Six-year-old Anaya Shameem is waiting eagerly before the lavishly spread iftar table for the azaan (the call to prayer) to begin. Though she is not fasting, she knows it’s not proper to eat before the prescribed time. As her mother and grandmother are busy making the final preparations of laying the dining table, Anaya tries to taste a few goodies. But her maternal grandfather Basheer Ahmed catches her in the act.
Such minor transgressions are not a new sight for Basheer, who has been living in the UAE for the past 52 years. He has instructed his two children on the proper spirit and etiquette of Ramadan and is confident he can do the same for his grandchildren too.
Symbolically, Ramadan is the time of the year to reflect upon your life; a cleansing of the body and the soul. While the body is purified by abstaining from food and water from dawn to dusk, the mind is cleansed by prayer and supplications.
One’s character is strengthened by fostering good relations with brethren, shunning negative thoughts and controlling vices like anger or envy. Financials of the past year are reviewed and ‘cleansed’ by giving the obligatory ‘zakat’ (charity).
Here families go down memory lane...
Pakistani expatriate Sidra Qamar and family have been Abu Dhabi residents for over three decades
Pakistani expatriate Sidra Qamar has several nostalgic tales to recount about the Ramadans that she has observed in this country. Having arrived in the UAE as a newlywed in 1986, at the age of 22, she spent her first Ramadan with her sister-in-law in Sharjah. ‘It was a memorable time,’ she says. ‘We used to cook traditional Pakistani dishes together. I was pleasantly surprised to find that all commonly used Pakistani ingredients were readily available here and did not miss my home town of Karachi much.’
Two years later, she moved to Abu Dhabi. As she began to raise her own family of three kids, Sidra felt she had to inculcate a few homely traditions in her children’s lives as well.
For her eldest daughter Rujoom’s first fasting during Ramadan, she decided to conduct the traditional Pakistani ceremony called ‘Roza Koshai’ (celebration of fast). ‘Rujoom was nine at the time. Close relatives came over for suhour and encouraged her to eat well and mentally prepared her for the day ahead. For iftar, as is our tradition, she was dressed in bridal finery and ornaments and a lavish party was held at the Pakistani Cultural Centre in her honour. More than 70 people were invited and she received a lot of gifts. Rujoom wore a ghararah (a traditional divided skirt) and was very patient during her fasting.’
Rujoom herself does not remember much about the first fast that she observed. ‘It’s funny how I don’t remember,’ says the now 31-year-old who has a child of her own.
Many second-generation UAE kids like Rujoom admit that they do not miss anything about their home country during Ramadan, having accepted UAE as their own. ‘My immediate family is here with me and I have never spent a Ramadan in Pakistan,’ says Rujoom. ‘I’ve been blessed to spend most of my life here. I’ve had my relatives, cousins and close family friends all around. So we didn’t really miss being back home. During iftar, the whole family comes over and we do a potluck. It is a great sense of camaraderie to end the fast together and pray in congregation. Suhour times with my siblings were very memorable and even hilarious at times.’
Rujoom loves the way Abu Dhabi gears up for Ramadan. ‘Every place is lit up with decorations. The Corniche road is a treat to drive on. All malls and hotels have the Ramadan theme going. The city is open till late, there are plenty of charity initiatives, iftar tents are set up around mosques for workers.... The highlight of Ramadan is the 27th Lailatul Qadr night at Shaikh Zayed Grand mosque. It’s magnificent.’
If the younger crowd is pleased with the festivities of the late evenings, some elders feel that a hint of materialism and an increased sense of consumer spending is subtly creeping in over the years. Also, the modern generation is not making efforts to stay in touch regularly, some believe.
‘Extravagant iftar and suhour tents with sheesha and music are not really becoming of the simplicity and spirituality of Ramadan,’ says Sidra. ‘This month is more about increasing your ibadaat (good deeds), not whiling away your time.
‘Earlier, during Ramadan everybody used to mingle with their neighbours, enjoy different cultures and cuisines. In fact, I first tasted Harees (Arabic dish) from my Arab neighbour. Now it is a staple at my iftar table. During Taraweeh, you could meet so many different nationalities, all praying together. I feel that is the real essence of Ramadan.’
Rujoom encourages her son to be a part of the various Ramadan rituals.
‘My four-year-old son Zorain loves the iftars in his nana’s (maternal grandfather) house.
‘Last Ramadan I tried to include him in some DIY Ramadan home decorations. That made him very curious and I introduced the concept of Ramadan to him. We got him a Ramadan audio story book as well that he loves to listen to. When I want to give sadaqah or zakat (charity), I make him give out the money so that he knows that is also an integral part of our faith. This year I plan to send him with my husband to masjid to give out iftar packs,’ says Rujoom.
Indian expatriate Basheer Ahmed has been a resident of Dubai for over five decades
Having arrived in the UAE when he was a teenager, Indian expatriate Basheer feels this is the perfect place to practise the principles of Ramadan.
