Standards of winter in Dubai freeze at an acceptable 18 degrees Celsius. Heat from a shawarma spit is just enough to warm hands on a relatively chilly Friday evening. Its source—the glowing, mellow orange from the charcoal—bounces off a conical chunk of meat as an unsparing knife slices through it systematically.
I was taught the magic of chicken shawarma young. The otherwise reserved ten-year-old me offered no resistance to this creamy, chunky wrap that came with a side of pickles I especially loved. It was a foreign but comfortable taste. Sometimes, I ate a whole and at other times, only half, leaving the rest to chew on later. It grew on me well as I took care of all my ten-year-old priorities: homework, studying for exams, dressing up nice and showing up on time for friends’ birthdays, planning weekend lunches with my mum and going to bed early enough so my 6.30am alarm didn’t vex me. My life revolved around these, with an evening shawarma sometimes thrown in.
The 6.30am alarm felt particularly jarring in December. Dubai kids are spoilt with tropical weather all year round but we wore cardigans to school for at least two months out of twelve. Once I was up, showered and dressed, I looked forward to the school bus showing up below the house. I loved sitting in my fixed seat by the window, cosied up and half-sleepy. I loved moving through the lanes and noticing the warm, glowing mellow orange from two out of fifty windows that had their lights on at that time of day. It was warming against the darkness of an early winter morning, just like the glowing orange from the shawarma spit was warming against the night.
Another familiar, potent source of winter warmth was my mother’s woolen morning gown, which she had bought during a trip to Kashmir in 1988 (a year before I was born). An integral part of her wardrobe to this day, it’s navy blue with brown Kashida embroidery along the neck and sleeves. Whenever she wore it, she looked so warm and comfortable that just being in her presence made me feel warm and comfortable. I always kept my cheeks away if she decided to hug me; the sturdy fabric felt abrasive against my skin. I thought it’d damage my cheeks and that everyone at school would think I had scratched my face. Each time I was fascinated by the way the gown’s jacket-like sides fell over an attached covering for the front, my mother said: “Don’t worry, you’re going to inherit this”.
A trip to Kashmir together in April 2016 cemented the connection for me. I had presented the trip to my mum for her birthday, perhaps a little selfishly, so I could experience this oft-visited family holiday destination within the window that it was wise to do so, since the conflict. In Kashmir, we sipped kawha at least thrice a day—along a road, in a restaurant or as a welcome drink. It warmed my insides just as my mum’s presence in her morning gown did even 17 years later. I associated both with Kashmir, solace, uniqueness—and feeling comforted in any weather that might be too extreme for a body that’s grown up being used to ten months of summer.
Kahwa is unique not just by perception, but truly in its preparation. It represents individuality even as it is brewed across the state: each vendor, restaurant or family has a different recipe. We stopped at a stall in the middle of nowhere, on our drive from Srinagar Airport to Pahalgam. A man of about 60 hospitably introduced us to his samovar, which was placed on a carpeted stool right outside his highway shop that stocked spices and cosmetics. He told us how his kahwa used 11 spices, honey instead of sugar, and saffron sourced from the fields nearby. He showed me a saffron face cream from one of his shelves and gently suggested I try it on, explaining how it’d make my skin glow. Despite being fussed about what I put on my face, I couldn’t refuse him. It did feel like my face might’ve been glowing, although I couldn’t see it.
As we sipped on second helpings of kahwa, a feeling of contentment floated through me. It felt like I may have seen all of Kashmir within the first two hours of having reached there. When, as a child, my mum told me stories of family vacations there, I associated the place with cold, beauty, well-disposed vendors, tenderness and interim friendships that’d still exist if you came back to them. I had already experienced of all these in a couple of hours. We spent a few more minutes just sitting in the plastic chairs outside the man’s stall. With a slight weight in our feet, we got up to continue the rest of our journey.
During the the drive, I admired mountains, beautiful wooden houses, men in traditional attire, sheep and shepherds. I wondered whether my mother had gauged that I was feeling serene and fulfilled. I wanted to see more, but I would’ve had no regrets if we had stayed longer at the kahwa stall. Even as a child, I always wondered whether she was aware of my satisfaction each time I had the two basic ingredients I needed for feeling at ease in the cold: her presence and an edible source of comfort. I dismissed the thought realising how often outsiders commented that an only child is always overly pampered, as if a universal belief had to be the absolute truth. It was also obvious that I had always been ambitious, and could ambition and contentment possibly go together? I was flattered by the mere thought of being labelled ambitious and my mind didn’t wish to analyse an alternative possibility.
After a blur of an hour, we got to our hotel in Pahalgam: a lovely, sprawling space with ornate carpets and intricate wooden carvings. Our room was opened for us minutes later. I felt out the bed and scanned the view. We decided to stay in and chat for a bit before going out for lunch. I wondered whether the birthday present matched the quality of my mum’s memories of former vacations. I wanted it to be better, for her to say that this was her best time in Kashmir. I wondered whether she had picked up on the fact that I was trying to outdo family tradition.
I made mum a coffee and myself a tea with the kettle and packets provided in the room. She thanked me for the present and said she was glad I was able to see one of her favourite places with her. She expressed how she had always wished to but regretted not being able to carry forth family tradition with me for so many years. “You’ve never complained,” she said as she looked out at the mountains from our window. “You were a very content child.”