It is a quiet afternoon in Salem Nasser’s majlis, in his large villa on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. He sits in silence for a few minutes, until a tray of tea and Arabic coffee is brought in. His youngest son, no older than 10 years, eager to listen to Salem’s stories, also troops in.
Salem is 60-plus years old, and his childhood days are a distant past, but ask him about Ramadan and one memory that remains fresh in his mind is of his mother cooking in the heat of the day or staying up all night during Ramadan nights.
‘It was different back then. Communities were stronger. We used to share more and socialised more,’ he says, taking a sip of his karak tea.
In the old days, the ones before five-star hotels, supermarkets or even air-conditioning, Ramadan preparations began from the night of mid Shaban, the month preceding Ramadan. People would go shopping in the souq to secure foodstuff needed during the fasting month.
At home, women would gather in the biggest house of the fareej – the Arabic neighbourhood – to grind barley and grains for baking the ‘raghag’, the Emirati thin bread, a popular item for both iftar and suhour meals.
In the week before Ramadan, children would go from door to door in their neighbourhoods, singing Ramadan songs. In return, they would usually receive sweets; sometimes, a few coins too.
Loosely translated, the songs went like this:
Ramadan is here, here is Ramadan.
Ramadan is coming, the time that is blessed,
Ramadan is coming, the time we love best.
The month in which the holy Quran was sent.
A time of great blessing, in which to repent.
Fasting for Allah is a great Muslim deed,
Controlling desires and suppressing greed.
When the time was near, the shaikh or local leader assigned a trusted man with good eyesight to watch the moon. He had to climb the highest peak in the area, be it a mountaintop or a sand dune, accompanied by a couple of boys, who would carry lanterns to help him see his way down the peak, and some water too. When he did spot the crescent, gun shots were fired to announce the arrival of Ramadan to near-by villages. A messenger was also sent to remote locations to inform inhabitants about the beginning of Ramadan.
All Muslims in good health were expected to observe the fast. As soon as the sun set, the fast was ended for the day with dates, laban made at home in goat skin bags and, when available, lentil soup. The evenings were spent in prayers and rohaniat – conversations – with family and friends. Suhour, the pre-dawn meal, was traditionally announced by a drummer, tasked with waking up people. The drummer, who also recited some hymns, was rewarded with dates, rice or money for the noble job.
The suhour drummers
Salem Nasser remembers the drummers all too well.
‘I first heard the drummer and chanters in Saudi Arabia, when I was about four or five years old. Then, when I grew older, about 14 years old, I joined one group in my neighbourhood, in Al Bateen area in Abu Dhabi. Sometimes, there was just a drummer walking past people’s homes to wake them up, other times there were groups. Ours was a group of about 12 to 14 boys, aged from 10 to over 20 years old. One boy used to play the ‘tabla’, a percussion instrument, and the rest of us were chanting,’ explains Salem.
I ask him to chant a few songs.
‘No, no, I cannot chant now. My voice is not so good any more,’ he laughs, adding: ‘The chant went something like ‘wake up, it is the time of Ramadan! Don’t go to sleep and forget your suhour’.
‘We would go out around 3am, covering our neighbourhood’s street, and sometimes the back streets too. There were many drummers or groups and, if we heard them in one area, we would move to another area to cover that place.’
Up until the late 1970s, Ramadan nights used to be a lively. Cafes and markets stayed opened all night long, nearly until fajr (dawn) prayers. People would socialise a lot more too – exchanging dishes, distributing food for the poor so non one would have to go hungry during Ramadan.
‘Cooking for the poor was part of zakat, the Ramadan charity offerings. The main zakat, though, was money given to build new mosques,’ says Salem.
After the taraweeh, the special night prayers of Ramadan, people would often spend time with their close family, sharing religious stories, particularly those from the Quran. They were called rohaniat – conversations.
Saeed Al Mohairi, now a pensioner, remembers his teenage days way back in the 60s. Living with his parents in their modest home in Al Ain, he enjoyed listening to them talking about Islam. ‘They were philosophical conversations about the nobility of fasting, of giving, of sharing and of forgiving, the closeness to divinity, the memories of wise grandfathers... these among other things, make up the rohaniat, the spiritual conversations late in the Ramadan nights,’ he says.