‘I landed in Dubai in 1967,’ he says. Basheer landed a job as a trainee with the National Bank of Dubai. As his parents were already in Dubai when he arrived, his first Ramadan experience away from home was not a difficult one. The first Ramadan he observed fell during winter. ‘Those days UAE used to experience harsh winters,’ he says. ‘We stayed indoors most of the time since there were barely any activities to do.’
Basheer reflects on an era when Ramadan was a quiet and a simple month devoted only to fasting and prayers.
‘We ended our fast with dates and lime juice, and traditional south Indian snacks were served after the Maghreb prayers. Rarely would there be more than two dishes on the table. Today, that is not the case,’ he says. ‘Apart from a variety of fruits and fruit juices, traditional, modern and many innovative snacks fill our iftar table.’
In those days, eating in public during daylight hours was prohibited and all eateries used to be closed, he says. ‘Iftar was very difficult for people who did not have their families here. My father used to work with a man called W.R. Duff, who served as a financial advisor. He was a popular figure in the community and would invite people who did not have their families here over to his place for iftar. Eid too was celebrated with these people. This tradition — of celebrating Eid with those whose families are not here — is one we now follow.’
Another tradition he remembers fondly is of the drummer. ‘For suhour, a man we used to call Suhour Baba, used to walk along the roads near our residences playing on a drum to wake us up so we could have the meal before daybreak. I’m sure the present generation would not even have heard about this,’ he says.
One notable change Basheer has noticed is the increasing reliance on restaurants for iftar snacks. ‘Purchasing iftar snacks from restaurants was unheard of in those times,’ he says.
‘Nowadays, iftar gatherings have increased — be it with family, friends or with corporate colleagues. Suhour has also turned into social gatherings,’ he says.
Basheer also recounts a Ramadan back in the 70s when he was invited by his father’s friend for an iftar to Abu Dhabi. ‘There were no proper roads then and it took us more than four hours to reach Abu Dhabi. We also had to cross the border, and entry and exit stamps were required on our passports. The currencies too were different in the two emirates. It was like going to a different country.’
One thing that Basheer always looks forward to is giving Eidi (Eid money) to his children. ‘Earlier I used to give cash. Now smaller kids get personal handpicked gifts. It has been a tradition to give Eidi money as crisp new notes. This is something that still excites both the generations in my household,’ he says.
The second generation parents claim that since their parents are there to help them out, raising their kids and inculcating the values of Ramadan is a lot easier.
‘When we were kids we used to begin fasting by taking ‘half fasts,’ that is fast until mid-day. This was mostly to prepare us for fasting until sun down. Anaya, my daughter, has already attempted half fasts. This year, I am planning to make her complete a full fast. With my parents and family around to encourage her, I don’t think it will be difficult for her,’ says Lanzia, Basheer’s daughter.
‘Ramadan is about fasting, prayers, family and togetherness. Our family consists of 11 members (three generations) and we make sure we have iftar together during this month. We always have two tables for iftar foods — one for juices and the other for dates. We attend the taraweeh prayers together. We also do our Eid shopping together.’
Basheer is happy that the next generation is following many of the family traditions.
‘We have imbibed the values of Ramadan in our children. Second time round, our kids are also there to help us pass on the virtues of the holy month. When the grandkids see the whole family practicing the rituals and praying and fasting, they too will follow accordingly,’ says Basheer.
‘We have hardly spent Ramadan back home in India. The UAE has always been our home and I am glad I have spent most of my life here in this amazing country.
‘I have been blessed to experience Ramadan with my parents in Dubai in my younger days and then with my kids in my prime and now with my grandchildren. I don’t think anybody could ask for greater blessings.’
Emirati Reem Mohamed Abdulla Al Hajer: Ramadan then and now
For Emirati Reem Mohamed Abdulla Al Hajeri, the earliest memory of Ramadan is the custard pudding her mother used to make. ‘It was a Ramadan delicacy,’ she says. Reem remembers houses in her neighbourhood being ‘very close to each other. The aromas wafting through all the kitchens during iftar time was really tempting’.
Although the traditions still continue, Reem feels that the sense of closeness that people enjoyed in the days of old is slowly eroding. ‘People are becoming a bit more distant from each other,’ she says.
‘Back in our time, a four- or five-course meal was prepared by our mothers and aunts. It was a good bonding session for the women, and time used to fly while preparing dishes. As kids, we used to help with putting the fillings into the snacks and setting the table for iftar. Now the food is either made by the maids or catered,’ she says.
Reem believes the Year of Tolerance is inspired by the message of Ramadan. ‘Tolerance is all about adjusting, accepting and respecting your fellow beings. It is about being at your best behaviour.
‘Ramadan is also about being your best self and trying to forego or at least control your negative emotions and bad habits.’