NIDA Mohammed drove for more than an hour from Fujairah to Sharjah in the UAE just to buy special Iraqi sweets and juices for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
“Over there [in Fujairah] you can’t find Iraqi stuff,” Mohammed says, as she picks up her order of sharbet zbeeb, or raisin juice, a special Iraqi drink taken to break the day-long fast.
The oil-rich United Arab Emirates is home to more than nine million expatriates who hail from well over 100 countries and form 90 per cent of the population.
During Ramadan, immigrants in the Gulf state reconnect with traditions from their homeland, especially the rituals of breaking fast and taking lots of traditional desserts and juices.
Shops like this help “me remember the country we came from”, says Mohammed, who made the journey with family members and stocked large quantities of Iraqi sweets.
Muslims around the world refrain from eating and drinking, as well as from sex, between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan.
Far away from their homes, many of which are in conflict zones, immigrants still get a taste of their culture from their traditional foods and desserts.
“Every country has its own culture when it comes to their desserts,” especially for Ramadan, says Samer al-Kasir, the Syrian general manager of Al-Sultan sweets in Dubai.
“These sweets here are based on Syrian traditions,” he says, pointing to a mosaic of sweets packaged neatly in a box.
Men, women and children are seen gazing at the array of items on display in glass door fridges – each taking their time before placing their orders.
The owner of the Al-Rabat sweets store where Mohammed was shopping says he opened the business in 2006 to serve the Iraqi community in the UAE.
“Iraqis did not have a special place catering for them, so I opened this place . . . because some of the baking is different to other [Arab]traditions,” says Wesam Abdulwahab.
“Most of our customers are Iraqis. They consider this place one that brings them together. We get our goods from Iraq, stuff that may be difficult to get here.”
For Saad Hussein, the items offered in Al-Rabat coupled with the spirit of Ramadan bring back memories of his childhood, particularly a popular Iraqi game called Mheibes.
In the game, men divided into two groups – traditionally from different neighbourhoods – have to guess which member of the opposing team is hiding a ring, or mahbas in Arabic, in their hand.
“Of course, during the games, Ramadan foods and sweets are distributed,” adds Hussein.
Seemingly out of place, yellow boxes of Jordanian Tutu biscuits are stacked near the register and on the shelves of Al-Rabat.
Abdelwahab says that Tutu, although not Iraqi, represent something significant for his countrymen.
During the Iraqi war in the early 1990s, he explains, the people had little access to sweets from abroad – except for Tutu.
“Tutu was an exceptional treat that brings back memories of enjoyment for Iraqis,” he says.
In Al-Satwa district of Dubai, Ahmed Naveed from Pakistan is standing in front of his family’s shop taking orders for different kinds of samosa – popular in many Asian countries.
Residents from all walks of life, including Emiratis, stood in line on the busy street to get their fried and baked pastries for iftar.
Qudsia Osman, who hails from India, was driving past with her mother when they decided to stop at the shop after being drawn in by the sight and scent of the food.
“It’s very tempting. When we passed by and saw it, we got carried away with this food,” Osman says, adding she is pleased the UAE included an array of communities to cater to the different cultures.
“I was born and brought up in Dubai . . . it is my home,” she says.
Mohammed Shiraz, a Pakistani who has been living in the UAE for nearly 20 years, also considers the emirate his home.
“The UAE caters to the population,” he says, explaining he enjoys the holy month in the Gulf state for all the Ramadan offers and promotions.
But for many, although the UAE has become their new home where they have started new traditions, the taste of home resonates with them.
“In the old days, it wasn’t like now. Food preparations were done at home, including desserts,” Abdelwahab says.
“My mom, of course, used to do it,” he says. “Her food is still better than anything I’ve ever had.”