In Search of Hassan Matar

By HITEN SAMTANI

As the car passed the Flag and sped toward Za’abeel, Avi’s crisp V’s became softer and less pronounced—“wees,” even. By the time he crossed Sana Signal, coffee shops and villas having given way to the old city’s chai stalls and low-rise apartments, the languid, questioning “ahs” at the ends of his sentences had been abandoned, the tongue clicks dropped. “Paps, what time do we have to make a move to the souq?” he said to his dad on the phone, sounding like just another Bur Dubai kid. “Okay, I’ll be downstairs in an hour.” He gestured to the driver to pull up outside his building and hopped out, throwing the Capri-Sonne straw he had been chewing all the way from school onto the pavement. His gait had changed, too: on the Jumeirah side of the Flag, he adopted the exaggerated chest-swivel of the Khaleeji, ass jutting out, body taking up far more real estate than someone of his frame reasonably should. Here, however, he stepped within himself. 

There were rules, though. If even one lochal or premium expat were spotted, accents would be drawn. Intonations would warp midway, vowels replaced with dressier ones like guest bedsheets. 

 

Sultan rose just after six and was almost immediately on email with his staff. These were less exchanges and more bursts of orders. It was important to him to be, and to be seen as being, decisive. He’d stretch, wash, pray, and get moving—a few minutes with his kids, some dates and laban, and time to go. His gym bag was kept ready for him; two sets of AirPods charged; his newspapers arranged by preference, from Al-Bayan all the way to the seldom-disturbed Wall Street Journal. He’d set off in his custom silver Bentley Bentayga—“This one is definitely the most comfortable,” Sultan would tell guests—for the fifteen-minute ride to the office in Future City, his family’s two-million-square-foot complex encircling the newly dredged Shimmering Canal. 

His father, Majid, had been close with the ruler since the early days, and was entrusted with expanding the fisheries trade up and down the Trucial Coast. Majid had then parlayed his maritime contacts, and others made through three strategic marriages, into an automobile enterprise—he arranged the Land Cruiser for the ruler’s famous first drive into the city—and later a real estate empire. His clan became one of the business dynasties, the last name known throughout the region. He insisted on being photographed pouncing out of his G-Wagen, arms swinging as he strode, a workaholic ready to seize the day. 

Majid was a taskmaster. “Number one is the work,” he’d say. And he did not brook dissent. He wanted his sons to play polo, so they played polo. Friday dinners at his home were an elaborate affair. The kids and the grandkids were expected to be there—“They give me life,” he liked to say. Sultan, the third son, had not enjoyed too many moments alone with his father over the years. Their conversations, or rather Majid’s sermons, were delivered during office meetings, at the dinners, and on the polo grounds. 

Sultan pulled up at the office, noting approvingly that his general manager’s car was already there. His staff were there to validate his ideas, even the grandiose ones, and the general manager, a twenty-five-year veteran of the company, was responsible for executing the ones that were feasible. Sultan liked to think he gave his people some autonomy—“I don’t deal with every nitty-gritty,” he would say—but it all flowed through him. 

And yet, Sultan was not an arrogant man. He had his father’s height and mustache but none of his swagger. On his fortieth birthday last month, his father had made him deputy chairman, with the understanding that the first word in the title was the important one to remember. Since childhood, he had been made to think of himself as an ambassador of the nation, even though he lived in it. “You must be top in the manners and top in the morals,” Majid was fond of saying. It was an ask that weighed him down. 

Around Westerners, and those in the media he wanted to impress, Sultan expressed himself in buzzwords and through lavish displays of hospitality. He saw it as a success when people gushed about his work ethic—#NoDaysOff—his sporting exploits, and his generosity. He’d hold meetings back-to-back, with people lined up for an audience. West Wing-style walking conferences were a favorite. He’d shuffle his prayer beads, receive project updates, take decisions. “We don’t keep anything for tomorrow,” he’d say, and he made it a point to describe his team as family. Speaking of an assistant who’d been by his side for more than a decade, Sultan said, proudly and with a smile, “He’s the one who makes my best coffee every morning, and my best green tea in the afternoon.” 

