For Arab students in Bangalore, Mahajabeen Sheikh’s food is a taste of home

In the southern Indian city of Bangalore, the 52-year-old Mahajabeen Sheikh cooks traditional Arab dishes for a growing number of Middle Eastern students who're turning to the subcontinent for affordable higher education.

Mahajabeen Sheikh serves Arabian food to about 60 students a day at her home in Bangalore. Subhash Sharma for The National
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Every afternoon, the doorbell starts ringing at 1pm at Umm Omar’s Kamanahalli residence in Bangalore. Noisy young men barge in, only to be greeted with a smile and the words “kaif halak?”

The question comes from the 52-year-old Mahajabeen Sheikh, affectionately known as Umm Omar by the boys who make a beeline for her home for a taste of Arabian food. Sheikh, who runs her catering business Zawaqa, is quite a celebrity in the city’s Kamanahalli area, which is home to a large number of Arab students who choose Bangalore for higher studies.

Sheikh grew up in Bangalore, but lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for 26 years with her husband and two children. She returned to India three years ago, all the while searching for a connection with the Middle East.

She found it in four students who were looking to satisfy their taste buds with traditional Arabian food.

Sheikh was more than happy to cook for them for a small payment. Thanks to word of mouth, the number of her customers has increased and today she serves no less than 60 students on an ordinary day. That number doubles during Ramadan – for iftar and suhoor.

“Umm Omar serves her food with so much affection that it reminds me of my mother,” says Saeed Salm, 20, from Hadhramaut, Yemen. Majad Hassan, 18, also from Yemen, agrees. “The best thing about the food is the hygiene and the touch of home.”

At 2,800 rupees (Dh165) a month for one meal a day and 4,500 rupees (Dh265) a month for two meals a day, it doesn’t hurt their pockets either. Despite being close to some of the best Arab restaurants, no one is ready to give up the kapsa, madghut, mutabbaq, hummus, fattoush and basbousa that Sheikh serves.

“My kitchen is open all day,” Sheikh explains. “Lunch is done by 5pm and prep for dinner starts by 6.30pm.” During Ramadan, she begins preparing suhoor by midnight because “a lot of boys like to come and collect their morning meal by 2am”.

The students, mostly male, seem to rely on Sheikh for more than just food. She lends them an ear whenever they need, is their counsellor and mentor – and sometimes even a mediator between them and their parents.

Most of the students who eat at Sheikh’s are in India primarily to learn English for a year. Once there and familiar with the country, some decided to enrol in university courses.

“In Saudi Arabia, most government schools start teaching English from grade 6,” explains Ammar Alesayl, a 23-year-old from Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

“I have no one to converse with in English back home,” says Abdul Rahman, a 25-year-old from Jeddah. “There are many institutes in Saudi Arabia that offer spoken English classes, but once out of the class, everyone reverts to speaking Arabic,” adds Rahman.

Bangalore, Mysore, Pune and Hyderabad have a cosmopolitan appeal and students of several Arab nationalities flock to coll­­e­ges in these cities, where English is the preferred medium of conversation.

“With better linguistic skills, our chances of bagging a good job back home are greater,” adds Yaseen Sayeed, a 20-year-old from Aden, Yemen. “One reason why India is chosen over western countries like the US and the UK is for the quality of education and affordable fees,” says Mohemmed Hashim Matori, who came to Bangalore from Abu Dhabi in 2012 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business management. “My Indian degree is sure to give me an edge over my contemporaries in the UAE,” he says.

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