Each night this month, up to 5,000 end their fast with kanji in Deira. Arva Ahmed fol­lows the pot-to-pave­ment jour­ney

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With only three hours of sleep since suhour, I am back on the road again. It is 9am on Fri­day and my eye­lids are bro­ken blinds, clum­sily cas­cad­ing down every time I try to tug them back up. It is 33°C out­side, but the heat in­dex has inched closer to an evil 39. I am tired, thirsty, limp and life­less with­out my manda­tory morn­ing chai. The task of track­ing down an in­dus­trial kitchen in the mid­dle of dry and dusty Al Quoz is the fi­nal taste­less icing on the cake. A cake that I can­not eat nev­er­the­less, un­til iftar time at sun­set.

The prepa­ra­tion of iftar for thou­sands of blue-col­lar work­ers has brought me to Al Quoz this morn­ing. Every evening dur­ing Ra­madan, a mass com­mu­nal iftar un­folds on striped plas­tic sufras or dasterkhaans around the Lootah mosque in Deira. Fifty In­dian men from Tamil Nadu un­wit­tingly planted the seed for this ini­tia­tive back in 1976 when they gath­ered around a hum­ble meal funded by their own per­sonal con­tri­bu­tions. Forty years later, their com­mu­nal con­cept has blos­somed to feed 5,000.

Funded by do­na­tions, the iftar is or­gan­ised from pot to pave­ment by the In­dian Mus­lim As­so­ci­a­tion (IMAN Cul­tural Cen­tre) un­der the lead­er­ship of pres­i­dent Habibul­lah and gen­eral sec­re­tary Hameed Yassin. In­di­ans, Pak­ista­nis, Bangladeshis, Ira­ni­ans and peo­ple from across the African con­ti­nent are seated side-by-side on the pave­ment for a taste of the sig­na­ture dish at this iftar – a nour­ish­ing por­ridge called kanji.

Kanji is an iftar spe­cial­ity of the Mus­lims in Tamil Nadu, and the process to make it for a 5,000-per­son com­mu­nal spread be­gins the night be­fore. Us­man Ali, the man­ager on duty, has agreed to show me around the premises in Al Quoz where the kanji has been cook­ing since five in the morn­ing. As I rush into the kitchen to es­cape the mid-morn­ing heat, I am sucked into a suf­fo­cat­ing vor­tex of steam that is bil­low­ing out from the bub­bling vats of por­ridge.

Six cooks have al­ready fin­ished sim­mer­ing one steel vat with a thou­sand servings of kanji us­ing in­gre­di­ents that are prepped and chopped the night be­fore. There are two more hulk­ing pots on the burn­ers, and an­other two still in the queue. They can­not cook ev­ery­thing at once, says Us­man with a cheer­ful­ness that be­lies the op­pres­sive heat in the kitchen, be­cause it would get so hot that the fire alarms would go off.

Most of the cooks and vol­un­teers are fast­ing, but they seem to be feed­ing off a bot­tom­less sup­ply of pa­tience, hu­mil­ity and gen­eros­ity. Heat and hunger aside, their only con­cern is to en­sure that the kanji reaches the mosque in time for iftar. For the past two years of run­ning a Ra­madan ex­pe­ri­ence in Deira with my part­ners Gulf Photo Plus, IMAN has wel­comed our guests to join this com­mu­nity of men. Slip­pers stacked to the side, blue tarp sep­a­rat­ing our bare feet from the hot pave­ment, the per­fume of peeled

oranges heavy in our chests, all of us equal in the eyes of God, we wait in earnest for the azan to re­ver­ber­ate through the steam­ing sun­set skies. Each man ends his fast with a sin­gle serv­ing of water, dates, samosas, oranges, milk and por­ridge – all of which are free, but in­fin­itely more ful­fill­ing than a buf­fet with a price tag.

The kanji that nour­ishes the com­mu­nity is no or­di­nary gruel; this pain­stak­ing pot­tage evolves from a base of sautéed chopped toma­toes, onions, gin­ger­gar­lic paste, whole gar­lic cloves, fresh green co­rian­der, green chill­ies, fenu­greek seeds and cloves. A bucket of split chick­peas, rice and mut­ton is in­verted into the pot, hosed down with drink­ing water and sprayed with stom­ach-cool­ing fen­nel pow­der and whipped yo­gurt.

Over the course of four hours, the tur­bid whirlpool of dis­parate in­gre­di­ents toils to be­come a co­he­sive, creamy, al­mond-white broth with bite-sized morsels of ten­der mut­ton. The cooks splash in a crack­ling mix­ture of in­gre­di­ents that have been tem­pered in ghee – cas­sia bark, car­damom, fen­nel pow­der, ginger-gar­lic paste, gar­lic cloves, yo­gurt and fra­grant curry leaves. There is no canned ev­i­dence of short­cuts in the kitchen; both co­conut milk and lemon juice are freshly squeezed and streamed in for a flavour­ful fi­nale be­fore turn­ing off the burner.

By 11am – or 70kg of mut­ton, 135kg of rice and 35kg of lentils later – over 2,000 litres of kanji are wheeled into a sep­a­rate cool­ing and pack­ing room. Ashraf Ali, an IMAN vet­eran of 28 years, in­structs a vol­un­teer to stir the kanji vig­or­ously so that the mut­ton spreads evenly through the liq­uid, else some con­tain­ers will end up hav­ing all the meat while oth­ers will have only broth. This is not just about feed­ing peo­ple for free, but about serv­ing them with care and dig­nity.

When I ask Ashraf whether he will col­lapse on his bed af­ter he leaves the kitchen today – I cer­tainly will – he laughs. ‘This is not the month for sleep­ing!’ He ex­plains that Ra­madan is about dhikr (re­mem­brance of God), salah (prayer), zakat (alms) and serv­ing oth­ers. Sleep is a con­cept he en­ter­tains only be­tween 11pm and 3am dur­ing Ra­madan. How does he do it? ‘God gives us the en­ergy to serve the peo­ple.’

As I leave the kitchen in Al Quoz, the As­so­ci­a­tion in­sists that I take kanji for my fam­ily. Their gen­eros­ity seems bound­less. My fa­tigue seems petty. As I leave the Sa­ha­ran tem­per­a­tures, I pant out a ques­tion about

A vol­un­teer stirs the kanji so the mut­ton spreads EVENLY, else some con­tain­ers will end up with all the meat. This is not just about feed­ing peo­ple for FREE but about serv­ing them with care and DIG­NITY

whether any­one has mea­sured how hot it might be in the kitchen. Us­man replies word­lessly, with the zen-like smile of a monk who has bliss­fully en­dured what must be 60°C since five in the morn­ing. Stock of kanji in hand and a re­newed un­der­stand­ing of Ra­madan in my heart, I walk back to em­brace the lux­u­ri­ous 39 de­grees out­side.

Men gather out­side Lootah mosque in Deira for a nightly com­mu­nal con­cept that has taken place since 1976

Every morn­ing a small group of men spend hours in steamy tem­per­a­tures cook­ing up the mix­ture of rice, mut­ton, veg­eta­bles, yo­gurt and spices

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