The Ramadan social calendar in Abu Dhabi doesn’t only revolve around iftar tables at hotels and in tents.
Another spot that has become a firm staple of the holy month in the capital city is the Ramadan and Eid Festival at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec).
Running until June 17, it is a strictly nocturnal affair, with the gates open at 8pm and closing at 2am, as families of all of kinds traverse the cavernous halls to sample the wares of hundreds of small market stalls selling all sorts of items, ranging from food to fashion.
Because the event is catered towards both Ramadan and Eid, most of the items on sale can be a convenient gift for either occasion. It is also a good place to gain an insight into the UAE-based shopper and what they look to buy during the holy month.
Hence my visit to Qasr Al Libnany is revelatory. The cheese and spice shop occupies a handsomely sized space near the entry, where up to a dozen different kinds of spread cheese and olives are sold.
It is the olive stand driving the business on the evening I visit, with scores of Emirati families lining up and tasting the produce before making their order. When it is my turn, I freeze while looking at the variety of glistening olives of different shades and textures, ranging from soft to rugged.
When I confess to the shop attendant, Khaled, that I have no idea what I am looking for, he chuckles.
“OK, let’s start at what time you are planning to eat,” he says. “Is this for iftar or suhoor [the pre-dawn meal in prelude to the fast]?” After stating that it is the latter, he merely grunts and sources a lime-green olive from one of the glass jars before handing it to me. To be honest, it is bitter enough to make my face crease.
“This is good,” he says. “Olives are perfect for suhoor because they don’t make you thirsty when you wake up. But to get that feeling then you need the olive to be fresh – and the sign of the freshness is that it is bitter.”
Walking down the aisles of the market with my new supply of “fresh” olives, I marvel at the variety and randomness on display. There are shops selling the latest Pakistani threads mixed with merchants selling glycerine soaps that smell like Dior and Escada scents; fine Ottoman-looking rugs stood beside a children’s book corner; while in one abandoned stall hangs a poster of Bob Marley with his catchphrase “One love” emblazoned beneath. At the feet of the poster lie up to half a dozen disembodied hands from mannequins.
Disturbed by the scene, I scurry away and turn towards a section of stalls selling striped kandura pyjamas for men. When I ask Mahmoud, the Egyptian merchant from Al Gharam stand, why they are selling exclusively night threads, he explains that Ramadan is home to a super-niche market.
“A lot of us men are awake late in Ramadan more than what we are used to,” he says.
“Some like to stay home with the family or go play cards in the local coffee shop, so they don’t want to dress up too much. These kanduras are good for that.”
Heading towards the exit, I see an oud and perfume stand that has been attracting a steady stream of customers.
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On my arrival, I initially suspect that it is the conspicuously named perfumes and the popular oud scent Sheikh Abdullah that are responsible for the hubbub.
The Yemeni stall owner, Abdul Jalil, is taken aback at the suggestion that his products aren’t genuine.
“We don’t go around telling people that these are the real deal. We use these names so it can stick in people’s memories,” he explains.
“Most of these scents are mixed by us and we give them this catchy names so that people can remember. Also, the name Sheikh Abdullah, can be anyone’s name.”
Abdul Jalil sprays my body with four different scents to showcase the diversity of his products. I leave the fair smelling like a cross between a daffodil and a rainforest.
At the very least, I now have the perfect outfit the next time I venture out of my apartment for a 3am shawarma run.