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Desi girl: Traditional Emirati celebrations remind me of home

Haq Al Laila is one of my favourite aspects of the UAE’s heritage.

I came into the office on Sunday to find a little surprise on my desk: a shiny organza drawstring bag filled with sweets and nuts. My eyes lit up with joy: Haq Al Laila had sneaked up on me.

Haq Al Laila is one of my favourite aspects of the UAE’s heritage. As an expat, it’s difficult to find such time-honoured traditions in practice unless you are friends with Emiratis or work with them. I’ve spent more than a decade in the UAE, but it was only about four years ago when I learnt about the Emirati celebrations of this religious occasion. I was instantly enamoured because it seemed like a local version of trick-or-treating over Halloween.

Children dress up in their finest and go door-to-door in their neighbourhood to gather goodies in bags specially made for this occasion. They sing out “Aatoona Allah Yutikum Beit Mecca Yudikum” (give to us and God will reward you) and the neighbours fill their bags with chocolate, sweets, nuts and dirhams.

Haq Al Laila falls on the 15th of Shaaban and marks the two-week point before the advent of the holy month of Ramadan. The significance of the night is that it is supposedly a year-end closing for everyone’s deeds over the past 12 months. The books are checked, the accounts balanced and everyone is given a fresh start. Apparently, we all get a clean slate this day, as well as the responsibility to chalk up the good deeds.

Known as Haq Al Laila in Arab countries, the 15th of Shaaban is also celebrated on the subcontinent. Desis refer to it as Shab-e-Baraat (Night of Deliverance).

Anybody who grew up in Pakistan or spent time there up until the late 1990s will fondly recall Shab-e-Baraat as a time for celebration. It was definitely my favourite holiday growing up.

When I was a child, Shab-e-Baraat meant fairy lights, oil lamps, sweets and fireworks. It was celebrated much like Diwali is celebrated by Hindus.

I remember squeezing with siblings and cousins into the back of a car and being driven around the city to admire all the festive lighting. All around town, balconies would be festooned with twinkling lights and window ledges lined with oil lamps. We would return home to sink our teeth into chanay ki deal ka halwa (a traditional Shab-e-Baraat dessert made from chickpeas) freshly baked by Nani, our maternal grandmother.

But the part we looked forward to the most was yet to come: frolicking with fireworks: phuljharis (sparklers), patakhas (crackers), anars, mehtabis and chuchunders. We would huddle on the landing outside Nani’s apartment in Yousuf Plaza and surprise passersby with our fireworks. No one got hurt because the neighbourhood shop did not sell anything dangerous. It never occurred to us to go looking for bigger, more lethal fireworks.

Sadly, not all children were like us; the teenagers, even less so. Burns and injuries sustained during Shab-e-Baraat eventually led to fireworks being frowned upon. At some point, the overzealous decided that any kind of celebration of Shab-e-Baraat – with or without fireworks – is akin to creating “innovation” in religion. And so the lights went out for good on what was a beloved childhood tradition.

If only the children of the UAE realised how lucky they are that their elders are working hard to preserve traditions for them.

Ujala Ali Khan lives in Dubai and loves all things desi.

Follow her on Twitter @ujalaalikhan

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