Friday, July 24, 2015

My first true Iftar

Well, another Ramadan season has come and gone. As a reminder for those not familiar, Ramadan is the holy month in Islam where Muslims fast from sunup to sundown and then break their fast with what's called an Iftar. It's a reverent and very special time for Muslims and a bit of a challenge for expats in UAE as we are not allowed to eat, drink, chew gum or smoke in public places.

This was our 5th Ramadan, I can hardly believe it! It was made special this year by an invite to an Emirati family's home for Iftar one night. One of my colleagues from work invited a few of us to share Iftar and dinner with her and her family which provided a whole new level of experience and understanding.

We arrived at her house and were greeted warmly as expected. What I wasn't totally prepared for was how different she looked without her Abaya and Shayla. I had never seen her hair as she wears the tight fitting hijab that fully covers her hair at work and, of course, had only seen her in black from head to toe. This evening she was in a gorgeous teal colored jalabiya which is a full length, long sleeved gown of sorts - very pretty and looks very comfortable. All the female family members were wearing them so the whole evening had a comfortable but very elegant feel to it. They look a bit like the photo below.

We were welcomed into the majlis of the house, which is like a formal living room just off the front entry - in fact, the front of the house has a main door into a grand entry and a smaller one to the left into the majlis. The majlis itself was a largish room with very nice couches around the outside against the walls. The floor in the middle is left open (gorgeous carpets of course) and this is where a cloth is laid out on the floor with the food for the iftar.

It's very common to find extended families living together in the same household. In this family, there were multiple brothers and sisters living together, along with one brother's wife and a few children. Grandparents lived just a few doors down the road and the family was planning to head over there after dinner for the final evening prayer (after we had left). Family is central to life for Emiratis and they prefer to live very close and often in the same house. Typically, the wife would go to live with her husband's family after marriage.

Guests are separated male and female in most Emirati households. We met all the female family members of the household as well as a number of cousins who live close and were breaking fast in this house. We didn't see any of the males as they ate upstairs in a separate room. This is traditional when guests are present, otherwise, the family would have Iftar and dinner together.

We chatted until sunset which the family was monitoring with the internet and when the official time was reached, we were invited to take a seat on the floor to break fast. The Iftar is technically separate from dinner. Iftar is a simple affair (usually) of dates, milk, juice and water first and then some simple snacks. The idea is to introduce food slowly to avoid indigestion. After a few bites to take the edge off, the family goes to pray. We weren't invited to pray of course so chatted a bit while we waited for the family to return - maybe 10 minutes. We then ate a little more, talked a bit and then cleaned things up to move into the dining room for dinner.

Dinner was as you might expect, soup, mains, salads, juice - really nice food and lots of it! Our friend's mother loves to cook and loves even more to cook for guests so she went all out to impress us with a number of emirate dishes. She then made sure we had enough to take home to feed a small army (I felt right at home with that! ;)

After dinner we talked and visited some more, ate some delicious desserts and drank some tea back in the majlis. We were also each offered some Oud and perfume to top off the evening. As I mentioned in my post about the Emirati wedding, sharing scents is a traditional practice. They had an incense type of burner that burn the Oud, which is a scented type of wood (I think) that produces scented smoke. One of the girls brought it around to each of us and we were to wave the smoke through our hair to catch the scent. We were then also passed a bottle of traditional perfume to dab on our wrists. Again I thought of the comfortable elegance of the evening. The photo below give you an idea of the Oud burner.

By this time it was after 10pm and the family was just gearing up for a night of visiting with the rest of the family and the final evening prayer. Since it was a Thursday evening, no one had to be up early for work the next day so the plan was to stay up most of the night and sleep in the next day. Since the morning meal has to be eaten before sunrise (called Suhoor and about 4am this time of year) this made a lot of sense.

I, on the other hand, headed home as it was getting past my bedtime. 

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