x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

For Somalis, iftar evokes loved ones back home

At local restaurants, they gather over samboosas, khameer and mish mish, strengthening their community and faith.

DUBAI // Like millions of other Muslims around the world, Mohammed Hussein and his friends break their fast with dates and water. Then, they might have samboosa, a savoury pastry called khameer and a sweet pancake known as mish mish - all Somali specialities. Mr Hussein, 37, from the Somaliland region, has lived in the UAE for 25 years but clings to his heritage. "I am so proud to be Somali," he said. "For us, without our samboosa [samosa], it's not Ramadan."

While many Somalis in the UAE share iftar meals at home with their families, others - including people just passing through and those who have been here for decades - flock to the handful of Somali restaurants that can be found around the Al Ras area in Deira. "We like to gather with other Somalis," Mr Hussein said, seated around a crowded table with friends at the Juba Hotel. "The Somali community always needs to get together. That's what our grandfathers taught us: to be together and support each other."

Every iftar, dozens of Somalis descend on restaurants such as the Juba for a little taste of home. In the central serving area, Amina Ibrahim, 28, from the self-proclaimed independent republic of Somaliland, prepares traditional dishes, before handing them to the women and children who eat in the family section, behind a partition of columns and pot plants. At 9pm, the televisions mounted on the walls are not switched to one of the popular Arabic Ramadan series as they are in other restaurants. Instead they are turned to Universal TV, a Somali satellite channel.

Mustafa Yousef, 32, was born in Abu Dhabi and has visited Somalia only once, but he still calls the place home. For Mr Yousef, getting together over iftar meals is an opportunity to talk about his homeland, as well as the spirituality of the holy month. "Ramadan is a special month for all Muslims, and we are part of that," he said. "We feel very happy during this month, especially when we are together."

Seated at the table next to Mr Yousef, Mr Hussein and their friends, were Ali Kabdhe, a 57-year-old businessman and senior member of Dubai's Somali community, and Abdel Salam Galaal, an Omani of Somali descent. According to Mr Galaal, 53, the community maintains particularly close ties during the holy month both across the Gulf region, as well as with family and friends back in Somalia. "Getting together is something special for us. But during Ramadan it is even more important because of the religious aspect," Mr Galaal said.

Members of the community also organise Ramadan charity drives to support people in Somalia, he said, where parts of the country continue to be ravaged by conflict. Many of the patrons at the Juba Hotel insist that while they might be outside their country, it is never far from their thoughts. This is especially true for Osman Borow, 41, one of the restaurant's staff, whose family remains in Mogadishu, Somalia's war-torn capital, while he works to provide for them. Standing beside an old espresso machine - a relic of his country's colonial past - Mr Borow, a father of seven children and five stepchildren, said it is more difficult to be apart from his family during Ramadan.

"Of course I miss my country," he said. "My family is in Mogadishu and I am worried about them, but I don't have a choice. Every day I call my family and talk to them, especially during Ramadan." @Email:zconstantine@thenational.ae