x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Ramadans were sweeter and simple in the past

A grandmother recalls the days in the 1960s, when one family's iftars featured a single dish and a single dessert - and leftovers became suhoor.

Fatima Rahma, 11, spends some time during Ramadan reading books and browsing on the computer. Her mother hopes to shield her from overindulgence.
Fatima Rahma, 11, spends some time during Ramadan reading books and browsing on the computer. Her mother hopes to shield her from overindulgence.

DUBAI // Umm Ali, remote in hand, pauses to consider a cooking show on television before she resumes channel-surfing. The Emirati grandmother, 60, lives in a five-bedroom villa with her husband, her mother and three servants.

It was a different story 45 years ago, when Umm Ali would have been cleaning up and preparing iftar. Back then, a roomful of sisters and mothers and aunts and cousins would gather to chop onions and cook rice all day in a house so big she cannot remember how many people lived in it. At least 30, she thinks.  "Or even 40," said her daughter, Hala al Rahma.  Ms Rahma and her mother, who declined to use her full name, reminisced about Ramadans spent in Dubai during decades past, when the holy month was less sumptuous and more simple. 

Sometimes too simple, Umm Ali noted.   During the 1960s her entire household - two brothers, four wives and dozens of children - shared one dish each night, usually biryani, and one dessert. Whatever was left, they ate the next morning for suhoor.  Without alarm clocks, they awoke to the drumbeat of a man who marched from house to house calling: "It's time for suhoor, everyone." Then a female relative would pass through the corridors knocking on each door.

They had no juice to break their fast - only water, which was delivered each morning by a man on his donkey carrying clay jugs. The family bought a fresh supply each day and filtered it, but inevitably worms would be found in it. With no other option, though, they simply strained the creatures out before they drank, Umm Ali recalled, wrinkling her nose.  The one frill they did allow now seems primitive. Toward the end of the month, the women would decorate their hands with henna - but not the ornate swirls popular today.

"We drew a circle on our palm," said Umm Ali. "Or we put some henna on our hand, then did this," she demonstrated, squeezing her fingers over her palm, "and held it until the henna dried." Whatever splotch appeared, "that was the design," she said, smiling.  "It was a sweeter life then," she said. "If I could go back to that time, I would." What Umm Ali misses is the togetherness - having the whole family in one house, all the women chatting in one room as they cook, and half a dozen relatives eating from one platter during suhoor. Even with the disputes that erupted with so many people living under one roof, she preferred the old style.

Umm Ali left home when she married at age 19. Other children broke away, too.  By the time her daughter entered her teens in the 1980s, iftar had become a nuclear family affair - and no longer a day-long task. There were cars and shops to get ingredients from quickly. There was electricity to keep the food refrigerated, and air conditioning to keep the family cool. There was a cook to prepare the nightly meal - not only biryani but also thareed, harees, fish and samosas. 

"It was pretty much as it is today," Ms Rahma said.  As times changed, so did the opportunities available to women. Umm Ali's father had forbidden her from attending school, which was a short walk away, because he did not want her leaving the house. After she married she studied for two years, but hardly learned to read and write before returning home to cook and clean and sew.  Ms Rahma, however, learned English and Arabic and studied IT at college. She worked for 15 years as a programmer before retiring to raise her four children, now between the ages of 6 and 16. 

The difference between her generation and her mother's is greater than the difference between hers and her children's, she said.  The main change now, she said, is the smorgasbord of five-star buffets and television dramas bursting across town. From her youth she remembers just one mall and two channels. "The programmes were very poor," she said. "There was not much to do." Still, Ms Rahma hopes to shield her children from the Ramadan indulgences on offer today. She serves iftar at home, taking over from her Filipina cook so she can prepare Emirati dishes.

She talks with her children about the meaning of Ramadan and brings them to mosque to attend lectures and pray.  Her daughter Fatima, 11, spent a recent afternoon reading the Quran and watching America's Got Talent clips on YouTube. Before iftar, she said, she helps her mother bake cookies and set the table. She is entering her third year of fasting during the holy month.  "When I think of Ramadan," she said, "I think of people who have no food to eat or water to drink." @Email:chuang@thenational.ae