x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

UAE expats get a taste for iftar sharing

More than 25 people of different nationalities enjoy a special iftar meal and the traditions that go with it as eight families from a RAK neighbourhood contribute a dish each to put on a magnificent spread for their guests.

Suqrat Bin Bisher and Aisha Bishr explain the traditions of Iftar to expats who are having their first Iftar at Fatima Bisher's (not shown) home in Al Rams, Ras Al Khaimah. Razan Alzayani / The National
Suqrat Bin Bisher and Aisha Bishr explain the traditions of Iftar to expats who are having their first Iftar at Fatima Bisher's (not shown) home in Al Rams, Ras Al Khaimah. Razan Alzayani / The National

Ramadan brings a beautifully aromatic tradition in the Shaabiyat Zayed Al Qadema of Al Rams in Ras Al Khaimah.

Each day, in the hour before iftar, women rush from one household to another carrying plates of food covered by aluminium foil. For decades, the eight main families of this freej (neighbourhood) have exchanged dishes every Ramadan among themselves, so that everyone has a dish from a neighbour along with their own food as they settle down on the floor to break their fast.

"But my dishes are the best," says Fatima Al Tunaiji, who is in her seventies and holds the unofficial title of "best cook" in the freej.

Last week more than 25 expatriates from different nationalities and walks of life were given the chance to taste some of Mrs Al Tunaiji's cooking at her single-storey traditional home when they were invited over for their first traditional Emirati iftar.

"You are always welcome. My home is always open," she told her guests. Some came in carrying flowers, others brought chocolate and another brought small gifts for the Al Tunaiji family.

But cooking for a large number of people is nothing new for Mrs Al Tunaiji. If anything, it is the norm.

"We cook for the entire freej. We never cook just for ourselves. We remember what a neighbour likes and try to make it for them whenever we can," she said. "We are one big family and we all love each other and know everyone's news."

Laid out on a cloth on the floor of the majlis of Mrs Tunaiji's home were tiny baskets filled with dates, laban, massive amounts of traditional dishes such as harees (made of oats or wheat berries, meat, salt, pepper and cinnamon), Fish Majbous (grilled freshly caught tuna, in this case), and desserts such as luqeymat, deep-fried pancake batter with sesame seeds covered in date syrup.

Mrs Al Tunaiji's daughter, Aisha, has helped her mother in the cooking, in the preparation and in the hosting.

With decades of charity work under her belt, including trips to Yemen and Pakistan with the Red Crescent, Aisha's charitable nature comes through even at this iftar as she fills everyone's plate before her own even though she was the one fasting, unlike most of the guests.

"I like to make sure everyone is comfortable and enjoying themselves. It is our tradition to be generous and hospitable," she said, smiling and assisting everyone.

If someone didn't like a dish, she made sure something else was brought over from the kitchen.

"No one leaves our home with an empty stomach," she said.

A huge canister with ice and Vimto was also part of the iftar.

"I always remember our Vimto Popsicles from my childhood. We would freeze the Vimto and then eat it as our dessert every Ramadan," said Aisha.

Besides the food and traditional Arabic coffee, traditional oud perfume holders with a golden dabber were passed around for the guests to smell and put on their wrists.

Aisha also made sure there were books on Islam and UAE culture in both English and Arabic, along with religious decorations and lit candles inside traditional-looking lanterns along the majlis, giving the room with green and light pink floral designs a cosy feeling.

Every thought had gone into the comfort of the guests.

There were traditional Arabic seats on rugs, as well as ordinary couches for those who are not comfortable sitting on the floor.

"Even though I just got married, I still like to come over every day to my mother for food and for a chat," said Aisha.

Her mother, Fatima, who was sitting next to her laughed, as she said: "Of course. I am the best cook. No restaurant can make what I make."

The Emirati family asked the expat participants to fast on the day of the event so they can better appreciate this aspect of Ramadan.

"You have to break your fast with a date and laban," said Suqrat bin Bisher, event manager at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, who organised the event.

Called "Ramadan: Iftar for Everyone," the gathering at Mrs Al Tunaiji's home was part of the foundation's community gathering series. Each month it sets up an event that gathers people from all walks of life to encourage a bridging and exchange of cultures and traditions.

Other events included cooking Italian food, kayaking, art related events and exhibitions.

"We want to get people together and inspire them to feel part of the bigger community that is RAK," said Mr Bin Bisher. "It has been great, everyone has fun while getting to know each other."

The foundation is a non-profit establishment set up in 2009 to aid in the social, cultural, and economic development of the emirate. It also does research, develops local capacity in the public sector and engages the community.

Jenny Zimmerman, an Australian teacher who came with her husband, Luke, was one of the expats who had fasted until 3pm.

"It is very difficult to fast until sunset. I have great respect and admiration for how Muslims do it," she said.

While Mrs Zimmerman had lived in the UAE for more than 10 years, the iftar at Mrs Al Tunaiji's house was her first at an Emirati home.

"I am very touched and happy to have had this chance to see how a fast is broken and what kind of food is eaten at a traditional iftar," she said. "It is a rare chance for cultures to meet and learn from each other."

Elena Laspona, an accountant from the Philippines who has been in the UAE for two years, has gone to iftars before, but "nothing like this".

she said: "It is very cosy, very friendly, and makes us all feel close to each other to sit on the floor and share a meal. I won't forget this iftar."

As the expatriates left, Mrs Al Tunaiji and her daughter Aisha, as well as three other daughters, were getting ready for suhoor and the influx of neighbours as they left the mosque after their Taraweeh prayers.

"We are right next to the mosque, so we are the first stop for the guests, before we all move on to the next house, and the next, until go to bed and start our fast all over again," said Aisha.

Suhoor includes fruit, coffee, tea, and lot of discussions.

"That is the best part, we get to talk to each other and find out the latest news and find out who needs. We make sure no one is sad or in need in Ramadan," said Aisha.

Her mother said: "We are there for each other. Our freej is a happy blessed one where everyone knows your name, and your cooking."