 

Rakesh pulled up at the Eppco station just off the Karama Fish Market roundabout. “Fill both tanks,” he barked at the Filipino attendant, mimicking a local in a hurry. “It has two tanks: the main tank and the sub tank,” he said to his companion, holding eye contact until satisfied the visitor was sufficiently impressed. 

The Land Cruiser suited him. It easily accommodated his rotund frame; the thick tints on the windows gave him an aura of importance. Both tanks content, he blasted “Abdel Kader” and took a couple of inner roads to arrive at Udupi, a South Indian staple a stone’s throw from the flat where he grew up. He kept honking until someone came over, a waiter old enough to be his grandfather. Rakesh switched to Hindi for the order, but did not renounce that bark, convinced it led to better results. 

“These guys, I tell you, you have to stay on top of them, or they do chalu kaam,” he muttered, tugging his shirt off his belly and opening and closing the sunroof. “The food better be piping hot.” 

He had started to think about the walk into the office and the insults his Egyptian colleagues Marwan and Hadi would no doubt have lined up for him—insults for which he had no retort, for they were always in Arabic, which he could read but not speak. Though it had been barely five minutes, he pressed down on the horn. 

They ate noisily and fast. The idlis were fluffy and the sambar spiced just right; the onion uttapams decadently gheed and salted. “Damn good stuff,” Rakesh declared, while motioning to the waiter to bring them two filter coffees, “much better than what you’ll find in your Pune, cleaner also.” When the modest check arrived, he dismissed his companion’s attempts to pay—“You’re in my city,” he said—and whipped out a large note. 

When studying in Pune the previous winter, Rakesh had met his companion’s sister, Priya. Since then, Rakesh would send her Danish butter cookies, Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and letters of longing. Priya was tepid in her responses but never quite shut him down, so he kept at it. He’d tell her about his hometown and how much he wanted to show her around. “Dubai has all the luxuries,” he’d say, “and none of the load-shedding.” With her brother now in town, Rakesh hoped she’d be impressed by osmosis.

The letters to Priya never mentioned the tightening he felt in his gut Saturday mornings, when he’d trim his goatee, put on the office shirt his mom had ironed for him and squeeze into his Corolla—the Land Cruiser was his brother’s, and his to drive only when his brother was out of town. Nor did he confess the drudgery of the job, much of it thanks to the big boss’s endless demands—“Let’s touch base on this by EOD,” Sultan would email. The letters didn’t express the humiliation he felt when his manager threw a new set of tasks at him while stepping out for a lunchtime shisha with Marwan and Hadi, who worked half as much and made twice what he did, yet spared no chance to make him look bad. Oh, if he happened to find them wandering down a street in India someday… all their “khanzirs” and “ya khawals” would be moot there, and their giggling—that Masri full-body-shake giggle that left him in a quivering rage—would finally stop.

The waiter returned with the change and the extra fennel seeds he had been sent back for. Rakesh set the Cruiser off toward the Flag. He had run out of new skyscrapers to point out, so he let Cheb Khaled do the talking. 

 

Avi was two missed calls late. He wiped himself up—thoughts of Joud in her tight uniform, again—and hurried downstairs. His father, Kishan, reached over and popped the car door open for him. They took the tunnel, humming an old Hindi tune on the way. They passed on an easy spot, opting to parallel park in an impossibly tight nook a few yards closer to the entrance. 

The gold souq was one of Avi’s favorite places. The freshly roasted peanuts, served in newspaper cones, were a big factor. But it was also a place to see his father in his element. 

Al-Sham’s wholesale purchasing department was on the sixth floor of a faded brick building. They were buzzed through two iron doors, Avi blinking a few times to adjust to the harsh glare of the tube lights. Abdurrehman approached and took both his father’s hands in his. 

“Kishan, habibi, salaam’aleikum. How are you, my brother? Praise God, it’s good to see your son too.” He ushered them toward a pair of worn leather chairs on the far end of the room, under clocks that showed the time in his native Damascus, as well as Bombay, Hong Kong, London, and New York. “Do chai ek Maaza Mango chaar samosa jaldi, please,” he said to the lad behind the counter. The cacophony of the masking tape—the screeching KHHHH sound it made as gold was wrapped in tracing paper and placed in cartons bound for Zurich, Dhaka, Casablanca—made Avi wince, but the men didn’t even seem to register it.

