Ending fast with Rouz jerbi and kafteji
Salma preparing special dishes for Iftar at her home in Al Qusais, Dubai.
Kelly Clarke shares the experience of her first Iftar which was with a Tunisian family in Dubai
After nearly three years of living in the UAE, June 23 marks my first real taste of Iftar in Dubai.
As Tunisia-born Salma Hosni welcomes me into her home to open fast with her family, it is my sense of smell and sight which first responds to this month-long Muslim tradition.
Stepping through the door of the third-floor apartment, I'm greeted by the beaming smiles of 13-year-old Shaima, 5-year-old Shahad and 3-year-old Sirine - a sight to put anyone at ease in a stranger's home.
Walking further into the entrance hall, my nose fills with a warm, spiced fragrance coming from the kitchen. Dressed neck to toe in a black abaya with colourful detailing on the neck, my host Salma greets me and ushers me into the kitchen where my eyes are met with an array of pots and pans, filled with half-prepared Tunisian favourites.
From Rouz jerbi (a steamed rice, vegetable and meat mix) to kafteji (vegetables fried, chopped and combined together with a beaten egg), Salma says the dishes are Tunisia's version of "poor man's food".
"These dishes are popular with everyone. The rich, the poor, whoever." Made from local Tunisian ingredients, she says she always stocks up on her favourite spices and products when she goes back home. "If I can't get them in the supermarkets here, I'll always bring stuff from home. It gives me that sense of being at home."
After a few minutes, an older lady walks into the kitchen, smiles at me, and heads to the stove where the Rouz jerbi sits steaming. As she begins to stir the dish, Salma introduces the woman as her mother who "speaks very little English". Feeling somewhat useless as the two generations of women clamber around me, Salma hands me a bowl and asks me to roll the mixture into small meatballs. "We usually make these with beef or mutton but we didn't know if you'd like them so we went with chicken," she tells me.
It's a gesture which reaffirms her impecible hosting skills to me.
As I begin preparing food I have never even heard of before, let alone tasted, I roll the mix into dirham-coin-sized balls and the usual 10 minute job takes me about 20 minutes. The temptation of being surrounded by mouth-watering smells is a little hard to handle as I join the family in their fast, but it's an experience which heightens my respect for all Muslims' sense of self-restraint during Ramadan.
I then ask Salma to recall the first time she fasted. "I think I was about seven or eight. It was just a half day fast. I did my first full fast when I was 12, but I don't remember it much." For Salma, fasting during Ramadan is a "realisation experience". "People all over the world don't have the privilege to eat when they want. Through fasting, we get a sense of that."
Living in Dubai for more than 10 years, the lack of community spirit compared to a Ramadan back home is the one thing she misses.
"Many of my family and friends are back in Tunisia so I miss being with them. Locals have a good sense of community spirit here, but it's sometimes hard for expatriates," she says.
As 7.15pm approaches, Salma tells me Ramadan is a special time of the year. A time when Muslims around the world take a step back from their daily routines and focus on community, charity, and fasting. But for her, it is a little different in Dubai.
"In Tunisia we would give money to beggars and give food to our poor neighbours. Here, we know few neighbours and begging is illegal, so we give money to local charities instead."
As we begin to prepare the dining area for Iftar, little Sirine lays sleeping on the sofa, while 13-year-old Shaima lays the table.
This is her third time fasting, and though she says it is sometimes difficult, she doesn't mind it at all.
"My sisters often try and give me food. That can be hard sometimes, but I like the fact that many of my friends fast, too," she says.
As the maghrib prayer rings out from the TV, we take our seat at the table. The silence at the prayer's end marks our que to break fast.
As Salma dishes up a tomato-based soup for all, the colour appears to run back into her cheeks, and soon after, her mother leaves the table to go and pray.
Salma tells me that aside from the religious enlightenment Ramadan brings, she looks forward to spending time with her family.
"I love sitting together and eating as a family. It's not often we get to do this," she says. As we finish up the "poor man's food" - which tastes rich and luxurious to me - Salma slips off to pray, before returning and ending the day's experience with some sweet Turkish coffee.
Saying goodbye to the Hosni's at around 9.15pm, one thing is clear. My three-year delay to break Iftar in Dubai was well worth the wait.
Salma preparing special dishes for Iftar at her home in Al Qusais, Dubai, and (right) Salma with her daughters, Shaima and Shahad, during Iftar. — Photos by Dhes Handumon