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UAE Expats Get a Taste for Iftar Sharing

Rym Ghazal, The National
July 21, 2013

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.