x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Hag al Leila festival celebrates Islam's culture of giving

As shoppers stock up on holiday treats, stores rake in tens of thousands of dirhams a day in sales of sweets and nuts.

People shop for sweets, nuts and other items for Hag al Leila at the old city in Ras al Khaimah. The annual one-day Islamic festival for children is a lucrative time for merchants.
People shop for sweets, nuts and other items for Hag al Leila at the old city in Ras al Khaimah. The annual one-day Islamic festival for children is a lucrative time for merchants.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Children faced the blazing sun yesterday afternoon for Hag al Leila, the annual Islamic festival that teaches them about the giving aspect of Ramadan by appealing to their sweet tooth.

The one-day holiday, which falls in the Muslim month of Shaban, sees children going door-to-door to sing and collect sweets, nuts and money. The event was celebrated yesterday in Emirati neighbourhoods across the UAE and is observed at various times during Shaban and Ramadan in other Gulf countries. "It's been a custom for many hundreds of years," said Yaaqoub al Balooshi, 34. "It came from Persian people to the Gulf because we are connected with trade and commerce. The rich people wanted to give money and food to the poor without hurting their feelings. So they gave it to the children before Ramadan.

"We say all our words go to God in the middle of Shaban. Generation after generation we took this custom from our parents, from our grandfathers." Traffic came to a standstill in RAK's old city last night as shoppers clogged traditional markets in a last-minute rush to stock up on sweets. Garlands of coloured lights hung over huge blue bins of nuts and jellies and boxes of crisps stacked to the height of the shops.

Merchants scooped nuts into bags and haggled with the crowds who had come from the city and villages to load their Land Cruisers and Lexuses with bags of nuts, lollipops and chocolates. Aref Abdulla, an Iranian merchant with a trim beard and a sweat drenched shirt, looked on in dismay as one woman surreptitiously tucked a walnut under her veil and bit into it to test its freshness. "We don't have this in Iran," he said as he surveyed the chaotic scene.

Saif Mirza, 62, the cousin of the shopkeeper and the owner of an adjacent shop, assured him that it is worth the chaos. "It is only one day a year," he said. "It is much too special for children." "And," he added, lounging across a bag of dried chickpeas to shovel walnuts into a bag for a customer, "five days [leading up to the holiday] like this is the same as the rest of the year's sales." His store sold Dh25,000 to Dh30,000 worth of sweets each day in the week leading up to Hag al Leila. He rationed customers to four kilograms of nuts per family.

"I'm working 18 hours but, for me, it's only for four days a year," said his employee Youni Amani, 26, snatching a bag of nuts from a customer who had tried to buy an extra kilogram. Drops collected on his sweat band as he tapped out a sum on a giant calculator. "Today we will make maybe Dh50,000 or Dh60,000," he said. At Dh20 a kilogram, that's a lot of nuts. "It's all for happiness," Aisha Alwan, 52, said as she helped her son load nine bags of sweets into their 4x4.

Children had prepared for Hag al Leila all week. On Sunday, the strong voice of Latifa Abdulla led a chorus of 18 children on a visit to Saqr Hospital to remind people of the forthcoming festival. Latifa, aged nine, claimed to be a Hag al Leila veteran. She has celebrated the occasion for the past two years and hit the streets again yesterday with her four older brothers. "I will go everywhere, the whole neighbourhood," she said. "I'll eat everything."

She was well prepared for the occasion, sporting black bags and a big smile under a red head scarf that shone with golden polka dots. "It's different now because all the nannies go with the children," Sheikha Obaid, 29, said as she directed the children away from the hospital emergency room and into the administration offices. "Mum and Dad sit at home to give the children sweets." Maisoun al Mansouri, 15, still has her first traditional gold embroiled black veil that girls wear for Hag al Leila.

"My mother bought it for me a week before. I wore it every single night before Hag al Leila for the whole week," she said. "Every neighbourhood knows each other from this tradition. It's like an adventure in the neighbourhood." Her friend, Hajar al Mansouri, 17, remembers the excitement. "I couldn't wait, even at dawn I went to the houses. I wouldn't go until they gave me candy." Yesterday, girls wore their best embroidered dresses, chunky traditional jewellery and bright polka dot cotton with matching sweetbags known as khreeta.

As they entered houses, children sang Hag al Leila songs that say God will reward the generous. Whether participating in the customary sweets search for the first time or the 20th, those on the march are willing to go to great lengths to load themselves down. "Sometimes we would walk a long way for that candy," Mr al Balooshi, 34, said with a laugh. "When they didn't give them anything we would say 'God will destroy your house', but we don't say that anymore."