Originally published on Yahoo Maktoob
I peered into my empty wallet and imagined a small dusty moth fluttering out from the dark folds. I needed to get to an ATM before sunset, but with an hour left to go the roads were jammed with hungry cranky people making their way to iftar buffets in Dubai. I wouldn’t be able to get to my own iftar buffet commitment with my colleagues and friends unless I filled up my wallet first, but from my office window all I could see were gridlocks in the roads and parking lots. In moments like these I missed the simple iftars that I used to have with my family back in Sharjah.
I’ve been in the UAE for the last 11 years, but have spent Ramadan without my family only for the last couple of years. We moved to Sharjah in 2002 and in an effort to retain our Malaysian culture, my mom and I would cook traditional food for iftar and attendance was mandatory for the whole family. For most of those years I was a teenager, helping my mom chop tofu and vegetables while my siblings fought or watched TV in the living room. We used to leave Sharjah TV running in the last half hour before sunset to watch the police at Quran Roundabout fire a blank cannon, signifying the official moment of breakfast. Even though sometimes we could hear the local mosques give the call to Maghrib prayers, we still wouldn’t take our first sips until that cannon sounded.
We had started out with the usual rice with curries and fried noodles, but as the years passed we began to incorporate different types of food: fatayers, samosas, parathas, mixing in other culture’s cuisine into our Malaysian one. It was only when I moved out to work in Dubai did these family dinners stop, and the Dubai buffets began. By then Ramadan had shifted towards summer, and my family could travel back to Malaysia for summer vacation to fast with our cousins and uncles and grandparents. Meanwhile I started my career, and all the inflexible work commitments and hours that came with it.
Dubai in Ramadan is a sight to see, especially in your 20s with all your crazy friends. The countless number of deals and offers at exotic locations – the Atlantis! The Burj al Arab! The Burj Khalifa! – had me giddy with excitement. Imagine watching the sun set while you’re on a dhow cruise, sipping on some date juice! And while I couldn’t get out of work, the hours were shortened to end at 3pm, so after spending a few hours agonising over hunger, I could choose practically any cuisine to break my fast with (Turkish Iskandaria! Pad Thai noodles! Lobsters at Danny’s for AED 60 at Mazaya center!). The only thing that really suffers is your bank account, which doesn’t feel bad at first but destroying your budget is usually the topic of discussion following the end of Ramadan.
About a year or so of these Dubai Ramadans, it became a little harder being away from family. One of my younger siblings Amani started working as well and we were both in Dubai while the rest of our family was breaking fast over chicken satay in Kuala Lumpur. One quiet afternoon Amani called me and asked if I could come back to our mother’s house in Sharjah and cook something traditional at home for iftar. I was surprised that the nostalgia got to her so fast, especially when her social calendar is usually packed with seven or eight groups of friends looking to try the next crazy iftar event. But I was happy to take her up on her offer.
I went shopping at the local Sharjah co-op and picked up some fresh chicken and curry spices, said hello to the butcher and dropped some money at one of the charity counters that lined the outside of the co-op. The old man working at the charity counter gave me a sweet, just like he had during all those Ramadans when I was a kid, and reminded me to have it for iftar.
At my mother’s empty house my sister was waiting for me, and she set about getting the table ready while I cooked the simple chicken curry. We sat down just as the cannon went off on TV and I was surprised to see that it wasn’t just the police anymore - the cannon had turned into a local event, and a huge crowd of families were standing around a fence waving at the cameras, holding their babies up above the police’s heads so that their kids get some airtime. The police handed out dates after the cannon went off and Amani and I laughed over how some eager fathers raced with their babies in the air to follow the camera’s movement.
That moment was perfect, and exactly what Ramadan should be.