Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 September 2019

Ramadan far from a piece of cake for busy Abu Dhabi sweet shop owner

Fasting is easy compared to keeping up with the Ramadan rush

Intermittent faster Wissam El Cheikh Hassan finds 30 days of fasting easy when compared to keeping up with the capital's demand for seasonal treats. 
Intermittent faster Wissam El Cheikh Hassan finds 30 days of fasting easy when compared to keeping up with the capital's demand for seasonal treats. 

Wissam El Cheikh Hassan has a distinct advantage over many of his fellow Muslims during Ramadan.

As an intermittent faster, he goes without food and water during daylight hours twice a week, meaning he is in training for the sacrifices of the holy month all year round.

Intermittent fasting is a form of eating that cycles between periods of fasting and non-fasting, such as the popular 5:2 diet that sees subscribers limit their calories to less than 500 or 600 two days a week. Fans say it can help with weight loss, increase energy levels and improve health.

Mr Hassan took up the practice after seeing a video online that said that intermittent fasting changes your brain and gut by forcing your body to fix existing cells rather than produce new ones. At first, he still drank black coffee, tea and water, as intermittent fasters usually do. But later he decided to do things the Islamic way and after sustaining it for many months, fasting for up to 14 hours a day for the entire month of Ramadan became no problem.

“If you maintain the habit for a year, your tolerance for hunger is much higher. You just get used to it – not eating is not a big thing. So even during the first couple of days I am not affected,” he said.

But that is not to say Ramadan is easy for him. As the managing partner of his family business, Abu Dhabi-based Al Dar Sweets, which sells holy month treats, Ramadan is the busiest time of the year. It is worth five months’ income to the business.

“I don’t enjoy it. I really don’t,” he said.

“You should be able to stand back during Ramadan, take it slow and reflect on your life. But because of how I work and all the revenue that come in [I cannot do this]. Part of me is happy that the income is higher, but the other part of me isn’t because it’s a struggle.”

Mr Hassan’s day starts at the same time as many Muslims – before daybreak, when he eats his first meal of the day. Then he calls into the company’s factory, which produces sweets and treats for businesses like Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and a number of Abu Dhabi hotels, including the Beach Rotana.

“This is the main part of the business – catering,” said Mr Hassan, who also produces a popular Arabic podcast with a friend called Mish Bil Shibshib, which means Not with the Slipper.

“I stay at the factory until 2pm. I only leave after all my orders are dispatched.”

Once he is done, he heads to the company’s two retail outlets to make sure the displays are ready for the customers, who usually start coming in at around 3.30pm, with the shops staying open right up to midnight.

“It doesn’t stop. We open in the morning, but it’s very slow. Since the products that are popular in Ramadan are dairy, they have a short shelf life so we don’t bring them into the shop until around noon,” he said.

Two or three times a week, he also works out before breaking his fast.

“You can feel very drowsy. Your stomach is growling and your eye balls are heavy. I don’t know where the energy comes from, but it does. It is really surprising,” he said.

And after breaking his fast with his wife and four children, aged between 10 and one, he heads back to the shop most days for around 8.30pm, except on Sundays.

“On Sundays I go to pray. That’s the sad thing about my job. I don’t get to reflect much,” said Mr Hassan.

“Most days I stay in the shop until 11.30pm. I always oversee the handover in terms of orders, production and packaging.”

He gets home for around midnight, gets four hours of sleep and then starts all over again.

It is tiring, but like many who work in the hospitality industry, he accepts the fact he has to do more on less resources during Ramadan.

“Everyone who works in food would say the same thing: there is no time off. You do overtime for 30 days, it's ll hands are on deck. And then after Eid you give staff their days back or you pay them their overtime,” said Mr Hassan.

“Ramadan is a very nice time of the year. The only thing I don’t like about what I do is I don’t get to enjoy that a lot.”

Updated: May 23, 2019 09:30 AM