One year ago on the eve of Eid, the only uncertainty at the Baniyas souq was whether the crescent moon would be sighted above Jebel Hafeet on Monday night or Tuesday.
Once the new moon was sighted and Eid Al Fitr had begun, everything else was a certainty, predetermined by tradition. Thousands gathered at the prayer grounds for the morning Eid prayers. Hundreds crossed the country and the Peninsula, from Oman and Yemen, to mark Eid celebrations with Abu Dhabi relatives. Cauldrons of halwa sweets and harees porridge simmered to feed guests and the gathering lasted days. In the three days before Eid Al Fitr, traders did a month’s worth of sales, or more. Every year it was the same.
Until now. The coronavirus pandemic had upended the Eid traditions as people stay at home to stem the deadly spread of the virus. For those at the Baniyas souq, this meant a struggle after an April lockdown and an Eid rush that never came.
Al Abeer Henna and Beauty Saloon reopened on Tuesday after a two month shutdown. Its beauticians waited from early morning until sunset for customers to appear. Not one graced the threshold.
“It’s sad,” said Shamim Abdul Qadr, a henna artist from Mumbai. “It’s not the same as before.”
The beauty parlour typically does three weeks worth of sales in the three days before the festival and stays open almost 24-hours a day to meet the demand of the Eid rush. The second day of business was little better than the first: five customers came.
Ms Abdul Qadr had been excited to work again. She spent the lockdown watching the Hindi-language crime series Crime Patrol on YouTube. Once a week, she went to Lulu Hypermarket for groceries.
“We want work,” said Ms Abdul Qadr. “It’s very difficult when we’re sitting in the house. When we’re in the house, the mind is going here and there.”
On the other side of the souq, the famed Omani sweet shop Abu Suroor had only a handful of customers before sunset. Usually, it is an essential Eid stop for the Baniyas shopper.
“We’ve prepared eight or 10 vats this Ramadan, each is 20 kilogrammes, and normally we do about 40 vats,” said Abdullah Najem, the owner. “But this Ramadan was as blessed as any other, for Ramadan is always blessing from God, praise be to God.”
His customer Refaa Al Mansoori, nodded her head. “This Ramadan was nice for one reason,” said Ms Al Mansoori, 40, a police officer from Baniyas. “Time. Usually in Ramadan I’m going here and there. This year, I had time to slow down.”
She bought two small bowls of saffron halwa for her immediate family. “We’re not able to do Eid, it’s social media only this year,” she said.
Mr Najem was resolute in his optimism. “I’ll do all the celebrations for Eid, we’ll give gifts, we’ll dress up, we’ll go to the sea.”
Only greengrocers and butchers were crowded, thanks to window displays of ripe watermelons and fresh camel meat.
Tailors and barbershops were closed by 6.30pm and shoppers carried a sober demeanour, for who wanted a new kandura or a shave for an Eid at home?
But two women were steadfast in their preparations. Sabreen Al Qorbi and her friend Liza could not wait to spend Eid at home.
The Yemeni human rights workers had spend two months in an Abu Dhabi hotel after flights were suspended in late March due to the pandemic. They had been en route to Yemen from a conference in Jordan when they got stuck in the UAE.
They had been well looked after but were ready to reunite with family. When they got news they would be repatriated by the Red Crescent before Eid, they taxied from downtown Abu Dhabi to the Baniyas souq to prepare.
Liza got her eyebrows done at a saloon. Then they bought matching thobes of bright orange and golden polka dots. “We will bake cookies and cakes and the children will ride camels,” said Liza. “It will be good to be home this Eid.”