Long Read: The comfort of ‘social traditions’

Dubai - For expats, there’s nothing like forming a habit that instills a sense of camaraderie and is rooted in familiarity. With Covid, these rituals have become more important than ever to preserve our sanity.

By Abigail Mathias

Published: Fri 28 May 2021, 1:05 AM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:13 PM

Then the regular routine of humdrum life consumes you, we take solace in small comforts: memories, habits, voices in a distance, friendships, community and so on. We often take them for granted but when things stand at statis — or, more contextually, when a crisis overwhelms us — these act as a beacon to guide us through the morass. In the UAE, where, for long, its substantial expat community have secured a home away from home, a lot of residents have been facing the brunt of a yearlong pandemic that seems to be offering no respite around the world. Strict travel restrictions are in place, thousands (if not millions) have no idea as to when they can visit loved ones back home… or even get back to the daily ‘normalcy’ that one assumed was theirs for the asking till Covid hit more than a year ago.

It is challenging to stay upbeat and avoid negative headlines. The mental health of individuals has also taken a beating in recent times with many getting boxed in to an ‘unsocial’ work-from-home arena. It is in such a scenario that we are finding succour in little gestures that transport us to a realm of familiarity. It could be something as simple as cooking up a meal that reminds us of the good times. Or rituals — like dressing a certain way — that keep us rooted to nostalgia. In a few cases, it could just be a much-loved habit formed in pre-pandemic times that’s suddenly taken on a new meaning now — and given us a purpose in a challenging environment.

In the pursuit to preserve our wits around us, the ‘everyday hero’ has emerged: that ordinary, yet extraordinary, man or woman who defies the odds and makes an effort to cheer others up, while giving himself or herself a leg up in the process.

Cooking up a feast

For Louisa Misquitta, the motor force comes from her kitchen. A busy homemaker who loves to delight her family with mutton biryani and seafood delicacies, she didn’t hesitate to do her bit when her church in Ras Al Khaimah celebrated its December feast last year — a time when the world was in the grips of a rather gloomy holiday season. A few parishioners decided to cook some home favourites and raise funds and morale at the same time.

Misquitta cooked 5 kilos of pulao (yellow basmati rice) for the feast and transported it to the venue. “My husband and I love to help out,” she says. “It’s just a small gesture on our part, as many others cooked even more elaborate dishes for the event.” Alongside, she tried out Goan stew which she had never done before.

Today, she has fond memories of complete strangers coming up to her and complimenting her on her food.

Her husband Francis is from the eastern part of India. After learning a few recipes from her mother-in-law, Misquitta has been honing her culinary skills for her community by trying out a traditional prawn curry, and fish Kujit, a coconut-based pomfret curry, which she says have become favourites with members.

Like others in her newly-found group of friends, Misquitta does not mind helping out since most of the proceeds go towards building camaraderie in the church. “We aren’t looking for reimbursement as long as people are happy.” Social gatherings have come to an abrupt halt. “Things have changed, and friendships have gotten strained. So sharing a meal and reminiscing about back home is a nice way to meet like-minded people,” she says.

Singing away the blues

Sharjah resident Queenie Braganza is in the midst of planning the first virtual singing competition for her community. She and her husband moved to the UAE in 2012. Braganza initially felt homesick but then joined the Sharjah Goan community group and began actively taking part in their events. From organising a yearly ‘Goa Day’, which has its own beauty pageant, to the annual ‘Christmas ball’, she is now part of a team of volunteers who keep the spirit of the community alive.

“We are quite concerned about the situation back home but are helpless beyond a point. We decided to organise a fun-filled evening on May 28.” There will also be bingo and other virtual games and prizes for those who register (registration is free of charge). “So many of our members live alone in the UAE while their families are back home. We want people to feel connected to each other,” says Braganza, who is also a self-taught dancer. Thanks to this new-found passion, she has trained community youngsters, who are taking part in the event, to shake a leg. “It has become a thrill to see young people thrive,” she says.

Despite the pressure of school and work, activities such as these offer individuals an important value of self, she feels. “Most parents whose children have taken part in our events were amazed that I was willing to teach them for free,” says Braganza. The aim of the singing competition is to get everyone out of their stupor and into the groove of Goan mandos and dulpods, besides indulging in English pop music.

“Though I’m originally from Mangalore, I’ve fallen in love with Goan culture. The music is really uplifting,” she laughs.

Other than this, she also remains connected to her mother tongue. With two school-going children aged 11 and 15, Braganza and her husband realised early on that learning their native language was a priority. “My husband Savio printed our prayers in Konkani and recited them daily and our kids quickly memorised them.” Though her children are ‘Gulfies’, Braganza is proud that they are making an effort to keep both cultures alive. “They do make fun of us when we break into Konkani when we meet friends — but they also know the value of these traditions.”

