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Third Places of the Khaleej

Third Places of the Khaleej

Third place (n): the social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace.

Almost everyone already knows what third places are; they just probably didn't know that all these places had a common noun for them. Some examples of third places are cafés, libraries, pubs, and parks. Third places are characterised by a few things:

• They're usually discreet and not flashy. They proudly display the patina they've accumulated from many years of frequent use. This isn't to say that they feel unclean though.
• They're open to all regardless of social status.
• The air there is filled with playful chatter and laughter.
• You're free to come and go whenever you please. You're allowed to idle and loiter even without buying anything. You show up with whatever clothes you already have on you and aren't expected to dress up for the place.
• They have regulars. The regulars are the ones who set the vibe of the place. A third place is typically frequented by people of the surrounding area who don't feel inconvenienced by coming there every day because of its proximity to where they live or work. As such, they become places where people discover and meet their neighbours. The regulars grow to feel a sense of ownership of the place, and they're accordingly afforded special treatment by the owners of the establishment. When a regular stops showing up for a while, other regulars usually inquire about their disappearance.

If you've ever watched the TV series "Friends" you'll realise how Central Perk was the gang's third place, In the case of my close friends, they have a particular shisha café (and a particular table within that café) that they like to go to after work almost every day. Third places are critical to maintaining healthy communities. In fact, the people who have a favourite third place that they go to every day after work are usually happier in general than those who lack such a place. My personal anchor was an ice rink that I've been going to several days a week for the past 10 years. It was my catharsis on bad days. I knew all the staff by name and they knew me. Besides just skating, we'd hang around to just chat and laugh while idly skating around in circles. I saw many regulars come and go over the years. Even if we never say anything to one another, we exchange a nod when we make eye contact as we recognise each other.

As a former long-time resident of the United Arab Emirates (Sharjah and Dubai), I want to take a look at some of the third places unique to the region that I used to frequent; notably the malls, shisha cafés, mandi joints, and mosques.

In a country with a desert climate like the UAE, many people like to go to malls to just hang out. People idly stroll or just sit on the chairs in the corridors. They gather around the tables of the food court to talk without necessarily buying anything from the restaurants. I see people who sit at tables in a Costa or Starbucks, spending a good 10-15 minutes before getting up and moving along without ever buying anything. No staff member shows up to pester them about buying something lest they be shooed away. It is indeed unfortunate that Mall of the Emirates decided to remove all the benches they used to have in the corridors and confined people to a handful of uncomfortable benches by the entrances to the parking areas.

Shisha Cafés
Shisha cafés have become somewhat of a staple of many neighbourhoods. Although I don't personally smoke shisha, I do love the smell of it. Shisha cafés have a unique warmth to them. You inevitably end up becoming close to one particular person in a shisha café: the guy who fixes up the coal on your shisha. This guy is the modern bard, the man with new stories to tell you every day that you're there. Shisha cafés usually have dedicated regulars who show up and seconds later have a shisha of their favourite flavour sitting next to them, all without having said anything yet more than a greeting.

Mandi Joints
It's hard to not appreciate good mandi. Mandi joints are characterised by a special kind of informality, warmth, and delicious food. You sit on the floor and eat with your hands, regardless of your social or financial status. My personal favourite is Maraheb on Sheikh Zayed Road. On one visit there, as I stepped out the door with a friend, our jaws dropped at the sight of a Porsche 918 parked out front. I later found out the owner was a man I followed on Instagram (he owns a collection of supercars that's impressive by any measure), and he was inside having lunch at the time (pic: https://i.imgur.com/ZrH23bp.jpg). See, inside the mandi joint, it didn't matter whether you were a gardener or a billionaire. In fact, nobody can even tell. Everybody's sitting on the floor, eating with their hands, chatting, and laughing.

Besides serving a religious function, the reason it is encouraged to frequent the mosque in Islam is because mosques also function as community hubs, not unlike churches in Christianity as well. They are third places, complete with their own regulars, never more so than during the holy month of Ramadan. People get to meet their neighbours through their local mosque. After prayers, people will huddle in groups to chat in hushed voices, read the Quran, or ask the imam any questions they have. Mosques are another place where social status neither shows nor matters. All sit on the same floor and stand in equal rows to pray. Muslim or otherwise, all are always welcome inside (provided they take their shoes off before entering).

If you're interested in knowing more about the third place, I can recommend Ray Oldenburg's "The Great Good Place". It's a good book that really opens your eye to the value of these places, and it's alarming to see modern developments increasingly forsaking them.

1 Reply

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  1. @ali

    I thought about including the majlis as a third place, but majlises aren't exactly open to the general public so I'm not sure they qualify. Did I miss anything else that's specific to this part of the world?