This year Stu and I decided, well actually to be fair it was Stu who suggested, that we should try a proper traditional Iftar. We had been to Iftar last year at the end of our Fundamentals of Arabic course, but we wanted to do something a bit more interesting than the normal buffet-style meal that is on offer at most of the hotels during the holy month. Coincidentally Stu then read, and I also heard on the radio, about an Iftar meal being hosted at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) in the Bastakiya section of Dubai. This is the area in Dubai that has retained some traditional-style homes (complete with wind-towers) and is wonderful for walking tours. Iftar is the meal taken on breaking of the fast, just after sunset (Maghrib), during Ramadan. The timing of the prayer depends on the setting of the sun and is published in the newspaper each day. So we were required to be at the centre for 6.30pm, as Iftar was scheduled for 6.59pm that evening.
[traditional houses in Bastakiya]
When we entered the centre, we were greeted by our smiling Emirati hosts (and hostesses) and a large rug set in the centre of a very traditional-feeling room, surrounded by piled red cushions arranged in a rectangle. In the back corner, a Bedouin man sang whilst he roasted coffee beans in the traditional way, over a fire. Actually, he was just pretending to roast them, but his singing and acting really added an authentic feel to the proceedings. All in all about 40 people had chosen to attend the meal, most being non-Muslims, and it really was like the League of Nations. I certainly heard Spanish, Dutch, German, Afrikaans, and who knows what else as we sat and waited for the main event. The centre is staffed and run entirely by volunteers, all Muslims and most are local Emiratis. They welcomed us most warmly and chatted away to each other, all keeping one eye on the minute hand of the large clock hanging above the staircase.
At about 6.45pm several large steel containers full of food were placed in the centre of the rug, as well as glass bowls full of dates ranging from fresh to fermented (my favourite). Even if you aren’t fasting Ramadan does mean that you end up eating less than normal, especially if you are out and about during the day, as you are discouraged from eating or drinking (or smoking) in public during the day. The smell of the food was tantalising, it must have been torture for those that HAD been fasting since sunrise.
[time to eat]
At 6.59pm on the dot, we heard the Muezzin from the nearby Mosque begin the call to prayer. Expecting some activity now we all looked expectantly at Nasif, the main volunteer, who then informed us that it was common to only break your fast when you heard the Muezzin from your own mosque, the one you pray at. As he finished saying this the second Muezzin echoed the first, and coffee and dates were passed around to break the fast. Muslims have 20 minutes from the time they hear the call to prayer, or Adhan, to start their prayer, normally in the Mosque. We were all invited to watch, and photograph, the men as they prayed in front of us.
It was then time to tuck in to the delicious food in front of us – ladies first of course. The spread included Chicken Biryani, Harees (meat and wheat puree that sounds and looks revolting but was divine), Lamb with vegetables, and a massive green salad. The volunteers waited until every guest had taken some food – wow, I admire their restraint, if I had been fasting all day like that I would have been elbowing people aside to get to the feast. We were given 30 odd minutes to eat and chat to our guide before we walked over to the Mosque for a tour. The ladies were provided with Abayas and head scarves to that we could cover up before entering the Mosque.
[Arabic coffee flavoured with cardamom]
Being inside the Mosque was an amazing experience. Shoes off, to keep the floor clean, we all tiptoed into the back section and sat down so that Nasif could explain a little about the format of the prayer and Islam in general to us. Stu and I had been to the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi with some friends last year, but we were unable to go inside, as it was a Friday. So this was my first time inside one. Nasif actually walked us through a prayer from beginning to end, showing us the four movements and translating it all into English. He then finished off by doing it all the way through again in Arabic. I was fascinated to learn that Jesus, and Mary, are mentioned in the Qur’an – I hadn’t really given this much thought but had assumed the opposite, so it was rather unexpected. We were then allowed to stay and listen whilst the next call to prayer was sung, the domed roof of the Mosque providing amazing acoustics, I could feel the vibrations in my bones. I find it a beautiful and haunting sound.
[inside the Mosque]
After our walk back (in the very humid night air) we were greeted by dessert laid out on the rug – traditional Arabic sweets that looked like the holes from doughnuts, or little vetkoek for the saffers, served with date syrup and a mango pudding. More coffee followed and then we were all given the opportunity to waft smoke over ourselves
from the (incense?) burner that was brought around. This fragrant smoke serves two purposes, it removes the smell of food from your hair and clothes, and also signifies the end of the evening. A very polite way to ask your guests to please go home now.
I have to say it was a truly magical and extremely interesting evening. Nasif and his fellow volunteers could not have been more gracious, amusing and informative as they explained the realities of Muslim life, and Emirati culture, to us. A big Shuk’ran to them all for giving up their family time, especially during Ramadan, to spend it with us.