It’s time for majlis!

Joanna Lobo | Updated on July 19, 2019

Be my guest: Many homes in the UAE have at least one room dedicated to the majlis   -  JOANNA LOBO

The Emirati adda, complete with coffee, food and incense, is an integral part of Abu Dhabi’s culture and hospitality

It could be a tea party. But Abu Dhabi is all about coffee. The city also doesn’t believe in wafer-thin watercress sandwiches and scones with clotted cream. It’s early evening when I, along with five fellow travellers, walk into the living room of a two-storey house that’s been done up with high-back chairs and and low tables holding cutlery and dates. A heady fragrance fills the room as I eye the dainty cup before me. That, too, fills up fast — with coffee or gahwa, instead of tea.

The evening, and my first experience of majlis, has just begun.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), many homes have at least one room dedicated to this unique social ritual. The word ‘majlis’ means a meeting place or anywhere people sit together. It is also where the community gathers for discussions on news, catch-ups and storytelling. The majlis is on the Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage — for its role in transmitting oral traditions.

In Abu Dhabi, the second-most populous city in the UAE, there are majlis venues everywhere. It could be in the living room of a house — such as the one I am in — or in an outdoor tented structure. Women usually have their own majlis.

A homely affair

I attend a four-hour majlis hosted by Maitha Essa (27). A tour guide, she lives with her mother, five siblings and cats. We are welcomed at two different entrances — the first is the one used by the family and the second, for the guests, opens into the majlis area. “It is a showcase of our hospitality, which comes down generations from the Bedouin tribe,” Essa says as we settle down on the carpet.

The “most important part” is the serving of Arabic coffee. Essa picks up a pot in her left hand and balances cups (corresponding to the number of guests) in the other. Service is from right to left and the coffee is poured to fill a quarter of the glass. For a refill, I have to hold out the container; a shake from side to side means ‘no more’. “In the olden days, a lot of sensitive information was shared at the majlis, so the server hired for the ritual would be a boy — always the youngest in the gathering — whose hearing was impaired. It explains why the sign language was developed; it also helped ensure there was no break in the conversation,” says Essa.

The server, as expected, remained standing throughout. Before pouring the coffee, she hands out dates in odd numbers (it is believed that Prophet Muhammad ate in odd numbers). The fruit helps cut the bitterness of the brew, which is cloudy and fragrant with spices such as cardamom.

The conversation that accompanies our coffee won’t make history like the majlis of yore, but it is informative and enlightening. Essa is out to break stereotypes about Emirati women and present them as people who are keen on retaining traditions while being open to new ideas.

She works at a health insurance company during the day. At night, she hosts a majlis for tourists who want to learn about Abu Dhabi, its women, culture and customs.

A graduate in humanities and social sciences, Essa is undeterred by the flak she gets for allowing the genders to mingle at these sessions.

For the evening, she is dressed in a mukhawar (gown) embellished with traditional embroidery and a sheyla (a loose headscarf). She explains the role of the majlis in finalising matrimonial alliances. Marriages in Abu Dhabi, like in India, are mostly arranged. And the role of the prospective groom’s mother is crucial to the decision-making. She observes the bridal candidate at a majlis for her etiquette and demeanour while her husband discusses matters related to the wedding date and other formalities with the men in the bride’s family.

A majlis is incomplete without food — required to fuel any debate. We eat seated around a circular handwoven mat made of date palm leaves. I start with a beverage, in the Ramzan tradition — Vimto, a carbonated drink flavoured with rose and berries. The chicken machboos (rice and chicken steamed together) comes with a helping of chicken saloona (a curry). The latter is poured over pastry-like bread till it is soft and mushy.

On a fragrant note

The plates makes way for an elaborate trolley laden with scents, essences and incense. This is another integral part of Emirati hospitality. And a subtle but perfumed hint to the guests that it is time to leave. Essa passes around an incense burner that is filled, in turns, with dkhoon (a mix of musk, rose, amber and sandalwood), oudh and luban (frankincense). She shows us how the smoke is used to perfume clothes and hair.

The fragrance of the oudh remains long after the night is done — a reminder that the takeaways from a good experience do not fade away easily.

Joanna Lobo is a freelance writer based in Mumbai

Published on July 19, 2019

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