Treats and some tricks as UAE children celebrate Haq Al Lailah

On the occasion of Haq Al Lailah, a tradition that has very little chance of dying out, gangs of youngsters in bright clothes travel from door to door, filling sacks with sweets. But there's method to their gladness...
Children walking from door-to-door singing and collecting sweets and money in celebration of Haq Al Lailah. Razan Alzayani / The National
Children walking from door-to-door singing and collecting sweets and money in celebration of Haq Al Lailah. Razan Alzayani / The National

It was the night the vampires took over the streets of Al Layyah freej - with plastic fangs attached to sugar-coated jelly tongues.

"I lost my tongue," one young bloodsucker cried in despair, after he accidentally bit his sweet in two.

But there was plenty more hard candy inside Smurf whistles and jelly creepy crawlers for the children of the Sharjah neighbourhood as they set out on this special night for a long-held and sweet tradition.

So great was the haul that some children brought along mini-suitcases, complete with wheels.

Others were driven around by their parents so they would not have to walk alone in the heat, and others came with their maids.

Some of the larger groups working the streets on foot improvised by sending one of their number home to fetch extra-large garbage sacks, whenever their specially sewn floral-printed cloth bags known as kharyta became too full. This Sunday afternoon saw freej across the country filled with youngsters prepared to brave the heat for a sugar rush.

For as long as the elders remember, at least 100 years and perhaps even longer, every mid-Shaaban - 15 days before the holy month of Ramadan - Emirati children have been celebrating Haq Al Lailah (for this night) tradition by gathering as many sweets, nuts and treats as possible.

"More, more, more," children squealed as they ran from house to house, gobbling sweets while knocking on doors. With one hand extended they pushed the other into their bags to make more room.

For the four Al Suwaidi sisters, Haq Al Lailah is planned like a military operation as they set into gear their foolproof strategy to guarantee them the best collection of goodies.

By 4.30pm Mariam, 13, Awashi, 12, Hind, 10, and Noura, 8, were dressed in their best traditional clothing, with bright colours and designs for this special day, and already hitting the "best houses".

"We go to the most generous neighbours first," said Awashi, dressed in a green, long-sleeved outfit with golden polka dots.

"We remember who gave what last year and those who gave out the best sweets we go to visit first. We also remember those who didn't give good sweets and we go to them last."

They also aim for the houses with younger people because they give out the latest brands and more popular makes of chocolate and sweets.

The older generation give out assortments of nuts, often raw peanuts and salted chick peas, along with the sweets. It is a healthy option that the children do not particularly care for.

"They don't taste good. We can get nuts at home. We want the cheesy puffs, chips and good sweets," explained Mariam.

"When they give us chocolates like Galaxy and tasty sweets and those small jello packets, we fight over them and exchange among ourselves."

Joined by cousins Mohammed, 12, Abdullah, 9, Maitha, 4, and AbdulRahman, 3, the group made their rounds of Al Layyah, dividing into two to cover more ground.

Maitha was wearing a traditional blue thobe with a Hello Kitty face sewn on, and blue and red ribbons around her ears. She made an impression wherever she went.

The children would sing the special song whenever they caught their breath: "Aatoona Allah yaatikum. Beit Mecca yuwadikum" (Give us and God will reward you, and you may go to Mecca as one of the rewards).

The tradition is celebrated throughout the Gulf nations and is known by different names, including Shaabaniya in Abu Dhabi, Gergi'an in Kuwait, Garga'on in Bahrain and Elgarangasho in Oman.

The tradition of giving sweets, particularly home-made ones, can also be found in places such as Yemen, Iran and parts of South Asia.

It is often related to Shaaban, especially mid-Shaaban when it is considered a particularly sacred time, where deeds are carried up to the heavens. It is also an important time of remembrance.

On this night, some Muslims perform special prayers called nawaafil, recite verses from the Quran and seek forgiveness.

"Its origin and how it came about is lost with time, but it is a cultural tradition not a religious one," said Samira Al Ghais, who works for Sharjah Museums.

Ms Al Ghais organised a special Haq Al Lailah event on Saturday, with sweets and a competition for the best kharyta inside a tent in the heritage area of Sharjah.

Children decorated their kharytas with stickers, glitter, ribbons, cut-out butterflies and Barbie dolls, and plastic action figures such as Spider-Man. They used marker pens to make drawings.

"It is important to keep this heritage alive, as it is a fun one that unites families and neighbours together. Everyone has fun, the parents and the children," Ms Al Ghais said.

"While it has got much harder as people are busy, and homes have higher walls and are more isolated, I don't see this tradition fading as the children won't allow it to."

Souqs across the country were selling treats in bulk the night before, with the shops in Sharjah's Iranian Souq laying out stocks of bags filled with brands such as Pofak Oman (cheese puffs), King Tat chocolate (a treat resembling KitKat) and various Omani and Qatari corn puffs and lollipops, to be sold for bargain prices, like 50 packets for Dh10.

A family from Saudi Arabia joined the celebrations, and also drove around collecting sweets.

"We don't celebrate this tradition so openly in Saudi, just very few neighbourhoods, and so since we are here we thought the children would enjoy it," said the mother.

She took photos of her children with Maitha and her brothers as they held their sacks of sweets.

Abdullah Al Suwaidi, the father of the four girls, has fond memories of racing for the best treats.

"We always looked forward to Haq Al Lailah," Mr Al Suwaidi recalled.

"It was always fun and while we didn't have the modern sweets kids today have, we loved the act of going around and getting home-made sweets, dates, nuts, and sometimes we would even get money."

He hoped this tradition continued after many others had faded with time, because it "brings families together", and that parents continued to encourage their children to celebrate it.

"We have all become too busy, too stressed, too tired," Mr Al Suwaidi said. "And so traditions like these help us take a break from our daily life and go back in time to a simpler age where collecting and distributing sweets is enough to make us happy."

But there is one side to this celebration to which the children have grown wary.

"The older children come and often steal the candy bags from the younger ones," said Mohammed.

"We have to then chase them down and get them back.

"But sometimes the bullies break into the candies and shove them into their mouth by the time we catch them. It is very annoying. Our sweets are our property.

"We worked hard to get them. We walked for them."

 

rghazal@thenational.ae

 

@ For more on UAE HERITAGE, visit thenational.ae/topics

Published: June 25, 2013 04:00 AM

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