A Gulf tradition gets its fizz back

The once popular soft drink, namlet, had all but disappeared when the Emirati restaurant tycoon Hamed Hareb – who remembered it fondly as a treat from his childhood – decided to try to revive it, complete with its traditonal marble-stopper bottle, writes Hareth Al Bustani

Emirati restaurant tycoon Hamed Hareb is reviving namlet soft drink, trying to keep the new bottles (shown) as close as possible to the originals. Pawan Singh / The National
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Namlet. To some, the word evokes wild, brightly coloured childhood memories. To others, nothing at all. Few people have even seen a bottle of namlet, the Arabian Gulf’s first soft drink, let alone tasted it.

It was once one of the most popular drinks in the UAE, but has since faded into obscurity. Even in the 1970s, it was considered a luxury, produced agonisingly only by a “few old men”. By the 1980s it had all but disappeared, available only at exclusive private affairs. However, the Emirati restaurant tycoon Hamed Hareb is on a mission – to single-handedly raise namlet from the ashes.

Namlet, believed to be a corruption of the word lemonade, was introduced to the region through trade with India. As trade boomed in the 1920s, so too did the drink. It came in three flavours – lemon, orange and rose – in green Codd-neck bottles with a marble as a stopper.

Mr Hareb says his generation were the last to enjoy namlet.

“We saw this namlet again in our lives only recently. I am 51 – you’re talking about 60 or 70 years back when it was easily available. So I thought about this drink because I remembered sometimes when I was young I used to get it very rarely with my brother or my friends. At that time we were poor and could not pay much money, so we would fight to buy one.”

This was common back then – children would have to share a bottle not only because times were hard, but because the old-fashioned bottles were expensive.

The predicament of deciding who drank first spawned a game, and an alternate title for the drink – Tash Ma Tash. Bickering children would guess whether the drink would foam or not when the marble cap was pushed in – with the victor drinking first.

Mr Hareb first encountered namlet at a cafe in Dubai’s Al Nasr Club, brewed by a sole “old man”, in the late 1970s, and was immediately infatuated. “From that time it was like a habit – I said one day, if I reach a point when I can produce this kind of drink in Dubai for the UAE, it will be nice.”

His namlet project, however, was put on the back burner for a long time. Mr Hareb had a culinary empire to build first.

He lost his father when he was just nine, and the family inherited a dhow. However, with the construction of a bridge linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, trade by boat was failing. The family converted the dhow into a restaurant in 1983, which proved a huge success, and a crucial first step in Mr Hareb’s culinary career.

From here, he slowly built his Al Koufa and Dahleez Services restaurant chain. Al Koufa was launched in 1993 with new restaurants opening every few years to the point where he now has 14 – including eight heritage-themed signature outlets.

“When we opened Al Koufa and started searching for new ideas, namlet came to mind and we started searching where could we get those kinds of drinks.

“ I tried to search for the old man who worked in Al Nasr Club at that time but I couldn’t find him. Then I looked into the bottles and we found them in India and started producing three flavours – lemon, orange and rose.”

From those three original flavours traditionally available across the Arabian Gulf, Al Koufa has added more. “In Dubai, you have to search for new ideas. Crazy ideas,” he suggests. His company aims to develop its heritage-themed restaurants, while incorporating a few modern twists.

“If you visit any of my restaurants, you’ll find it has a heritage style; either in the decoration or in the food you will see there is a local touch in it.” The restaurant even has Emirati fusion food such as maleh (salted fish) pizza.

In 2007, Mr Hareb took his namlet project to the next level and began producing. His traditional restaurants serve it in large bottles, costing Dh18 each, and his catering services sell up to 15,000 smaller bottles each month. Among his repeat customers are several prominent sheikhs who order up to 100 bottles of namlet at a time for special occasions. “If there is a VIP from Saudi Arabia or any other part of the Gulf they give it to them.”

Al Koufa has registered namlet with the economic department and Dubai municipality.

“We started small and just produced it in the restaurant to know what the taste was and how much people liked it. Recently, in the last year we have started producing it in our restaurants.

“Now, with Instagram, it’s like a habit for people – they want it, so we are doing well. We had difficulty with somebody making a similar bottle but it does not look real, like the original. It has been bought from Japan but we are not using it because I like to keep it traditional as it is. What we have is very much original, it’s funky, it’s nice.

“Now I am also trying to make sure the bottle is not forgotten – nowadays nobody uses that bottle in the origin country so we’re trying to buy a factory there to manufacture it for us. And to add many flavours to it, more than the originals.”

These, he says, include cola, Vimto, grenadine, grape and jallab – a syrup made of grape molasses, dates and rose water. “We try sometimes to add new ideas to it but we’re reviving it in its typical way, with its typical look. We don’t want to touch or to change anything.

“It’s easy to get an imitation bottle but I want to keep a heritage look – you can feel the heritage when you drink this kind of drink.

“Preserving heritage a very big issue and it’s not only for the UAE. More than 70 or 100 years back, this drink was famous and the main drink in the Gulf. It came from trade between the UAE, especially Dubai, and India.

“The soda is very famous in India and really it came from there. And it’s simple – water, gas and flavour. They have it in Kuwait and Bahrain but nowadays nobody manufactures it there like we do, it’s usually done very rarely by some old people. We are now in the process of trying to supply Qatar and Bahrain too.”

Thus Mr Hareb is gradually fulfilling what was once a fleeting dream of reintroducing namlet in a way that will never be forgotten.

Aside from having “crazy ideas”, he feels his success to date has been largely rooted in living in accordance to his religion. Religion is about how you treat people, not only about observing prayers, he says.

“If you do your prayers and treat people bad, God will not accept it. So, this is my secret – in all the growth from one restaurant to 14 restaurants, in all my business, that reflects how I deal with my staff and my customers. And I believe that we are all human beings. If you come to work or live with me, I have to treat you well. The staff like it– from 1995 until today, almost 80 per cent of my staff is the same. Treating people as human beings, plus trying to find a healthy environment of team work and love between each other is the only reason why my group has consistently grown bigger.”

“But the main reason why I succeed?” he asks. “To tell you frankly, I am a very cool guy.” By cool, Mr Hareb means he always keeps his cool. He once received a call telling him to hurry to his Al Koufa restaurant because it had caught fire.

“So I came in the morning - there were lots of people around, police and fire fighters. I stood very far from the restaurant near a policeman and we were talking, laughing and having jokes. He said, ‘I will ask you a question - do you know the owner of this place?’ I said, ‘Yes’. He said, ‘Brother, his place is burning and he isn’t here’. I told him, ‘No, he is here’. He said, ‘Where is he?’ I say, ‘Here. Me’. And he said, ‘Your place is on fire and you are making jokes with me?’ I said, ‘What to do? Fil mal wala fil hal’. It’s not burning my family or my children, it’s money.”

Managing 450 to 500 staff daily, he points out, requires a cool head. People look at me and tell me I look 38 or 40, and I say it’s because I am always smiling.

“At the end of the day we will not keep anything from this life, what remains for us is a good name.”

halbustani@thenational.ae