x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Sights and sounds of a special time

After the energy-sapping Ramadan fast, the arrival of Eid Al Fitr is cause for great joy and a chance for friends and family to celebrate together.But first, there are preparations to be made and everything comes to a head on the hectic last night of the holy month. Anna Zacharias reports

Children dressed in their fancy new Eid clothes visit their neighbours in Ras Al Khaimah on the first morning after Ramadan collecting Eidiya, cash gifts given to celebrate the end of the holy month. Antonie Robertson / The National
Children dressed in their fancy new Eid clothes visit their neighbours in Ras Al Khaimah on the first morning after Ramadan collecting Eidiya, cash gifts given to celebrate the end of the holy month. Antonie Robertson / The National

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Eid starts with empty streets.

The city pauses before the last sunset of Ramadan. Ras Al Khaimah, a ghost town during Ramadan daylight hours, is completely silent in the moment before the prayer call sounds from minarets across the city. Even the alley cats have disappeared.

In the days of Ramadan, the entire city is at rest.

Eid is another story. During Eid, the city is in overdrive. Nobody sleeps. Not at night, not in the day. By the time the city congregates for the early-morning Eid prayers, the city is hours into its celebrations.

Hardened by the nocturnal regime of Ramadan, few will sleep at night and there will be no rest in the hours that follow - there are sweets to eat, relatives to visit, meals to cook and Eidiya to collect. Excitement leaves no room for exhaustion. Spiritual contemplation is compulsory yet rest is impossible.

But in that moment before the maghrib prayers on the final day of Ramadan, the city is suspended.

Two souq shops remain open. At the Malik Al Karak cafeteria they are brewing sweet, milky cardamom tea. Parents will need a sugar rush to fuel them through the chaos of the night before Eid.

Next door, at Asayel King of Juices, Filipina sisters Fatima Dialawe Tima and Charlene Alfonzo fry Emirati pancakes in anticipation of the Eid rush. There is chabab bread and kameer pancakes stained yellow with saffron, sweet cheesy pastry rolls, dates rolled in coconut, and the Eid treat kanfaroush, fried cardamom cakes.

Ms Alfonzo, who also uses the name Mariam, learnt the recipes from her Emirati boss before he opened the cafe and put her in charge of his family's culinary secrets. Visibly exhausted by a day's work without rest, she has a long night ahead.

Cars pull up moments after the prayers finish, packed with families on their way to markets and salons. There are fretting fathers off to trim their beards, mothers in a rush to get to the tailors, children showing off their new jewellery. These cafeterias are their first stop.

Horns honk, orders are placed. Eid celebrations have begun.

Over the holiday, people will cross the country to meet relatives, visit graves and share sumptuous feasts in the homes of Royal and tribal sheikhs.

"If one man wrongs another, in Eid it is forgiven," says Sheikh Sultan bin Ali Al Khateri, the chief of Al Khawater desert tribe.

"You welcome all men. In Eid, there must be forgiveness."

It is a family tradition. When Sheikh Sultan was a boy, his father gathered people for Eid breakfast in the desert under sidr trees. Now the Eid breakfast is served to 200 men in a majlis of immense chandeliers and gold-coloured domed ceilings.

"Eid is a connection with people and happiness," says the sheikh's 40-year-old son, Saif. "The connection is with compassion. The people who are here are not from one single tribe but many."

Before people can gather, they prepare with an all-night souq shopping spree.

The souq smells of Eid. The scent of henna, saffron and the perfumed wood smoke of bukhoor waft from beauty parlours, bakeries and tailor shops.

Each salon is famous for its own forte. One is renowned for big hairdos, another for henna and eyebrow threading. Women will salon-hop across the city in search of Eid perfection.

Others have a more relaxed approach. Abdulaziz Tamim sits outside the Khaimah Cafe between his friends, Abdulgafour and Abdulkareem, and dreams of the sweet vermicelli noodles he will share with his wife for breakfast.

"I'm teaching my wife how to cook," says Mr Tamim, a Bangladeshi who was born and raised in a fishing family in Ras Al Khaimah.

During his childhood, the noodles were a rare luxury for his family. His parents, six brothers and three sisters shared one plate between them and Mr Tamim, the youngest, was always spoiled with the largest share.

Now, he teaches his mother's speciality.

Across the street in the privacy of the Carolina Saloon, women sit under a "balcony" of plastic flowers. The chaos of the street is replaced by quiet chatter about this year's best henna designs - should they follow the designs of the salon's book or check henna trends on social media?

"Any lady, she would like to have her own design," explains Amna Al Nakhi. "I don't see it as competition. It's more like applying tradition."

The Indian henna design that dances across her feet and arms is the most beautiful and intricate in the salon. It is an Instagram inspiration.

"At Eid, you'll see all the hands are henna," she says.

The Carolina Saloon gets through 4 kilograms of henna paste in the day before Eid. It is the busiest day of the year and the salon is open almost 24 hours a day. "It's how to express that we really love this Eid," explains Misbah Aswani, 18, the salon manager and owner's daughter. "Henna is an appropriate way to express this."

Anam Shaikh shares a popular henna philosophy: "Trust in the artist," she says. "Henna and Eid is the greatest Eid combination. We wait for Eid to come just for henna."

"Eid is not complete without henna," nods her mother, Anjum.

Their chosen design - Arabic or Indian, floral or detailed - depends on the mood. Today they choose the tight knots of Indian henna.

The mother and daughter will cook all night after their henna dries. The highlight of their Eid breakfast is a dish consisting of dried fruits roasted in ghee and boiled in milk.

Then, after a short post-prayer nap, they will "prepare the feast food".

Little girls sit still as statues while the henna on their arms dries. After Eid prayer, children will walk door-to-door in sequinned shoes and crinoline dresses to collect Eidiya, gift money, with their brothers. Adults know they are expected to keep thick wads of crisp Dh5 notes handy at all times during the holiday.

The salon grows crowded after midnight. Traffic is bumper to bumper in the souq. The scent of henna in the street is now overpowered by the smell of onions frying in preparation for pre-prayer breakfast.

It's the last minute rush. Women wait until Eid is called so that their henna stays dark and fresh.

This means that henna artists work until customers are pushed out of the door when the call to prayer announces the rise of the sun.

Women leave the salon at last, the henna still wet on their arms.

The streets are silent again before Eid prayers. They are filled with men and women, preened and polished, fed on a few early-morning sweets, ready for prayer. They arrive at the Eid prayer ground by bicycle and bus.

There are workers crammed into the back of trucks, sheikhs with white SUVs and tinted windows and security escorts, daughters who cling to their fathers' hands as they and hundreds of others enter the prayer ground with the dawn.

Eid has come.