounded muddled and harsh.

maneesh bread

Image maneesh. Ruth Folmar

Soon a loud voice from the back of the room called out and a bundle of steaming packages was slid through an open window. We said our goodbyes and he handed me a warm package that held the six manaeesh I had ordered. I smiled to myself as I looked into the bag and saw an extra treat inside.

Leaving the store as the camel bells clanged loudly behind me, I felt proud that my months of hard work in Arabic had changed this fearsome place into one that was warm and welcoming. I had experienced how this exchange of pleasantries in another language could change perceptions and alter realities.  

This seemingly insignificant encounter forever impacted how I view communication. I often think back on this experience, and I am struck by not only how important it is to learn languages but by how important it is to learn about people and the foods they love.

This experience has made me grateful for the ability to converse outside of my first language and has caused me to jump at the opportunities to learn new languages: I studied Russian for three years, and right now I am teaching myself to speak and write Hindi. Although I dabble in three languages and can hold a decent conversation, I am not fluent in any of them by far.

Arabic Alphabet

Image The first 12 letters from the ‘Arabic Alphabet’. Debby Bosman via Flickr.

Learning the Arabic alphabet was one of the most challenging things I have ever experienced. Initially the letters looked like caveman scribble with a mixture of triangles, dots and small dashes that change an entire word.

Gradually the squiggles started to make sounds in my head, and it was those small bursts of excitement over mastering one letter that pushed me on to keep tackling every alif, baa, and taa.

Before long I was reading and writing with ease. I knew I wanted to reach the Arab population through language and so I used music and songs of the Arab people to help me better understand the culture and flow of language.

It was the many hours in my Arabic classroom coupled with my Middle Eastern friend’s patience when I insisted we only speak Arabic to one another that helped me muster the courage to reply to Mr.Ali in that bakery.

I value making the effort to learn another language because it changed the way Mr Ali saw me. I was able to show Mr Ali that I cared enough about the Middle East and its inhabitants to learn Arabic. Language breaks down barriers between people of different lands, and it starts when one person humbles his/her self and risks sounding foolish to reach someone of a different language in a really powerful way that should not be underestimated.

When I opened my mouth to speak, we were no longer separated by language. It all started with two special words, “Salam Alaikum.” What started out as a standard greeting in a bakery, evolved to something more between two new acquaintances.

A Little Scoop from Morocco with Love
Review: Hookah Lounge Brick Lane
Baalbek – 9,000 years old ancient site in Lebanon


  1. Dear Grayson,
    You are such a talented writer. You have expressed exactly how I have felt while living overseas, but could never articulate.
    I always feared making a fool of myself and that is exactly what you have to do in order to pay the toll to cross the bridge of understanding and acceptance in a foreign land.
    An excellent piece of writing.
    Thank you
    Mrs. Hurlbut


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here