Ramadan 2023: How streets of old Dubai come alive daily with huge community iftar

With all Covid-19 restrictions lifted, thousands are ending their daily fast together in Deira

How streets of old Dubai come alive daily with huge community iftar

How streets of old Dubai come alive daily with huge community iftar
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Thousands of people have taken part in a revival of the decades-old tradition of holding an iftar gathering in the narrow lanes near Dubai’s old Gold Souq.

The annual charity event organised by the Iman Cultural Centre began during Ramadan in 1976, but was put on hold for the past three years because of Covid-19 safety measures.

This year, it is allowed to give food to the public during the holy month, but anyone doing so needs permission from Dubai's Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (Iacad).

The move is part of the authority’s efforts to ensure that the food is safe and meals are being distributed across a variety of places.

In a return to normality, people are back in full force at Deira’s Lootah Mosque where about 4,000 free meals are served daily in the spirit of the holy month. Another 1,000 boxes of kanji broth are distributed in the emirate’s Muteena area.

Kanji has lots of health benefits for those who are fasting. It has natural ingredients and it is easy to digest
Jagir Hussain, chef

“In 1976, when the cultural centre was established, only 200 people would attend our iftar,” said PSM Habibullah Khan, president of the Iman Cultural Centre.

“Today, more than 4,000 people end their fast at the Lootah mosque.

“We used to have 20 volunteers back then and now we have 80 volunteers who come together after work to distribute meals.”

The meals are sponsored by Ali Rashid Lootah, a prominent businessman in Dubai, he added.

In the past three years, when gatherings were not permitted, the cultural centre distributed iftar meals in various areas of Dubai.

“People are happy to be back,” said Hameed Yasin, general secretary of the Iman Cultural Centre.

“The joy is evident on their faces.”

Taste of south India

The highlight of the iftar meals is the special kanji broth, which stays true to the original flavour from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The nutritious porridge is prepared using rice, minced meat and spices.

At 4.30pm, people patiently wait in a kilometre-long queue to receive containers of the aromatic off-white broth to take home.

At the same time, volunteers spread out an orange and blue tarpaulin on the winding lanes surrounding the mosque. The 500ml plastic containers filled with kanji are placed on the ground along with servings of oranges, dates, water and samosas or fried snacks.

Mohammed Shafi, a maintenance worker from Bangladesh, has been attending the iftar event for the last 25 years.

“I love the meal that’s served here, especially kanji,” he said.

Twenty-eight ingredients are used to prepare the kanji in large aluminium pots in a kitchen in Sonapur.

Seven people start preparing the ingredients at 7pm. The staff come back at 5am the next day to cook the porridge and they are not finished until 11am. Another 13 people fill the broth into plastic containers and load the boxes onto trucks at 3pm.

About 3,000 litres of kanji are prepared every day, using 150kg of meat, 180kg of rice and 105kg of lentils. Other ingredients include coconut, tomatoes, onions and garlic, as well as spices such as bay leaves, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon.

Jagir Hussain, the main chef in the kitchen, arrived from Tamil Nadu along with two other chefs this year just to prepare kanji during the holy month.

“Kanji has lots of health benefits for those who are fasting,” said Mr Hussain. “It has natural ingredients and it is easy to digest.”

The porridge is a Ramadan favourite back in Tamil Nadu, he added.

The nutritious kanji has attracted thousands to the grounds in Deira, from tourists to workers and businesspeople. Some of them have been ending their fast at the Lootah Mosque for decades.

Mohammed Zaver, a painter from Bangladesh, has been in attendance for 20 years.

“The last three years I collected an iftar box daily during Ramadan and ended my fast at home with two or three friends. But this year, I am happy to be able to eat with people from all walks of life. We also offer Maghreb prayers together at the mosque.”

About 100 people are seated inside the mosque and another 3,900 have to find a spot on the tarpaulin sheets outside.

Shihabudheen, from the Indian state of Kerala, works as a salesman in one of the stores in the area. He sat with a group of friends on the tarpaulin.

“I have been ending my fast on these streets for eight years,” he said.

“I have missed the gathering. I usually arrive early and chat with people around me.”

At sunset, when the call for prayer is heard, thousands of boxes of kanji are opened at once.

Soon after, worshippers enter the mosque for maghrib prayer, often with new friends they met at the gathering. They come together in the spirit of Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community.

“People tell us that we are offering a great service and they thank us. But actually, we want to thank them for giving us a chance to serve them,” said Mr Yasin.

Updated: March 30, 2023, 3:43 AM