With only three hours of sleep since suhoor, I am back on the road again. It is 9am on Friday and my eyelids are broken blinds, clumsily cascading down every time I try to tug them back up. It is 33 degrees outside, but the heat index has inched closer to an evil 39. I am tired, thirsty, limp and lifeless without my mandatory morning chai. The task of tracking down an industrial kitchen in the middle of dry and dusty Al Quoz is the final tasteless icing on the cake. A cake that I cannot eat nevertheless, until iftar time at sunset.
The preparation of iftar for thousands of blue-collar workers has brought me to Al Quoz this morning. Every evening during Ramadan, a mass communal iftar unfolds on striped plastic sufras or dasterkhaans around the Lootah mosque in Deira. Fifty Indian men from Tamil Nadu unwittingly planted the seed for this initiative back in 1976 when they gathered around a humble meal funded by their own personal contributions. Forty years later, their communal concept has blossomed to feed 5,000.
Funded by donations, the iftar is organized from ‘pot to pavement’ by the Indian Muslim Association (IMAN) under the leadership of president Habibullah and general secretary Hameed Yassin. Indians, Pakistanis, Bagladeshis, Iranians and people from across the African continent are seated side-by-side on the pavement for a taste of the signature dish at this iftar – a nourishing porridge called kanji.
Kanji is an iftar speciality of the Muslims in Tamil Nadu, and the process to make it for a 5,000-person communal spread begins the night before. Usman Ali, the manager on duty, has agreed to show me around the premises in Al Quoz where the kanji has been cooking since five in the morning. As I rush into the kitchen to escape the mid-morning heat, I am sucked into a suffocating vortex of steam that is billowing out from the bubbling vats of porridge.
Six cooks have already finished simmering one steel vat with a thousand servings of kanji using ingredients that are prepped and chopped the night before. There are two more hulking pots on the burners, and another two still in the queue. They cannot cook everything at once, reveals Usman with a cheerfulness that belies the oppressive heat in the kitchen, because it would get so hot that the alarms would go off.
Most of the cooks and volunteers are fasting, but they seem to be feeding off a bottomless supply of patience, humility and generosity. Heat and hunger aside, their only concern is to ensure that the kanji reaches the mosque in time for iftar. For the past two years of running a Ramadan experience in Deira with my partners Gulf Photo Plus, IMAN has welcomed our guests to join this community of men. Slippers stacked to the side, blue tarp separating our bare feet from the hot pavement, the perfume of peeled oranges heavy in our chests, all of us equal in the eyes of God, we wait in earnest for the adhan to reverberate through the steaming sunset skies. Each man breaks his fast with a single serving of water, dates, samosas, oranges, milk and porridge – all of which is free, but infinitely more fulfilling than a buffet with a price tag.
The kanji that nourishes the community is no ordinary gruel; this painstaking pottage evolves from a base of sautéed chopped tomatoes, onions, ginger-garlic paste, whole garlic cloves, fresh green coriander, green chilies, fenugreek seeds and cloves. A bucket of split chickpea lentils, rice and mutton is inverted into the pot, hosed down with drinking water and sprayed with stomach-cooling fennel powder and whipped yogurt.
Over the course of four hours, the turbid whirlpool of disparate ingredients toils to become a cohesive, creamy, almond-white broth with bite-sized morsels of tender mutton. The cooks splash in a crackling mixture of ingredients that have been tempered in ghee – cassia bark, cardamom, fennel powder, ginger garlic paste, garlic cloves, yogurt and fragrant curry leaves. There is no canned evidence of shortcuts in the kitchen; both coconut milk and lemon juice are freshly squeezed in the kitchen and streamed in for a flavourful finale before turning off the burner.
By 11am – or 70 kilograms of mutton, 135 kilograms of rice and 35 kilograms of lentils later – over 2,000 litres of kanji are wheeled into a separate cooling and packing room. Ashraf Ali, an IMAN veteran of 28 years, instructs a volunteer to stir the kanji vigorously so that the mutton spreads evenly through the liquid, else some containers will end up having all the meat while others will have only broth. This is not just about feeding people for free, but about serving them with care and dignity.
When I ask Ashraf whether he will collapse on his bed after he leaves the kitchen today – I certainly will – he laughs. ‘This is not the month for sleeping!’ He explains that Ramadan is about Dhikr (remembrance of God), Salah (prayer), Zakat (alms) and serving others. Sleep is a concept he entertains only between 11pm and 3am during Ramadan. How does he do it? ‘God gives us the energy to serve the people.’
As I leave the kitchen in Al Quoz, the Association insists that I take kanji for my family. Their generosity seems boundless. My fatigue seems petty. As I leave the Saharan temperatures, I pant out a question about whether anyone has measured how hot it might be in the kitchen. Usman replies wordlessly, with the zen-like smile of a monk who has blissfully endured what must be 60 degrees since five in the morning. Stock of kanji in hand and a renewed understanding of Ramadan in my heart, I walk back to embrace the luxurious 39 degrees outside.