In the third part of our series, Deeba Hasan visits an Egyptian family in Azaiba to experience some authentic Arabian hospitality
For the third week of Ramadan, Mohammed Hussain Ali, an engineer, invited me to have Iftar with him and his family at their home in Azaiba. On entering their house, I was greeted by Mohammed’s two young boys, Adam and Yahya, and shortly afterwards I was welcomed by Mohammed’s mother-in-law, Nadia, and then by his wife, May.
While the Iftar was being laid out on the table, Adam and Yahya took it upon themselves to entertain me, talking about school, their friends and anything else that popped into their heads.
Around 10 minutes later, some delicious aromas started to waft through from the kitchen and although the dining table seemed almost full, I was told that there was still more to come. I saw lasagna, whole roasted chickens, fajitas, an Egyptian speciality rice dish, soup, meat curry and some salad, all of which had been lovingly prepared by Nadia and May.
Mohammed told me that this was all part of traditional Egyptian hospitality. “We don’t have such a heavy Iftar every day, but when a guest comes into our home, the table has to look like this,” he says.
With the call to prayer, we broke our fast with the soup and slowly moved to the Egyptian rice and the special chutney that accompanied it. May recommended that I try some fajitas and chicken legs with it and it was tasty. Next, I was asked to sample the lasagna, which was equally good. In fact, it would be fair to say that the entire Iftar spread was sumptuous.
While we were eating, Mohammed told me that although Adam speaks English at the American school he attends, the family speaks in Arabic at home because they want their children to learn both languages well.
I asked Mohammed’s mother-in-law whether Iftars nowadays differ from when she was young and the first thing she told me was that previously, the family used to have Iftar together at least once a week at the parents’ house. “If someone did not show up, the mother used to get very upset, so you knew you had to have an Iftar meal with the family at least once a week, even if you lived in a different house,” she says.
Mohammed told me that when he lived in Egypt as a boy, Ramadan was a grand affair that people celebrated in many ways. “Families used to light up fanous [colourful lanterns] around the neighbourhood to celebrate the occasion,” he says. “The lanterns became so widespread that fanous making became a popular art and they were made using different colours and designs. Families who couldn’t afford them would put up small coloured flags outside their houses instead.”
Another interesting Ramadan celebration in Egypt is the singing of songs. “When the month of Ramadan was very close, kids used to sing Ramadan songs, most of them saying that Ramadan is coming,” May recalls. “But it doesn’t really happen anymore,” she sighs.
Despite being away from Egypt, Mohammed says that Egyptians maintain their culture and traditions very well. “Wherever you go in the world, you will find we break our fast the same way, even with all the modernisation, we don’t let our traditions and culture get influenced.
“In Ramadan, it is an important part of our Iftar to exchange food with our neighbours and we never come back empty handed, because the neighbour would put something from their spread onto our plate. It is a practice that has been going on for ages.”
Mohammed also made me try some soft biscuits called “Kahk-al-Eid”, which are specially made for the occasion of Eid. “The mother plans the recipe and the ingredients and the daughters help with the making of the biscuits, although it is a very tedious job, especially in the past when there were only manual tools to work with,” he tells me. “The mother prepares them for the whole family on Eid because it is such a special occasion.” Mohammed’s mother-in law, Nadia, can make several varieties of the biscuits.
When it was time to leave, Mohammed told me that I could come to their house whenever I liked, now that I knew where they lived. His family definitely pulled out all the stops in their attempt to make me feel at ease and I thoroughly enjoyed the warm Arabian hospitality.