Experiencing a communal iftar in Old Dubai

Dubai is a city of excess, and nowhere is this more obvious than at the lavish iftars held in five-star hotels over Ramadan.

Iftar is traditionally the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during the Holy Month. But in Dubai, it’s more akin to a binge session. Anyone can enjoy these all-you-can-eat affairs, whether you’ve been fasting or not. People pile their plates with “delectable Arabic-inspired dishes”. Inevitably, a whole lot goes to waste. There’s very little that separates this kind of “iftar” from a Friday brunch (except for the absence of alcohol).

Which is why I was excited to sign up for the Old Dubai Iftar Walk with Unseen Trails. Every Ramadan, the tour company organises a five-hour walk through Naif, one of Dubai’s oldest neighbourhoods, It culminates in a communal iftar on the street, organised by a local mosque. Nothing flashy. Just the real, humble spirit of Ramadan.

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Our group, made up mostly of Dubai residents, met at Al Ras metro station on a sweltering Saturday evening. We had been warned that we wouldn’t be able to drink water until prayer time (remember, no eating or drinking in public during Ramadan).

We zigzagged our way through the neighbourhood’s back alleys, which were subdued as the 14-hour fasting period came to a close. One man napped under a slice of shade provided by a small tree, while stray cats scavenged for non-existent scraps. As the sun dropped lower in the sky, the golden crescents of mosques glinted above the rooftops.

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Somewhere near the Gold Souk, we came across a group of men placing traditional iftar snacks on a blue tarpaulin: dates, orange segments, samosas, and a special fermented milk drink called Laban.

The tarpaulin snaked around the corner. Men sat shoulder-to-shoulder, sandals placed neatly to the side. It was a very masculine environment – for one thing, it’s a working class district, and many of the men have come to Dubai alone. But also because the women prefer the comfort of the air-conditioning inside the mosque.

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Our group had its own tarpaulin to sit on. We wore scarves to cover our heads. In the past, Unseen Trails participants didn’t used to join in on the iftar, instead watching the ritual from a respectful distance, our guide explained. They were hesitant about taking the food away from those who needed it. However, the organisers insisted the tour group have a spot among the locals.

A piece of graffiti on a nearby wall said: “Together we are.” And we were.

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In the minutes before sunset, some men were starting to peel their oranges methodically, breaking the fruit into segments ready for savouring. The sweet fragrance of citrus permeated the air.

Finally, the call to prayer reverberated through the sky. A hush descended upon the area as the men took their first gulps of water and bites to eat in so many hours.

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It was over almost as soon as it began. We helped clear away the orange peel, milk cartons and water bottles (very little went to waste). The neighbourhood’s veins pulsed with renewed energy, as though the collective blood sugar level had returned to normal. Some men got straight back to work, while others sat around chatting with friends, sipping cups of chai, and filling up on fried snacks from hole-in-the-wall eateries that appeared out of nowhere.

The experience has left me with such a feeling of warmth towards Dubai, a city that is so often accused of being cold and superficial. But I think I found its soul on those pavements in Naif… and without a shadow of doubt, the true spirit of Ramadan.

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