Saturday, August 04, 2012

Ramadan Majlis and Suhoor

Wednesday 1st August, a day of many meanings: almost two weeks into the holy month of Ramadan, a full moon day that marks the celebration of Asalha Puja in the Thai Calendar, and a date designated Friendship Day in South Asia.  So it seemed fitting that on this day I had the opportunity to attend my first Majlis in Qatar - majlis means assembly, essentially somewhere people gather and settle or sit down.  From what I hear, the traditional usage connotes meeting to share and exchange, to discuss in council, but it is used more informally for any social gathering around some activity - for example, I was told about a "Playstation majlis"(!)

Shortly before 10pm I arrived at my destination, a house in a residential area not very far from the hotel.  I was led into the entrance hallway by the youngest member of the household, where I took off my shoes before being shown into the Majlis.  Gathered together in a very spacious lounge were friends and relations of the host, mainly Qataris, all in thobes.  Not having experienced anything quite like this, I was content mainly just to observe the process: a wonderful flowing movement of people arriving, exchanging and then departing.   When a guest arrives, everyone stands up and the guests goes round to exchange introductions with each one and they take their seat followed by everyone else; similarly, when leaving everyone stands, there is a farewell to each person, and departure.

Reclining in plush sofas that lined on all sides, conversations were relaxed with lots of gesturing and good humour.  They would sometimes be plenary and then tail off and evolve into smaller groups where interests were shared more closely, until the next guest arrived ... and the dialogue would be reconfigured automatically - networking par excellence!  There was provided a continuous supply of hot beverages and fresh dates; drinks were served in small containers, alternating between Arabic [Al-Qahwa] coffee in ceramic cups, and tea in Arabian glasses with very small handles near the base.  For the coffee, I had already read in The Middle East Unveiled about the custom of taking 2 to 3 cups, and shaking the cup to decline a further top-up, but evidently I shook too gently the first time, as more was served.  From then on I shook more vigorously (with the desired result)!

There were people from many walks in life to share and engage in wide-ranging topics covering the arts and culture, business and current affairs.  Of course most of the conversation was in Arabic, so I was fortunate in having the youngest son explain some basic aspects to me whilst his father occasionally summarised some of the main conversation.   However, I was encouraged to undertake intensive study of Arabic, over maybe 2-3 months, so that I could in particular read the Koran in the original.

The lounge conversations continued for about a couple of hours before the remaining guests were ushered into the dining room for Suhoor, the last meal taken before undertaking the coming day's fast.  It's well known back in the UK that Muslims provide excellent hospitality around food and it is instilled with special significance at this time.  I was informed that for the family you lay out only what you need, but for guests there should be laid out a banquet; food should be more than what's needed and guests should be allowed to keep going back for more, as much as they wish.

It was also explained to me that whereas Iftar is a substantial and quite heavy meal, Suhoor is lighter, here comprising salads, vegetables, fish and a bit of chicken, and a few desserts such as sagu; all were delicious.  They had been prepared by a Sri Lankan cook, and also included a special round savoury pancake (no eggs) that was proudly claimed as unique in Doha [the claim for uniqueness is common]!   At least there was some indication to back this up - on a previous occasion one of the guests had put one in his pocket, taken it to his head chef, who confessed they didn't know how to make it.

After about an hour conversations switched back to the lounge and quite soon after it was time to return.  I wasn't to leave empty-handed, though, as I was given an instruction: "Now you fast until Iftar...!"

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