“Good to see you, my friend. How’s business?” his father asked, his fondness for Abdurrehman apparent.

“Praise God, we are surviving,” the souq’s second-biggest trader replied, plopping his girth into his chair.

Abdurrehman’s eyes moved between them, the CCTV monitors above them, and the front of the room, where he’d nod at new arrivals and offer greetings when necessary. Avi was fascinated at the manner in which the Syrian did multimillion-dirham handshake deals, tapping into an unwritten ledger built on time and trust. While the men exchanged pleasantries, he tore through the Irani-style samosas—shredded onions, carrots, peas, deep-fried flour—and downed most of the mango juice. Dinner was in an hour, but he couldn’t help himself. 

“We just got a new shipment—spectacular,” Abdurrehman said, waving over an assistant with a case. He adjusted his glasses lower on his nose, gently placed the case down, and took a locket out with both hands. He gave it an extra wipe with a cloth and handed it over. “Forget DoubleDisco, Khushimala, all that stuff,” he said, grinning. “This came in from Kalkutta Wednesday, and you’ll be one of the first to stock it, inshallah.”

Kishan had hoped to buy a little more this month. But his mind went back to the letter he had received from Sultan that morning. Soon, his trade license fee would triple, putting further strain on his already precarious business. 

On paper, Sultan’s family owned more than two hundred businesses across the country. The actual owners of those businesses, mostly entrepreneurs from India, Iran, and Pakistan, paid the family a fee to operate under their name and comply with laws that required all businesses to be citizen-owned. The licensing income was small change for the family relative to its giant annual turnover from real estate, cars, and hospitality, and Sultan’s father, Majid, had not raised the fees in over a decade—he mostly liked seeing the family name everywhere.

But Sultan, eager to show his father his business acumen, had commissioned one of his McKinsey-type college classmates to study the matter. The consultant determined that the fees should be increased “in a manner commensurate” to the revenue growth the businesses had enjoyed over the past few years. Neither considered that, in the same period, those operators’ expenses—rents, salaries, international school fees—had shot up, so Sultan went ahead with the hike. 

Majid had a deep affinity for Indians. He had traveled to Bombay several times a year in his seafaring days, could get by in Hindi, and was an aficionado of old Bollywood. “The women, too beautiful—it’s dangerous!” he used to joke. He had always treated Kishan with respect and warmth, albeit from a more lordly vantage point over time. Kishan could have reasoned with Majid, convinced him to abandon the fee hike. But he did not want to risk offending Sultan by going over his head.

Bringing himself back to the souq, Kishan felt Abdurrehman waiting for a response. The locket was certainly a special piece. “Beautiful, my friend,” Kishan said, handing it over to Avi.

Avi knew they were small-time as far as buyers went. But he liked that Abdurrehman saw his dad as a fellow connoisseur and gave him that respect.

“Paps, this is gorgeous,” Avi said. “Would work for both Onam and Diwali!” 

Kishan smiled. Seeing his son beginning to take an active interest in the business gave him joy. “I can take five pieces and also two kilos of TT bars,” he said to Abdurrehman. “Thirty days?” 

“Brother, you pay me when it’s good for you, inshallah,” Abdurrehman replied, a dialogue as overworked as Avi’s DVD of Basic Instinct. He gestured to get the packing started and offered Kishan and his son a second round of tea.

“Cutting,” Avi specified—just half a cup. 

 

Friday night, Avi was in line, alone. He had grown up less than five minutes from this lounge, in the heart of Jumeirah, but that didn’t rate. He had shaved against the grain, dressed up, and then dressed down slightly to avoid being that guy who overdresses on this side of the Flag. The Brits were in black tees and white kicks, one even wearing an Emirates hat. He knew he couldn’t get away with that. Nor did he have the cash to commit to a table. He played it cool, spoke very little, pretended to be occupied on his phone. He knew that the manager, straight out of Sheffield, would have sized hopefuls up long before they reached the rope. He caught some of the exchanges. 

“Sorry, mate—not tonight.” 

