Find out more about one of Dubai's most popular iftars
The motto for the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding is ‘Open doors. Open minds’ and during the month of Ramadan the traditional dark wood doors of the SMCCU are thrown wide open to the whole community to share in an Emirati iftar. Hosting up to 150 guests every night of Ramadan in the courtyard of the house, the iftar here offers food for the mind as well as the body, as the team of volunteers share their culture, fasting experiences and help visitors experience a traditional iftar and answer all their questions.
‘In the beginning it was weird, because people ask you so many personal questions, but then you get used to it and slowly it began to be this concept of open doors, open minds,’ says the centre’s managing director, Nasif Kayed, as we speak in the cool sitting room of the house in the Al Fahidi Historical District. ‘Many people are curious to get into your personal life and usually we don’t let people in, because that’s the way we are, but we have to. We tell people why we eat this, why we wear this, why we sit this way. Sometimes the questions are very hard to answer because you don’t even know why you do them. Now it’s comfortable.’ Nasif feels that the key to the success of the centre’s cultural iftar is in its simplicity. ‘It is a true authentic experience,’ he explains, ‘you come into a traditional house setting here, there are Emirati volunteers with fluent English, you chat with them while you’re eating. You observe the breaking of the fast and we explain everything, we don’t just do it in front of you and expect you to understand.’
The iftar programme is around two-and-a-half hours long, and also offers visitors a snippet of all the cultural activities that are held at the centre throughout the year. The food served gives guests a flavour of authentic Emirati cuisine, meats, fish, Al Madhrooba (salt fish) and Harees (meat and wheat). Following iftar, the group takes a guided walk around Bastakiya and a 30 minute mosque tour, before returning to the house for dessert and a Q&A session. The team at SMCCU are no strangers to strange questions about Islamic culture and traditions. We asked Nasif what the most commonly asked question during Ramadan is. ‘“Are you okay?”’ laughs Nasif. ‘Then we get asked, “Is it really civilised, to starve yourself with no food or water?” I respond that people go without food for three or four days, why should we complain? We only abstain from food for 16 to 18 hours maximum. This is the problem with us, we‘ve all become very spoiled and so undisciplined. This [fasting] teaches you discipline, patience, perseverance and humility. I know that I’m going to eat, I just have to wait for it. Some people in the world don’t know when their next meal is going to come.’
Nasif feels passionately that commercialisation has changed society’s understanding of Ramadan, and the way that it is celebrated. ‘Everyone wants to capitalise and make money – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s – what is it all about? Selling!’ he exclaims. ‘So for Ramadan they start to sell iftar buffets with extravagant lavish food, and tents! Ramadan Tents, who came up with that? In some countries you have belly dancing in the tent after iftar, what’s going on? In the old days, we cooked reasonable meals, but more of it so that we could give to the poor. Today, it’s two or three entrées, soups, three desserts, and that defeats the whole purpose of modesty.’
Nasif believes that the SMCCU iftar can help to show the wider community the true spirit of Ramadan, regardless of religion or nationality. ‘I want expats to have a true experience, and that is what we have in this house. See what it’s like to be with a Muslim family, how everybody eats and prays together – it’s like Thanksgiving or Christmas Day but every day for 30 days. It’s really beautiful.’ Dhs135 per person. 6.45pm-9.30pm. Daily, June 20 – July 20. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding, House 26, Al Mussallah Road, Al Fahidi, Bur Dubai, www.cultures.ae (04 353 6666).
Nasif Kayed offers his tips to non-Muslims who are invited to a traditional family iftar Show interest. ‘For a Muslim to invite a non-Muslim to their home, they may worry that you’re not comfortable being in a religious setting, so hint to your Muslim friends that you’d like to experience a true family iftar.’
Say yes. ‘If you’re invited, go. If you’re busy on one night then just reschedule, otherwise it’s disheartening if I invite you and you keep ignoring the invitation.’
No need to bring a gift. ‘If you bring a gift then I might feel like I have to gift you too. It is better to bring a home-made dish from your culture, a dessert perhaps. If an Italian wants to come to iftar I might ask them to bring cannoli.’
Arrive early. ‘Get there at least 10 minutes early because the last 10 to 15 minutes of the fast is the preparation. We make prayers and reflect on the day. We have to start the meal right at the start of the call to prayer so if you come late then we’re waiting for you.’