Saeed has kept the tradition and engaged his sons, and now grandsons, in Ramadan rohaniat. Another special tradition is the taraweeh, the night prayers. After the isha night prayer, people stay on at the mosque to perform taraweeh, which are special, additional daily prayers that only take place during Ramadan. Afterwards it is time to visit friends and family.
Most popular Ramadan dishes
Before five-star hotel restaurants and food imports from all over the world, cooking creativity was limited by available ingredients, yet, the most popular Ramadan Emirati dishes in days gone by are still the most popular ones nowadays and, according to experts, they tasted much better back then.
Most families, though, could not afford rich iftar meals. They would prepare one raghag bread and place small curry dishes on it; it was served on a large tray and shared by the entire family. Suhour was usually a rice dish. Quite often, communities would get together and share not only the food, but the cooking too. Each family would choose one dish to prepare for the entire village or neighbourhood and they all shared the meals. No food was ever wasted.
A typical dish to end the day’s fast, especially popular among Bedouins, but not as well known today, was the dates and cheese one. The dates were split opened, had the stone removed and used like a piece of bread to dip into locally made soft white cheese. The dish was particularly effective for iftar, as the salt from the cheese and the sugar from the dates helped restore the body’s needs quite quickly after a day of fasting.
According to Saeed Al Mohairi, harees is one of the most favoured Ramadan dishes, also prepared during Eid (the celebration marking the end of Ramadan), but only a handful of people still prepare it the ‘proper’ way. He offers the recipe: ‘Mix large grains like barley with a whole chopped lamb. Add salt, spices and water and put it in a big metal pot. Then you dig a hole in the ground, make a fire and put this pot on the fire. The pot is then covered with a sack and a thick layer of sand. If you start cooking at about 5pm, it will be ready the next morning.’ Nowadays, there are special pots for cooking harees and it is all done on gas or electric cookers. Much faster and easier, but it doesn’t taste the same.
What is also not the same are the fascinating stories the elderly used to tell their young, which have been replaced with TV sitcoms about Arabic and Bedouin life and history.
The Ramadan storytellers
Khalfan Al Romaithi, also an Emirati pensioner from Abu Dhabi, fondly remembers his childhood Ramadans in the pre-oil days. Life was harsh and poor then, people having to cook on open fires in the heat of the day.
‘So poor we were that men would have just one change of clothes,’ he says.
After iftar and prayers, people would often entertain themselves with storytelling. The most famous were the Bedouins, considered master storytellers, who used to tell tales of myths and legends. Some would share their own real-life stories about the problems they faced, how they dealt with the heat or how they went pearl diving.
‘I grew up on the island of Fyey, off the coast of Abu Dhabi emirate. We had a barasti house there, made of palm fronds. The summers were too hot on the island, so we spent them in Al Ain, where we had plantations of palm trees and watermelons,’ remembers Khalfan.
‘On the island we had a lot more rain, so we had these massive cement tanks dug into the ground, to collect rain and mist water, which we shared among us. We called these pools ‘bilke’. On Abu Dhabi island, there were several wells dug around Qasr Al Hosn and people went on donkey to take water, which they took and sold to people’s houses scattered on the island.
‘During Ramadan nights, I remember people going to cafes. These too were made of palm fronds. The nights being cooler, the tables and chairs were moved outside, in the sand. I used to watch people playing cards or board games. Sometimes they would start arguing over the game, but people around them quickly stopped them. ‘Ho, ho, it’s Ramadan’, people would shout at them.’
Khalfan, now in his 70s, can’t remember his first fasting experience, but he is pretty certain it happened when he turned seven years old. According to old traditions, children, particularly boys, have to start fasting when they turn seven years of age.
Despite the inevitable loss of traditions or the modern twists brought in by the younger generations, the spirit of Ramadan endures, and how Muslims spend Ramadan nowadays would very likely become ‘old customs’ 50 years down the line.