Ahlan wa sahlan: Welcome to south Delhi’s Arab corner
“Ayn tudu aldhahab ( where would you want to go?)”, taxi driver Rakesh Pratap Singh asks a potential customer in Arabic in a street lined with an array of hotels. Singh is no Arabic enthusiast. It is just that many of his customers in Jasola village speak the language and a few utility sentences in Arabic help him strike a chord with them.
In the nearby Living Style Mall, many establishments — hairdressers, restaurants perfume shops and medical tourism companies have their signboards in Arabic. “Rising number of medical tourists from Middle East has turned this place into Delhi’s little Arabian corner,” says Hassan Khan, founder, Shurouq Global Health, one of the many health tourism companies who run their business from the mall.
In the past five years, Sarita Vihar–Jasola in south Delhi has emerged as a hot spot for those Arabs who visit India for medical treatment. This has spurred the demand for hotels and restaurants offering Arabian food. “There are about 100 hotels, guest houses and apartments here catering to medical tourists. Many people have also listed their apartments with us,” says Khan. From the hotel receptions to drivers to shop attendants, everyone seems to be able to speak a bit of Arabic.
Suraj Kohli, who looks after the front office of the Nirvana Suites, a hotel in the area that came up two and a half years back, says, “Eighty per cent of our guests are patients from Gulf countries, and many of them stay from 15 days to 2 months.” Rinto Thomas, marketing manager, at Hotel Hans in Jasola Vihar, which was started three years ago, says, “About 85 per cent of our guests are medical tourists.”
While most of the patients come for major surgeries, many also avail dental treatment at clinics that have come up in recent years in Jasola-Sarita Vihar. “Dental clinics have emerged as an ancillary service. A majority of my patients are Arabs and they come for implants and surgical procedures,” says Dr Mehnaz, who runs Aliya Dental Care in the Living Style Mall.
The growing number of visitors from the Middle East has also given rise to the demand for translators or interpreters— who play a key role in the medical tourism ecosystem in the area. According to an estimate, about 400 translators and interpreters live in nearby Jamia Nagar and Shaheen Bagh.
“A lot of these translators and interpreters act like agents or touts, taking a cut from everyone from hospitals to hotels to restaurants to facilitate the patients,” says the founder of a medical tourism company in the area, who does not wish to be named. “They always shadow their clients. Several foreigners depend heavily on them since they don’t know a second language,” he said.
In Jasola, a local interpreter accompanying someone from Syria, Iraq, Yemen or other Middle Eastern countries or Gulf nations is a common sight. One may spot them at shops, restaurants and hospitals. “ We escort them everywhere from hospitals to shopping to sightseeing. I directly get business from the Arabian countries,” says Riazuddin, an interpreter, at a restaurant called Middle East Cuisine in Jasola. His client, Mohammad Ashoor is from Iraq.
Ashoor is in Delhi for his father’s heart surgery at a hospital in Patparganj in east Delhi. “ He wanted Arabic food and Jasola- Sarita Vihar is the only place where one can get good and affordable Arabian cuisine,” said Riazuddin. The walls of the eatery are tastefully done with framed pictures of many Arab cities, and an Iraqi flag runs across the white brick wall. “ Our Iraqi chef put it up on August 15, when every one was celebrating Independence Day In India and putting up the Indian tricolour. This was his way of remembering his own country,” says Idrees Ahmad, a manager at the restaurant.
Familiarity breeds business for the establishments in Jasola-Sarita Vihar since their Arabic ambience attracts customers from Faridabad and Gurugram too.“Though I am getting treatment in Faridabad, I chose to live in a Jasola hotel, because my people in Baghdad told me that I would feel at home in this area. They were right, in Jasola, I do not feel like being in a foreign country,” says Amar Hasan, 56, from Iraq, waiting for his order at Al Arabi, on the fourth floor of a hotel called Vishal Palace in Sarita Vihar. Hasan has undergone thyroidectomy at a hospital in Faridabad.
“The taste of the food here is very close to food back home in Iraq,” says Hasan. His comment makes Naiyar Alam, the owner of the restaurant, very happy. “ We had a Turkish chef who trained our staff in cooking authentic Arabian dishes. Ninety per cent of my clients are from the Middle East, and they all have to say the same thing,” says a beaming Alam, a Delhiite. Samark Mashwi (grilled fish) and Kebab Laham, he says, are two of the most sought-after dishes at his restaurant.
Alam’s biggest competitor—and it is only next door— is Ya Mal Alsham Syrian Restaurant. While medical tourists constitute a majority of the Syrian Restaurant’s patrons, it also attracts Arab diplomats, students, and expatriates. The founder, Abdullah, a chef, came to India in 2012 as a refugee with his family. He owned a restaurant in Damascus before the war forced him to leave his country. He opened the restaurant within a couple of months of arriving in India. He has since opened four more across the city, including inside a hospital in Faridabad. The walls of his restaurant in Sarita Vihar, situated on the top floor of hotel Om Palace, have large posters of his restaurant and his house in Damascus. His is one of the most sought-after Arabian restaurants across Delhi-NCR. Curiously both Vishal Palace and Om Palace do not have any signboards.
Soft-spoken Abdullah, who speaks to us through his Syrian English-speaking manager, comes to the restaurant at 6 am daily to supervise the cooking and stays up till midnight. “ For me, the authenticity of the food is very important. While 70 per cent of my customers are medical tourists, the others are a mix of many nationalities, including a lot of Indians,” he says. Chicken, Shawarma, Kuba Labanya, Shakrya Mutton are some of the most- sought after meals at the restaurant. “Most Indians ask for Falafel meals,” says Abdullah.
Asked what is it about his food that makes his restaurant such a hit, he says, “Syrian food is standard Arabian food , if cooked right it will be liked anywhere in the world.”
Omar, 30, and Maher, 26, Syrian students on a scholarship, say they frequently visit the Syrian restaurant. “ We find Indian food very spicy. This place is home for Syrians in Delhi like me, where we bond over food,” says Maher.
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