Last night I was lucky enough to be a guest for my very first Emirati iftar. It speaks to how private Emiratis are that I have lived here for more than two years and this was the first time I have crossed into one of their private homes. (Perhaps it also speaks to my laziness and trepidation, but definitely not lack of interest) It's just not easy, is all. And it was an event organised through work, so the whole thing is even a bit more shameful. When it comes to meeting and befriending Emiratis, I have failed miserably. But moving on from here: last night was lovely lovely lovely. Of course the men and women socialised and ate separately; we said goodbye to our colleagues on the street. Once inside we were led into a gorgeous majlis with the biggest carpet I have ever seen. It was a massive room, filled with four couches, four settees, eight or so chairs, plush and peach coloured, arranged around the outside of the room with pillows placed just so. After a bit of a group discussion we all decided to take off our shoes (I was strongly opposed to this idea, being a vehement opponent of taking my shoes off at any location, but I didn't think it was the time or the place) and sat down, having water, a few dates and a bit of Arabic coffee. I snuck this picture, which makes the cup look much larger than it is.
Then one of the family's sisters came in to meet us and someone asked if we should wear our shoes. "Yes," she said simply, and I although I felt like saying "I told you so", of course I did not. We were led into a dining room beside a table of food that rivaled a five-star hotel buffet. I tried to be conservative at the beginning, but by the end my plate was piled high with arabic bread, meat, hummus, and a delicious Moroccan phyllo pastry concoction in which I detected cinnamon. I also tried harisa, which is an Arabic meat porridge I would recommend enjoying in small amounts until you get used to it. There were two duelling harisas there, made by sisters who each claimed theirs was the best. I stayed out of that debate. Juice was served with dinner, and along the middle of the table were big dishes of more food, including a giant leg of something peeking out from under cover of flatbread.
Unfortunately I was seated away from the ladies of the house, and although I strained to eavesdrop on their conversation, I could not hear much and for that I am still a bit sorry. Afterwards we went back in the big room where there was tea and an assortment of individually wrapped desserts. I had some tiramisu, which I was pleased to discover is also delicious without kahlua. And I don't know why this surprised me, but the only family photos on the walls were of men. I spoke about this and one of my colleagues said there would be no women pictured in case men came over. And I thought, nowhere?And of course, somewhere on the property, in another majlis, a group of men were laughing and smoking shisha. As we were leaving I told one of our hosts that she would have to come to my house for lasagna and she laughed (and although polite, I suspected I should not belabour the point). Then she said she liked my dress, which made me happy. It's the universal way women can bond, isn't it? What do men say to each other? 'I like your beard?' There were kids running around, laughing, full of beans, and another of the sisters was telling a story about having a baby last year. I had so many questions (do you ever have dinner together?what are you going to do now?is it big like this every night?did you really want us here?what are you going to do with all the leftover food?when do the kids go to bed? what do you sleep in?what's upstairs?how many staff?does everyone have a refrigerator in their dining room?do you think we are silly because we took our shoes off?what are you going to say about us when we are gone?do any of you watch Oprah?do you think she has gotten ridiculous as well?what's in that cosy-looking room back there?what do you eat for breakfast?) but was too worried any – and all – would be inappropriate. Still and all, it was a fantastic experience and for it I am very grateful.