The only Iftar buffet that captures the spirit of Ramadan is the one found across many humble parts of the old city.
No, you won’t find linen-covered tables crammed with food nor people sitting around dates poised on silver trays.
What you will find are mosques – mosques at every corner. Mosques where the common man is queuing up for biryani donated by benevolent companies, foundations or families. Mosques whose pavements are lined with plastic so people can sit cross-legged facing their dates, water and biryani, facing each other as they await the call to prayer in silent unison. Mosques where people invite you to share their food – even if you haven’t fasted all day, even if you aren’t Muslim.
What you will find are aromas. The aroma of mutton biryani devilishly taunting the faithful. The aroma of rosewater swishing about the giant green and blue tubs of icy Jam-e-Shirin sherbet. The aroma of batter-fried bhajjias and samosas, hawked at makeshift street-side tables right before Iftar. The aroma of fresh-baked bread religiously pumped out by fasting bakers in their cramped, oppressively hot bakeries.
What you will find are the faces of common men. Faces with the creases of hardship, doubly deepened after a day of parched abstinence. Faces with the hushed passivity of anticipation, doubly intensified in the last hour before sunset. Faces with the distant gaze of he whose family is miles away, doubly remembered during a month of focused spirituality, devotion and appreciation of life.
Faces without the experience of a lavish hotel buffet, doubly grateful for the food on the ground before them. And doubly generous about sharing their humble meal with strangers like you and me.
What you will find is communion. Communion between men who have never met each other, but share the common bond of one focused on total abstinence. Communion between the volunteers who work tirelessly to distribute food across the Iftar mats. Communion between man and God, with the pious praying fervently under the open skies - Oh Allah! I have fasted for You. in You do I believe and with Your provision do I break my fast,.
The only Iftar buffet that captures the spirit of Ramadan is the one found across many humble parts of the old city. This sweeping statement needs to replace every radio ad that boasts of tents and buffets which aspire to capture the spirit of Ramadan, but suck the essence out of it. This is the only Iftar buffet that sates that spiritual appetite of Ramadan - an appetite for prayer, fortitude, generosity and above all, humility and restraint. This is the buffet whose value will forever exceed even the most ambitious of hotel spreads.
This is the humble buffet of the common man.
I feel privileged that I had a chance to sit at the Old Dubai buffet table this Ramadan with friends at Gulf Photo Plus and with the photographers who attended our collaborative #unseenDXB photo & Iftar walks.
Wow Arva! Perfectly captured, I can’t really say anything else!
What a beautifully written piece. I was at Bohri Mohalla in Mumbai yesterday. At one of the shops, the owner was more keen on giving away everything for charity after iftaar rather than on selling
Thank you Kalyan. The iftars at Bohri Mohalla must be something else – I’d love to experience that someday, on one of your food walks of course.
Everything that I have been feeling, but wouldn’t be able to express even half as eloquently. It saddens me so much that lavish iftar spreads have become the face of Ramadan here, when a simple homecooked meal with family & friends, or as you mentioned, the spiritual sharing of an iftar at the mosque speak volumes more about the true spirit of such a beautiful month. Much needed reminder.
Glad this post resonated Sadia. If only the broader city would wake up and support a move away from the buffets to experiences befitting Ramadan. The commercial side of the season will never go away, but people should at least be given the opportunity to experience authentic Ramadan tradiitons in return for their dirhams.
Very poignant account of the real Ramadan that we all aspire to experience. Its been ages since I went to these areas and witnessed the iftar there – the people, the generosity and camaraderie between absolute strangers. But your article sent me back in time. Thanks!
Thanks Ameera. I’m glad the post rekindled memories – and I’d definitely recommend going back there this Ramadan – nothing beats experiencing that ”real Ramadan” feeling in person.
Lovely piece, Arva. It’s ironic how the ‘iftars’ in new Dubai we have come to know and love is the exact opposite of what Ramadan is supposed to embody.
Thanks Annika – here’s to hoping for change. It has to come from consumers as much as from the industry. If diners stop frequenting buffets and demand more authentic experiences, restaurants have a higher incentive to respond. I’d love to see a program where in place of an Iftar, you can pay a high-end restaurant to feed a labourer or another blue collar worker. That feels more in line with the spirit of Ramadan than the overdone selfish buffets.
Where is the Iftar for women? There must be one somewhere.
Josephone, there’s one upstairs in the Kuwaiti Masjid in Al Ras. Don’t expect fancy and definitely go completely covered up – arms, head, everything (except face, hands and feet. I’d recommend the cultural experience at the Shk Mohd Center of Cultural Understanding, or doing one of our #unseenDXB Iftar trails next Ramadan we’re done with this season). The latter are co-hosted by my company Frying Pan Adventures and the photo gurus at Gulf Photo Plus. We combine an authentic Old Dubai iftar (very humble, as you in the photos from this post) with photography.
Such a beautiful post. I moved here in May and this is my first time experiencing Ramadan. My first fear was that everyone would be rather unhappy because of the fasting, but everyone I come across has been very warm and friendly. I love the photos you took.
Thanks for sharing the essence of the “real” Iftar and love that last photo.
10 years in Dubai and I have literally witnessed the commercialization of Ramadan first hand. Good to see the other side Arva :) Wish I’d had the time to do one of your tours during Ramadan… hopefully next year
Great post! Must be nice meeting people you have not met and share the Ramadan experience.