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The moon, a sip of water and dates: understanding Iftar in Sharjah

May 28, 2018


men sitting on the floor waiting for iftar

Dusk falls in the mosque courtyard as we wait for Iftar

There’s stillness in the air despite the horde of men sitting in long rows on the carpet either side of thin, plastic tablecloths. The late afternoon light fades quickly and the anticipation builds. Finally the signal is given and, quietly but purposefully, the eating begins.

The last time I ate and drank was at lunchtime but still I’m eager for that first sip of water and the instant lift from the natural sugar of the date. The men breaking their fast beside me have gone without food and drink since the early hours of this morning, and have done a day’s work in the heat of May.  We’re on a food tour in Sharjah, the quieter neighbour of Dubai, with my good friend Arva and Frying Pan Adventures. This experience is as much about the meaning of the absence of food.

Arva demonstrates how to eat by hand neatly from our central plate of biryani. She transfers it with ease from plate, to fingers, to mouth, without dropping a grain (see video below). We’re all eager to try, with varying success. The biryani is good and we all eat hungrily. Fatima, our Emirati guide who has also been fasting all day, is very restrained and just takes a sip of water. She says she needs her coffee first.

Arriving for prayer

The Imam’s voice floats ethereally above us after a very short time. Iftar is a short ritual of fast-breaking prior to prayer. It often consists of water, laban and an odd number of dates like today. Tents and communal eating areas are arranged at the majority of mosques in every Emirate. Women generally stay at home to break their fast. The mosque we are in dates from the 1800s and is one of the largest in the area. It’s not ornate as the focus is on prayer and the men stand shoulder to shoulder before bending for their Maghrib – the special prayers during this Holy Month for Muslims. Ramadan means scorching, as in the parched feeling in the throat, and one of the reasons for fasting is to provoke empathy. If someone misses a day during Ramadan they can make it up afterwards but abstaining for a day or by giving to charity.

We leave the mosque and go to Arva’s car where she has striped cloth bags with rice and other provisions inside. The price of our tour has included this donation, and as the men start to leave we start to hand over our parcels.  I try to approach those who look as though they would really benefit from the gift, and too soon all mine are gone.

We sip gahwa or coffee from tiny cups and sample dates while Arva tests us with a quiz before taking to the streets at night.

The pitch dark of the back streets are illuminated by lozenges of light from the edges of curtains of veiled shop windows. The exception is the flourescent strip lighting of the bakeries where dough is being kneaded, rolled, stuck onto the sides of deep, hot tandoor ovens and flicked out with metal spikes. We enter one and the men respond to our interest and cameras as though they are putting a show especially for us, heaving kilos of dough into the air, twirling, folding, rolling and baking at a nimble choreographed pace. We stand outside on the street munching triangles of hot potato-stuffed or sugar-sprinkled bread.

bakers in a bakery

Bakery in full flow, taking cooked bread from the tandoor with metal spikes

people watching bakers

Bread always fascinates – our food tourists

We wind through the souk, passing the meeting place for elders where they usually sit by the water, playing backgammon and reminiscing, but right now is deserted. A brightly lit shop contains gleaming glass bottles lined on cooled shelves. They are Victorian Codd-neck in design and the pressure of the drink inside holds a glass marble in the neck to seal it until dislodged with your finger. Fatima is determined to show us how to release it but laughs as she fails to open three, then four, and we all cheer as the final one opens with a soft pop. We choose our flavour of namalat (an Arabic twist on the word lemonade) and are warned not to open it until our next destination. The temptation is great as the moisture drips down the cold bottles in the warmth of the evening.

A floating pontoon leads us to an abra. We perch on the narrow wooden bench and, as the engine growls into life, we release the stopper to drink, while Arva hands out excellent samosas and chutney.  Reflected light from the graceful government buildings streaks the water like paint as we gaze at the glowing mosque ahead, while the boat driver’s soundtrack of 1960’s Indian classics crackles from the speaker.

Dhow near water

A dhow with the government building across the water

Passing back through the quiet souk, stopping to admire various bizarre fashions along the way, we reach a courtyard where men are deep in the next set of Ramadan prayers. It’s quiet, focused and dignified. Further along we encounter men going back to their homes; one minute we’re alone and the next walking through the pacing tide. The elder’s meeting place is starting to fill up for an evening of putting the world to rights and we’re greeted as we pass by.

Emirati dishes are placed before us in our final restaurant; haleem – a wheat and meat porridge, thareed – a stew topped with very thin flakes of bread, and lgeimat – syrup coated doughnut balls. Somehow, even after an evening of continual eating, we all manage to dig in with relish. One of our group declares that the haleem is her favourite dish of the whole tour.

plates of fresh fruit

It’s easy to fence yourself off into your own little enclave in Dubai even though a couple of hundred nationalities co-exist. Being witness to such personal rituals carried out in the stillness of the evening is a privilege and an education – deliciously done as always.

More info:

Frying Pan Adventures

Heart of Sharjah

Dubai – how to experience an alternative Iftar

baker by a tandoor

Pin for later

Thanks to Fatima and Aisha of Heart of Sharjah, and Arva of Frying Pan Adventures. I was invited on the test tour to give my feedback (and not expected to write or publicise).

  1. May 28, 2018 11:57 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading the post. Didn’t know they had ‘marble sodas’ here!

    • May 29, 2018 3:04 pm

      Ah, you know them! The shape of the bottles came from UK to the Emirates via India. Fascinating story isn’t it.

  2. May 28, 2018 1:39 pm

    Loved this post Sally…made me all nostalgic!!! Makes me want to catch the next flight back to Dubai:))

    • May 29, 2018 3:03 pm

      Thanks Shy. Good to hear from you. Do let me know if you’re ever back in town.

  3. May 28, 2018 2:05 pm

    There’s something quite ethereal about Ramadan that I, as a non-Muslim, respect so much. I’d love to go to an Iftar one of these days just to witness the solemnity and celebration.

    • May 29, 2018 3:02 pm

      I can’t recommend The Frying Pan Iftar tours highly enough. I’ve done the one in Dubai as well as the one in Sharjah. On my ‘to do’ list is an Iftar with the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding too. In fact looking at website now.

  4. Sue Brattle permalink
    May 28, 2018 2:47 pm

    Hello Sally. We’ve been away from Dubai for almost five years now, and I still miss Ramadan. There’s something very special about the atmosphere of iftar time every evening. Love your report.

    • May 29, 2018 3:01 pm

      It’s a calmer time in the life of the Emirates – except at going home time! Even if you are not directly partaking in Ramadan there is a more contemplative, spiritual feeling in the air. I love it too. And thanks for kind words – glad you enjoyed reading it.

  5. June 14, 2018 10:58 am

    that’s really wonderful describing. Well, i literally felt the experience and thoroughly enjoyed the whole read. hope you had a great time. Its my wish to be at food tour and enjoy iftar sharjah

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