Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Ramadan Tent Experience

I get to add another item to my list of special experiences in the UAE. After my Friday of food binging and generally feeling sorry for myself I jumped at the invitation from Rasha to join her and her husband and son at a Ramadan tent. Though Rasha had mentioned this possibility the day before I honestly thought there was no way she would want to go out and socialize after spending hours in the kitchen cooking yet another (day 3 of 30) big family meal for her in-laws. I was all in my pajamas, dozing off to some old CSI rerun on TV (some future blog I will share with you the exciting (not) options of TV shows here) when the call came: can you go in 20 minutes? Darn right I can. Staying in the flat on weekends is going to be my biggest (and most fattening) challenge. After checking with her on the proper Ramadan tent attire (jeans and a T-shirt she recommended) I spiffed up and waited her call.

They picked me up at the flat and we were off. All I knew going into this is that the parties are held in tents, that they start late and go late, and that smoking of sheesha pipes is part of the celebration. So, what I had in my mind was something akin to a crowded fraternity party, togas replaced by dishdashes, thick smoke and smashing into others, having to shout over the noise. Haven't done one of those in a while so I was game to try it. I was a little interested in how three-year-old Kareem was going to handle the "party."

Our Evening's Photographer

The picture in my head and the reality of the experience were worlds apart. It was a truly elegant set up, very well organized, relaxing and interesting all in one. We arrived at a nice hotel and entered through a special passageway. The walls were covered with linen, the floors of the hallway with Oriental rugs. There were brass samovars and incense chests displayed along the way. We finally entered into a large room that was the tent. The "tent" was huge. Ballroom size, with high ceilings and chandeliers. This was set up in the area surrounding the pool of the hotel so in the middle of this large tent were the pools with fountains in the middle. It had to be explained to me that we were in the pool area, the place thoroughly transitioned from a hotel pool.

In the tent there had to be over 300 elegantly set tables with linens and glassware. Though there were multiple sheesha pipes at almost every table the place was not smoky like a cheap tavern (only the tobacco laced smell of my clothes the next day gave away the truth). The temperature was pleasant in the tent despite the over 90-percent humidity and 100+ temperatures outside.

We were seated and three bowls of roasted beans were brought to our table. One was a garbanzo, one a larger thick shelled liver colored bean and the third a flat yellow bean, smaller than a garbanzo. Also a plate with piles of salt, cumin and chili to flavor the beans. And some delicious falafel patties in little pocket breads.

We ordered mocktails, for me: my new favorite lemonade blended with fresh mint. Rasha ordered Sheesha for us, selecting the grape flavor. We enjoyed conversation and I soaked in the goings on around us. People were dressed in native dress (abayas and dishdash) as well as jeans and T-shirts, and everything (modest) in between. Games of backgammon and cards were being played at about a third of the tables. In the center a live ensemble was playing Arabic music with a fiddle, drums and an oud, which is similar in sound to a mandolin. There may have been pipes of some sort as well.

An Oud

Two-year old Kareem was so very good for being stuck at an adults table with nothing more than the toys he brought to play with. The universal ability of iPhone games to entertain young children was proven as Kareem had fun with a few things on mine. He also was the official photographer of the night and so these shots, most courtesy of Kareem using my iPhone, are yours to enjoy as I didn’t feel comfortable taking more than food pictures.

In addition to the beans we ordered plates of small “sandwiches” of flat bread with cheeses and some labneh with zaatar (my favorite). Zaatar is a wonderful herb that is I think related to thyme. It is in many of the foods here and I am learning to steer towards menu items that have it if I can’t recognize other options. One of my goals is to learn more about it and how to cook with it while here. Fresh zaatar comes from Lebanon and we hope to get some in from someone returning from there soon. There is a bakery located around the corner from our office that we buy zaatar bread from some mornings. We go to the counter and order a zaatar bread or a bread with cheese and olives. In the back room we can see the baker who takes our order slide fresh flat bread that he has put the desired topping on into a large pizza like oven. Moments later a fresh warm fragrant bread is wrapped in paper and handed to us. The zaatar is fixed in the traditional way with the herb, sesame seeds and ground sumac. This heavenly concoction is available for about $0.80 US. The men in the bakery are a little impatient with us foreigners no matter how hard we try to charm them. I guess if you worked in a hot bakery every day baking wonderful foods that you can only get 80-cents for you might be grumpy too. But we are working on them. Anyway, the food is much better than their disposition. I am always tempted to order some of the beautiful sweets behind the counter but I am so intimidated by my simple bread order that I am a little afraid to try to get other things. One of these days soon I will try. Because even more than trying them I want to get pictures of the sweets so perfectly arranged and displayed. And maybe they would be just a little kinder if I ordered something more? Ah, but I digress. Back to the Ramadan tent…

While there, Rasha and her husband saw and greeted several friends and acquaintances they knew, most also from Lebanon as well. We were joined for a while by Rasha’s husband’s cousin, a young man who has done lots of travel and was informative of how the “chicks” from Spain were much more beautiful than the chicks from London this time around. He is very much a fashion conscious young guy and likes to shop for brand name clothing on his adventures. He and Kareem share a special bond and they played and teased each other with delight.

At about 2 PM we made our exit. Once again, I felt especially privileged to be included and welcomed into this part of local life. It was a fabulous evening with equally fabulous people. Shokran شكرا لك


Anonymous said...

Hooray! You go, girl!!


Anonymous said...

it's was pleasure to have you with us my friend,we will do it again :)انشاللهnashallah :)