Finding a common ground

42-year-old Dubai resident Nida Zubair grew up in Karachi, the financial hub of Pakistan. She moved to the UAE in December 2009. “When I first arrived, finding like-minded people took time. The best part of living here is that you can easily find people who speak the same language. And food is never a problem,” points out Zubair, who shops at Empress Market in Barsha which stocks most Pakistani goods from home. It’s a ritual that helps her feel connected.

“In my opinion, it is your upbringing that becomes a part of your personality. On Pakistani Independence Day, we make it a point to wear something green at work. The Indian community will wear blue. Then, during Ramadan, you hang out with your friends, so that’s the time you can introduce them to your traditional foods if they are not familiar with them. However, if that’s not ingrained in you as a child, it won’t come naturally to anyone.”

Zubair believes that if someone is ‘lazy’, they won’t make an effort to keep any tradition alive. “As a single girl living in the UAE, there’s more of an effort to keep traditions alive.” She always made it a point to be home for Eid, but this has been the third year that she’s not seen her family: “Which is why I dressed traditionally and put on makeup when I called to wish them — I wanted them to feel that I am not sad about being on my own. If my spirits are high, they will also be happy.”

Is the pandemic to be blamed for the lack of ‘connectedness’? “It’s not just something that’s happened due to the lockdown

situation — people’s lives revolve around a tablet or a smart-phone, their social skills aren’t not so great. Technology has taken over our lives.”

This year, Eid was an opportunity to change the mood. “I cooked the traditional Pakistani breakfast. Thanks to the work-from-home module, I have started cooking,” states Zubair, whose friends wanted halwa poori. “Everyone was missing family but as long

as we were following the standard protocol of keeping a safe distance, we didn’t mind sharing that morning cup of tea and breakfast together.”

The football frenzy

Mohammed Alhamayda is an avid football fan, who doesn’t miss an opportunity to watch a game in which Real Madrid is playing.

“Before Covid, things were quite different. My friends and I were able to go anywhere to watch a match together,” says the 32-year-old IT manager. The preference was not a home gathering. “We were aware of the time that the games were telecast, and we also knew most of the fans who would be in attendance to watch the games together.”

A 12-member group kept in touch via a busy WhatsApp thread. “I’ve always supported Brazil as a team, I have a huge loyalty to the team players, so I try to catch their matches without fail.” Alhamayda has grown up in the UAE and calls himself a ‘watcher’, not a player of the sport.

“Usually the group gathered when there were big matches.

We follow each of the big leagues in UK, Spain, and Germany. We went to a café and watched the game together, but, in recent times, we meet [at a friend’s place in small groups] and someone organises dinner.”

Some noteworthy matches are often advertised in the cinema but for Alhamayda and his buddies, that doesn’t hold the same excitement. “It was a different experience as we felt a bit restricted. The coffee shops and diners are a better place to watch the game as you can shout and cheer and jeer at the other team that is not winning.”

Thanks to Covid, there were no matches held for a long time. But the situation is gradually changing over the past six months, so they are back to reliving their earlier experience — while maintaining Covid protocol. “Finally, we can again meet in small groups where someone gets the snacks, another the drinks and we watch the games together.” There is a definite spirit of camaraderie that can be felt by watching a sport together. “Sometimes it’s a player that you are waiting to see and sometimes it’s about the rivalry between the clubs.” And sometimes, you watch the game purely for the coach. “For example, Real Madrid’s coach is Zinedine Zidane. We have followed his career when he played, and we now want to see how he is managing the crowd reactions and his own team.”

Speaking about the upcoming FIFA 2022, Alhamayda says, “If things get relaxed and travelling becomes easier, I will not mind going to watch the games. At the moment, however, being in close proximity is still not possible. It all depends on the situation.”

Signed, sealed and delivered

Bernard D’Souza calls the UAE home for more than 25 years. He makes it a point to create and send artistic handmade Christmas cards every year for the past 15 years — since his daughter was born. It is an annual tradition that his family and he look forward to. He then posts the cards all over the world. “It’s not something new for us. As a child growing up in Bandra in Mumbai, it was a tradition for my mother to take us shopping to buy Christmas cards for the family. We would buy individual unique cards for an uncle or grandfather, and then we would post them well in time for the holiday season,” says D’Souza.

With e-cards and online calls and the pressures of modern life, it takes a certain amount of rigour and discipline to keep traditional gestures alive. “In 2020, I took full advantage of the pandemic,” says D’Souza, who started making his cards in June itself. “I held on to them and sent them out only in October. It reached family and friends in the UK by the second week of December.”

It’s a quaint, old-fashioned gesture that never fails to bring on the smiles.

(Abigail is a journalist and blogger based in Sharjah. You can find her works at www.abioriginal.com)

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