Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 June 2019

Fun, colourful and chaotic: inside Abu Dhabi's Ramadan and Eid market

The annual event is a great place to do a bout of people-watching

It’s only during Ramadan that a midweek and midnight shopping spree seems like a fine idea. The good thing is, I’m not the only one struck by such nocturnal inspiration. The annual Ramadan and Eid festival, being held at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre until June 5, packs in a sizeable crowd fit for a weekend, let alone a Tuesday night.

Hundreds of families wander around the main halls sampling a variety of stalls selling everything from saffron tea to lavish dresses and state-of-the-art speakers. It’s fun, colourful and totally chaotic.

For one thing, none of the stalls are placed in dedicated hubs. Instead, their location seems to have been picked randomly out of a hat. How else can you explain why a sweet shop is sharing space with a luxury soap-maker? That mix of sweet rose water emanating from the baklava and the zest of orange soap is enough to confuse the senses. But this is why I love coming to the event.

It’s a market for people like me, who hate to shop. Instead of engaging in an endless amount of hopeless haggling, one can be kept content strolling around and enjoying a good couple of hours of people-watching.

And like all markets, it’s the vendors who are at the heart of it all. Their dedication to their product is not just for show – for many of them it is what they know best.

Meet Abu Khalid the Syrian juice-seller

Take Abu Khalid, who hails from Syria, for example. For many people attending the market, he will be the first person you see. Standing outside the main entrance in hall eight, he’s dressed in the traditional gear of a Levantine juice-seller. He wears baggy trousers, a multi-coloured vest and red Fes cap, which doubles up as his cash machine.

Wrapped around the front of his body is a large contraption that holds his huge steel coffee pot, the spout of which is so big Khalid has to bow to unleash a stream of concentrated blackberry juice, also known as “toot”, into plastic cups that are fastened to his belt.

Khalid tells me that he arrived in the UAE from Syria last year and comes from a family of well-regarded toot-sellers in Damascus. When I ask him what the secret of a good refreshing cup is, he explains that it is all in the making. “It comes fresh from Syria,” he says. “We get the fresh fruit from there and mash it up and cook it like jam. Then we cool it down until it’s ready to serve. Of course, there are certain things we put in that mix, but that is a family secret.”

Then there is the modern Egyptian dervish

Another market operator maintaining a distinguished tradition is Mohamed Said. You can see the Egyptian dervish dancer spinning his way into a hot and sweaty mess for a few 20-minute sets after 9pm. This is not the iconic white-clad Mevlevi style of practice that we’re used to. The best way to describe Said’s shtick is Dervish 2.0. For one thing, the dark dress is festooned with buzzing lights and once Said is in full swing he resembles a frenetic amusement ride. The thumping, Egyptian pop-laden backing soundtrack also enhances that sense of abandonment.

“There are two kinds of dervish performances,” Said tells me backstage. “There is the traditional, which is more spiritual in nature, and the more entertainment-based, which you just saw.” He went on to explain that the life of a modern dervish is not just about seeking spiritual strength – plenty of time is spent at the gym, too. “It’s supposed to look effortless but it’s exhausting,” he says. “There is lots of training about balance and strengthening your core.”

All that talk of exercise got me hungry, so I went to get a plate of a dozen stuffed vine leaves for Dh20 from the pop-up stall by Khalidiya-based ­Emirati restaurant, Turath Al Madina.

The smell of success

Once again, my senses were in overdrive when I went into the Khan Al Saboun soap stand. I used the opportunity to ask the seasoned vendor, Malek, how UAE Eid markets and soap stands have become synonymous with one another. He gave me a history lesson in response. “Natural soaps hit the market in Lebanon around 1989 and it came to the UAE three years later and they have been here ever since,” he explained. “It is getting busier now because everyone wants natural products.”

Women, he says, are apparently fond of pomegranate soap, while the men in the capital love a bit of lavender soap body spray. This was confirmed to me by the unnatural number of compliments I received from the regulars of my local cafe hang-out in Khalidiya an hour later.

Updated: June 2, 2019 10:52 AM

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