“Lads, reckon you might do table service?” 

He had his ID ready when he was still five back. He was jealous of the guys who could joke with the bouncers and the girls who were guaranteed entry if they submitted to a nice long lech. And he was mad Bassam had already gone in with the girls. He chanted his mantras without moving his lips. 

His turn arrived. He was given a once-over and nodded through, but the anxiety took two drinks to subside. After less than an hour, Bassam yelled, “Yalla, Avi, let’s roll, man.” It was hard for Avi to accept when his friends wanted to hop venues. Not because it was expensive, and not because he wasn’t curious, but because it would involve yet another approach, another appraisal. At least now he’d be part of a group.

Bassam hailed a cab and ushered in Rania and Joud. Even through the Gucci Envy and Body Mist, Avi could smell their sweat, and it made him want to go home right away and jack off again, imagining that smell on top of him. He was in overdrive constantly, and so were they, showing a glimpse of thong or throwing their freshly waxed arms up to tussle their hair, enjoying the new power their sex gave them. While they laughed at his jokes and asked him for help with their college essays, he never got more than that. So every time he came home, he was at it within minutes.

He was sitting in front, so he knew he’d be paying. He wanted to chat with the driver in Urdu, but didn’t. He checked the Cartier he had borrowed from his dad for the evening. It was just about midnight, and it was his mom’s birthday, and they were a midnight-wishing family. But he was shy to call and speak in his home voice. 

 

During the week, you could easily miss it. There was just a small neon sign with a couple of short-circuited letters, six red plastic tables on the sidewalk, and two rotisserie spits. But on the weekends, the supercars in the service lane were a giveaway. Al Ijaza Cafeteria became an after-hours scene unlike any other in the city. Here, you’d find clubbers after a night out, lovers after a jaunt, and gluttons who did not accept the gap between dinner and breakfast. 

Most patrons rarely ever left their vehicles. Instead, men in blue polos would dart between the cars, taking orders. 

“Arbaab, okay, wahid Abood juice itnaan Pepsi wahid shawarma mix wahid special burger one fries.”

“Haan boss, one special sandwich one Zinker one watani three Computer.” 

“Yes, sir, do avocado juice do mix vegetable ek fries aap ka total sixty.” 

The efficiency was matched by the consistency; the café had maintained its standards for two decades. Though a lucrative enterprise, it had afforded itself few upgrades, save for a laminated printout of a Snapchat post a member of the royal family had shared of his visit. 

Avi, Joud, Bassam, and Rania hopped out of the taxi, sweaty from dancing and tipsy from the Smirnoff Ice. Bassam’s shirt, which had started the night with three buttons open, was now down to five. Joud’s hair smelled like mousse and cigarettes. 

Kutty walked over. One of the stalwarts of Ijaza, he had seen Avi coming in for years and liked him. He shook his hand and held it long enough that the girls tittered. He led them to a table on the sidewalk, gave it a wipe, and got them seated. 

“Mr. Kutty, thank you,” Avi said. “Two Abood juice and a diet Pepsi, please.”

“And for me shawarma, rafeek,” Bassam said. Rania nodded as well. 

Avi had been waiting for this moment. 

“Guys, forget shawarma today,” he said. “I have something better. Mr. Kutty, four Hassan Matar, please.”

“Are we eating a person?” Joud chuckled. “Who’s Hassan Matar?” 

“No one knows,” Avi said. “But it’s the best thing they have—off the menu.” 

Kutty smiled, nodding. “Best, one hundred percent. Only six left today, lucky people.” He brought them straws and way too many napkins, then went to put in the order. 

 

Rakesh turned into the lane. This was his last night with the Land Cruiser. His brother was flying home tomorrow, so it was back to the Corolla, with its single tank. Priya had finally written him back, but it was not the response he wanted—she had met someone. There were three feasibility studies sitting on his desk, hours of work vetting Sultan’s cockamamie projects. He could already hear the Masri giggles. 

He guided the Cruiser into the first open space and sounded the horn. “Boss!” he hollered. 

