By Arva Ahmed:
Six minutes before sunset. We parked our cars near the Fish and Vegetable market, greeted each other, and started walking. Naif was on the other side of the pedestrian bridge. And Naif was where we had planned to be…10 minutes earlier.
As we hurried through the streets, winding our way through invisible folds of oppressively hot air, we entered a different world. A hushed world. Naif had an eerie calm that you’d rarely ever see in this very historic, very congested area. An occasional taxi would screech around the corner, narrowly missing the men tranquilly crossing the road on their way to Iftar. The place was one of heightened religious anticipation…waiting out the last 4 minutes before sunset.
The air gently murmured, Hush, keep the camera away. This is not the place…
So I listened to the air. I didn’t unpack my camera. All I have is the memory of a place that was so incredibly different from the massive Iftar gathering I had been invited to last year. So different from the luxurious tents described in the Iftar invites that PR companies have been feeding my inbox.
It was a different world. A disciplined world. I have no photos of that world before sunset, no photos of that feeling of calm, of community, of a religious sensibility that lingers over in those 3…2 minutes before sunset. A time for photos would come, that time would be later, maybe over the Iftar table…but that time was not now. I have no photos of that place for you, just a memory of the path we followed. So come, just walk through it again with me.
The first sight that greeted ourfasting eyes was a massive tray of freshly fried pakodas. Untouched ofcourse, waiting out their final 2minutes of chastity before being devoured. Groups of men weresitting cross-legged on the floor,over chaddars spread out in a little alley off of the main road. Some had orange halves in one hand, plastic glasses of water in the other. I don’t remember anyone talking. Whether it was the hunger, the fatigue, or the religious importance of the moment, every soul was silently tuned into one channel—the Adhan.
It was a different world. A devoted world. One where there was a mosque on every block, one where we could see at least two mosques from almost any point on the road. When we peered into the shops, we could see the staff huddled in a single, communal circle on the floor, their chappals neatly lined up at the entrance, all waiting for the call to prayer.
Sunset. The air exploded with the resounding calls from minarets all around us, chanting out to the hot, hot sky in religious unison. Hands were uniformly raised to the mouth, ending a day without food, without water, for the most pious, without temptation—ending a day with so little, yet so much. This is the foodof spiritual fulfilment.
We were still on the road, a rare sight of two women armed with bottles of water and a ziplock of dates. I’ve broken my fast with dates and water many a time. Actually, every single time. But this time was different. It was in a different world. A more modest world. A world that felt closer to what Ramadan is meant to be.
The only element of decadence was the dates that Reem had bought me. There was one set drenched in syrupy dibs (date honey), and another stuffed with candied nuts. I made a mental note to gift Reem anything but dates in the future—my date finds in the city pale in comparison to what I tasted from her stash that day.
We finally found a mosque with aladies section, and within minutes, we were part of the Muslim masses in Naif, standing shoulder to shoulder, praying with the Imam, lowering our heads in the direction of Makkah.
Back out on to the street, this different world had suddenly become full of life, full of smells, full of photo opportunities itching to happen. We experimented at three places that night, a few hits, many more misses, but all together, the experience of strolling down the row of restaurants in Naif’s Frij Murar area was unforgettable.
We poked our noses into a corner cafeteria, craving the pakodas that had been stacked up against the window display. You’d be shocked to see how many pakodas they cram in to one brown paper bag for a petty 5 dirhams. Onions, chillies, eggplant slices…coated in gram flour batter and plonked into seething oil. But sadly, not strained very well. I couldn’t stomach more than one greasy piece that had been thrown into the microwave and reheated for us. Dubai has better pakoda places, and this was sadly not one of them.
Oily pakodas in hand, we stepped into Pak-Afghan Darbar and sprawled out on a raised, majlis-style dias. We experienced Iftar as the Afghanis traditionally prepare it, with a homely bowl of thick, warm noodle soup. I couldn’t quite dissect the Aush, it was one of those grandma concoctions—some spices, maybe beef broth, tender doughy noodles, the perfect amount of heat—that you’d rather just sink into and not overanalyse.
Another traditional Afghan Iftar dish that graced our plastic dasterkhan was mantoo: pasta parcels of minced beef, dotted with yogurt and some sort of subtly spiced tomato gravy. The actual dumpling skin was chewier than I’d have wished, but the filling and the saucy drizzle cuddled my tongue with cosy, beefy, handmade comfort.
We had saved the legendary Delhi Restaurant, ‘since 1978,’ for last. This is one of those places that I’ve only just discovered thanks to a very well-informed friend. Their buttery beef nahari, cooked overnight for twelve hours, has cleanly ousted my previous nahari favourite in the city.
We didn’t have nahari that day, opting for something lighter—a lipsmacking raita with fragrant ground coriander, and chicken cubes of malai boti kabab, marinated in cream and grilled till tender. We found a few chunks of chicken that had the scary translucent sheen of uncooked chicken at the centre. I’m hoping it was a one-off. But next time, I’m sticking to my true loves at this restaurant: the nahari and green chilli keema (minced meat).
Thankfully, the gulab jamun more than made up for the chicken disaster. We declared that the deep fried balls of khoya (milk powder), coloured at the core with some sort of reddish essence (potentially saffron, or plain food colouring), was a fitting end to our Iftar excursion in Naif.
If there’s one thought I’d love to leave you with, it’s that almost all the food we had that evening was consumed (save the semi-cooked chicken). We packed up our leftovers, even those 5 dirham pakodas, wherever we could. There’s never any shame in walking out with a box of leftover food. I’ve been known to even pick up bottles of unfinished water and walk out—not because I’m cheap, but because I don’t believe in wastage where I can genuinely avoid it, whether in Ramadan, or at any other time of the year. Food wastage has increasingly become an alarming and embarrassing issue during Ramadan, and I’m relieved to see that local government agencies are starting to take initiatives to address it.
Wait, there’s a second thought too. If you truly want to experience the spirit of Ramadan, step off the beaten buffet track and stroll down the modest streets of a place like Naif, or Hor Al Anz, or I’ve been told, Meena Bazaar in Bur Dubai. These are the areas where Ramadan really feels like Ramadan, and not some sort of commercialized, well-publicized affair. These are the places that offer a truly communal, down-to-earth, cross-cultural Muslim experience, the ‘Back to Basics’ Ramadan experience. These are the places where you’ll suddenly feel like you’ve been transported to…a very, very different world.
If this post has whetted your appetite for a more ‘Back to Basic’s Ramadan experience’ then check out Frying Pan Adventures for details on Ramadan tours.
[First published in Issue 3 of FoodeMag dxb. Images provided by Author]