This Ramadan has arrived at a fitting time of the year: an unforgiving daytime heat, followed by the balmy comfort of the evenings. And it’s on just one of these nights, the first sunset of the Holy Month, that we head to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque to witness one of the largest iftar gatherings in the country.
Crowds of Afghans and Pakistani men hurry past us on the road up to the mosque. After a day of fasting, there’s an air of sombre anticipation. The throng nudges towards a clump of tents carpeted with Astroturf. Chatter is absent; a hush has fallen over the mass of people. The atmosphere is like the build-up before a concert.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Iftar provides enough food for 15,000 people every night of Ramadan. Members of the Armed Forces Officers Club and Hotel frantically unload stacks of cardboard boxes filled with dates and fruit, and hand out packets of laban, juice and water.
Meanwhile Emirati officials usher people into rows beneath the tents. The event is popular with a lot of Abu Dhabi’s expat labourers.
A steady, subdued medley of Urdu, Pashto, Farsi and Arabic rises as the sun edges towards the skyline. It’s hard to get away from the hunger in the air; there’s a sense that everybody is connected by it. Some, already having set themselves a place on one of the long green carpets, now stroll around the mosque. Others mumble prayers with their hands over their faces. Two lines of women, wrapped in chador, sit apart from the men. There’s a commotion on one of the green carpets as figures huddle around a man who has fainted. Fans are angled towards him and friends splash water onto his face.
We’re directed to continue towards the tents closest to the mosque. Imams keep a 24-hour vigil for HH the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan here, constantly reading passages from the Qur’an. Now the sound of the speakers slowly softens and the rows of people begin to open their boxes. They lay out fruits and dates and stare in anticipation at the food in front of them.
‘You are most welcome,’ says a tired looking man, grinning from beneath his headscarf, who points us towards a row of waiting men. We sit down, wish each other ‘as-salaam alaikum’ (peace be upon you) with the anxious diners next to us who smile weakly before returning to their reveries. The sun slips behind a building and, almost by signal, the people around us stand and stampede over to trolleys filled with packages of hot biryani. It’s madness. Hands grab vigorously at the silver tubs, holding them close.
After some dithering on the periphery, it’s clear we should just do as the locals do – and, with a deep breath, we join the struggle of outstretched hands and arms. A package of harees, a local dish of wheat and chicken, falls from the trolley and onto the huddle of feet. While this may not be a typical Ramadan image, there’s still something humbling about the scene. The scramble for food may be frenzied, but it’s an oddly courteous frenzy. We grab a package at the very moment that an eager Pakistani man takes a side of it. As we both connect on the packaging, the wail of evening prayer, signalling iftar, floats from the mosque. His hand snaps away and he refuses to take the packaging. ‘Please, please,’ he offers with a weary but genuine smile, insistent that we should take it. Ramadan kareems are politely exchanged.
The prayers continue, a dramatically delicate crescent moon emerges from the evening haze and the fast is finally broken with dates. We take our place and open the packages: a hot, if tongue-numbingly dry, biryani with a chewy leg of boiled lamb, a tub of harees, a wheaty gravy and some fruit and salad. The persistent atmosphere of hunger in the air melts away, and as the sky pinks over, all that’s left is the contented rustle of people eating. What we have here is the reality of Ramadan – a communal fast, broken nightly. Everyone on that patch of fake grass has been brought together by faith and hunger, and now, together, they assuage their physical pangs, as a mood of contentment sweeps across the gathering. We attempt conversation but, aside from salaams and smiles, there’s a peace to this that feels wrong to break.
People stand and begin to stroll towards the mosque for evening prayer. Red lights dot around the gloom of the car park as people take their first cigarette of the day. It’s as if the city has given a contented exhale on the first day of the long month ahead.
The iftar at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, is open to everyone though visitors, especially women, must dress conservatively. If in doubt, err on the side of conservative. The Iftar begins at sunset, though it is best to arrive as early as possible.