Kutty began walking over. He wasn’t fond of the fat man, who had been coming here since he was a teenager but didn’t know their names and never tipped. He was almost at the Cruiser when an old Maxima, blasting Abdel Halim Hafez, sped in and screeched to a stop right beside him. “Ahlaaaaan ya Kutty! Izzayak ya Omri?” 

Kutty smiled and stopped, exchanging a few words of rapid Arabic with the new arrivals before walking over to Rakesh.

“Yes, sir, good evening.”

“Boss, get me two Hassan Matar and one Computer juice.”

“Sorry, sir—Hassan Matar finish. Very busy today. Chicken or lamb shawarma? Zinker burger?”

“Finish? You guys don’t keep extra for the weekend?” 

“Sorry, sir—finish.” 

Rakesh muttered something. “Okay, get me two Zinker special—fast,” he said, and pulled into a parking space to wait. Next to him pulled in the Maxima, Pall Mall Double Click cigarettes hanging out of each window. It was them. 

Marwan saw him. “Eh ya, Rakesh—no Corolla today?” he said, and Hadi began chortling. Rakesh nodded to them, then rolled his tinted windows up so they couldn’t see his expression. He could still hear them mocking his accent, though. 

Kutty came over with his order. He then went over to the Maxima and gave them theirs. 

His brother hated the smell of food in the Cruiser and would take him to task for the offense, so Rakesh rolled down his windows to eat. As he did, he saw Hadi open his paper bag and unwrap his food. 

There was no mistaking it. He noted the distinctive orange-brown color of that flatbread, drizzled with mayo and a secret chili sauce, the generous filling of shawarma chicken, melted cheese, and extra-crispy fries. Cafés throughout the region had tried to replicate the Hassan Matar sandwich, but this was the O.G. It was a taste that drove Rakesh mad, the last bright spot in his week before work began. Hadi and Marwan were obviously relishing it, chewing noisily and slurping their juices to wash it down. 

Rakesh watched them for a while, his own food untouched. He started the car. 

 

Sultan could never really eat at the weekly family dinners. His father’s eyes were always on him, checking if he was sitting correctly, chewing correctly. They’d be gathered on the lawn, all thirty of them, and half the evening would be his father raving about the opportunities that lay ahead. It was an era to build the nation, he’d stress while sipping on endless cups of karak, to design infrastructure that would generate opportunities for future generations. The ruling family was counting on them to realize their thirty-year vision. The horde of grandkids—Sultan’s own boys and daughter, his brother’s twins—would get his father’s unadulterated affection. Majid kissed their cheeks, played with their hair, and let them sit in his lap. Sultan had never been afforded these gestures, and he sometimes avoided his own children at these gatherings to hide his envy. 

So here he was, at Ijaza, where they knew to save two Hassan Matars for him on Fridays no matter how busy it was. His family, after all, controlled the café’s trade license. He didn’t bother parking, just pulled into the lane and honked once. He’d grab the sandwiches and head to the beach to think. 

 

Rakesh put his seatbelt on and backed up. His mind was oddly clear as he watched the butt of a Pall Mall fall from the window of the Maxima, almost in slow motion. He put the Cruiser into drive and pressed down on the gas, hard. He barely felt the impact, though he heard their screams, saw Hadi’s fleshy body thrown into Marwan’s. 

Avi had just polished off the last of his sandwich. He had gained instant cred with Joud—“Wallah, it’s like the best thing I’ve eaten this year!” she professed—and was about to seize the moment and ask her out when they heard the crash. He began sprinting over to help and saw a man getting out of a silver Bentley to do the same.

His back soaked with sweat, his eyes fixed on his escape route, Rakesh put the Cruiser into reverse and put his full weight on the gas again. He didn’t see Sultan charging up from behind, and the Cruiser smashed into his body with such force that it lifted him over the low pavement into oncoming traffic. This stretch of road was radar-free, so those in the know tended to make the most of it. 

It was only then that Rakesh looked back and recognized the mark of his boss’s car. He no longer bothered to flee. He just sat there, hands tight on the wheel. 

 

Hiten Samtani is a Dubai-born writer of Indian origin living between Los Angeles and New York. He’s a very fine Ping-Pong player and a terrible dancer.

[Purchase Issue 22 here.]

In Search of Hassan Matar

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