Exploring Explorers and Mapping Food

During my year in the United Arab Emirates, I have learned that much of the history of the region has been traced through the writings of explorers, such as Wilfred Thesiger. I am not aware of whether or not all of Thesiger’s records have been transcribed. However, it would be interesting to research about other explorers of the Arab World and transcribe (if needed) their texts, especially if they were Arab themselves. Do the writings of Western explorers portray the Arab world in an exotic way? Do their writings show any confusion and/or wonder? How would they compare to those of Arab explorers?

After taking a look at projects such as Linguistic Landscapes of Beirut, Mapping Beirut Print Culture, and Street Food Map, I’ve started to think that a meaningful, local initiative to be carried out using crowd input in Abu Dhabi could relate to the many foreign cuisine restaurants that plague the city.

According to statistics provided online by the Abu Dhabi government, Abu Dhabi’s population is at around 2.8 million, of which only around 500,000 are UAE nationals. In a city so heavily populated by non-nationals, it is common to find places (ranging from grocery stores to fancy restaurants) that sell food from diverse cultures. Some of these sell traditional dishes, yet others have ventured into the realm of fusion cuisine, taking advantage of Abu Dhabi’s multiculturalism.

For NYUAD’s community (which in itself is incredibly diverse), the topic of foreign food and its availability in Abu Dhabi is an ongoing conversation. On the one hand, if one is able to find food of one’s own culture, these places provide “a taste from home”. On the other hand, these stores and restaurants provide the opportunity to explore other cultures and traditions – and if one is accompanied by peers from these cultures, they can guide the experience. Following this, spots where local food is sold are also incredibly valuable, as they allow foreigners to get to know Emirati culture and identity.

A project that attempts to “map food” in the city of Abu Dhabi could incite interest not only at NYUAD, but also among individuals outside the university who appreciate this particular aspect of the city. Locations shared by users could include information such as name of the place, cuisine/country of origin of the products, types of food and options (fresh products? Fast food? Vegetarian/vegan? Delivery?), languages spoken by the staff, etc. In a time when, and in a city where, most people carry around smartphones, it is easy to snap pictures of these places, add the information, and upload it to the project. Challenges, however, could arise in terms of controlling the quality of the images, the accuracy and completeness of the submitted information, and ensuring that there is just one “marker” per location.

An initiative like this would serve not only practical purposes, for the residents and visitors who are looking for a place to eat, but would also aid in understanding Abu Dhabi’s evolving identity, studied from an aspect of the city that reflects its culturally diverse population.

Original art by blog author

Some weeks after the original publication of this post:

In The Philosophy of Food, David M. Kaplan states that “food taps pleasure and anxiety, memories and desires, attachment or alienation from our heritage. It does not determine an identity, but it is a marker of identity” (quoted by Francesca Muccini). Food is one of the most fundamental aspects of culture, and thus, has a place within the study of the humanities. Having discussed this idea in class, as well as starting the project, I realize that to make it different from the services offered by companies like TripAdvisor or Zomato, the relationship between food and culture must be what guides data collection and processing, more so than the information that helps users choose where to eat (which TripAdvisor and Zomato offer).

With this, I’m not suggesting that this “practical” information should be dismissed; however, my suggestions in the post seemed to rely more on these features than on what would actually make this a humanities project. In class, we decided that the date in which each restaurant was established is an interesting addition to the data, given that we can show a history of the city of Abu Dhabi through them. Migration patterns could potentially be reflected in this information, as well as the growing cosmopolitan character of the city (are the oldest restaurants mostly Arab? If so, when did other other cuisines become popular?). Also, some of the “practical” data could be further analyzed to make it more relevant in the context of the humanities: for instance, the average price of the restaurants, together with the origin of food, might show which cuisines are generally more expensive. It might just be a matter of cost (some ingredients are cheaper/easier to get than others). But it might also mirror the population, in terms of socioeconomic class: some nationalities/cultures are better off in Abu Dhabi than others.

I think the key has to with how the information the restaurants  are displayed on the map. There can be an option that just shows the pointers for each restaurant, and users can filter them according to their cravings. However, this can’t be all there is to the project. Other features should be enabled, like time settings to see the evolution of food culture in Abu Dhabi (and what that might represent), according to the dates of establishment.


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