Art, Sharjah

A Century in Flux at Sharjah Museums

Hamed Ewais (Egypt), 1919-2011, The Protector of Life (oil on canvas)
Image Courtesy: Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

Over 100 art works are on display for a virtual tour at Sharjah Art Museum. ‘A Century in Flux – Chapter II’ the online exhibition can be accessed through the following link: https://bit.ly/2YVSAEd. Launched in collaboration with Barjeel Art Foundation (BAF)  the exhibition also marks the occasion of the International Museums Day, on May 18. On display are 126 art exhibits demonstrating a broad range of styles, techniques, and thematic directions from art practices in Arab countries between the 1880s and 1980s.

The show invites visitors to reflect on the selection strategy, encourages them to pose critical questions and to think about the broader issues of inclusivity. It also aims to question of gender inequality in the art world. “As we become more reliant on technology to help facilitate how people experience art during the current situation. This virtual exhibition will initiate much needed debates beyond the limits of place and time on topics such as that of gender representation in museums that are pertinent and must continue to be emphasized in the curatorial discourse,” said Manal Ataya, Director General of Sharjah Museums Authority. 

Works of prolific artists from the Arab World, including Jewad Selim, Shakir Hassan Al Said, Abdul Qader Al Rais, Etel Adnan, Mona Hatoum, Gazbia Sirry, and other lesser known artists are featured in the second chapter of the exhibition that was first launched last November. 

Menhat Helmy, Egypt 1925-2004, outpatient clinic
Image Courtesy: Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

Art Collector and Founder of BAF, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi noted that the show, which draws together artists from across the Arab World, is a treasure trove of histories, layered political accounts, and of moving reflections on the human condition. 

Nadia Saikali, Lebanon, b 1936, mixed media
Image Courtesy: Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

This initiative is part of SMA’s continuous efforts to reach out and engage members of the public during the Coronavirus lockdown. “We are delighted to offer access locally and globally to everyone generally interested or studying art related topics. The Sharjah Art Museum has always been a museum free and open to all, continuing to bring to its audiences world class exhibitions and an extensive calendar of educational programming. This new iteration of A Century in Flux, will allow our audiences to appreciate and understand the impact of artists and their important role in the development of societies notion of their identity and collective history,” Ataya added. 

Art, Indian Art, Interview

Discovering Historic Phad Art with Smita Aloni

Vibrant, ancient and detailed – are some of the synonyms that describe Phad paintings of Rajasthan, India. Made on a long piece of cloth or canvas called Phad, these paintings depict heroic folk tales of local deities – Pabuji and Devnarayan. The stories on these scroll paintings were inspired from mythological books and were used as mobile temples. Dubai-based phad artist Smita Aloni has been ardently creating this rare and fast dwindling art form for over two decades. She has exhibited her collection of paintings at various art spaces around the world; conducted workshops and taught students. In this interview she speaks about her association with this unique art form and the process behind its creation.

Pabuji The King depicted in a Phad painting

What is the cultural significance of Phad art? Take us back to its historic roots?

Phad art originated around 700 years ago in the Bhilwara region in Rajasthan. These miniature paintings made on scrolls called Phad convey stories of valour of a local king during those times called Pabuji. The phad cloth is used as a visual aid for mobile temples that nomadic tribesmen travelled with while singing songs and narrating stories of Pabuji’s bravery.  Usually a priest — Bhopa  and  his wife Bhopi — would sing these mythological hymns. They used to commission artists from the Joshi family to make the Phad art. Shree Lal  Joshi and his son Kalyan are earnestly carrying on this traditional art form to date.

How did you get associated with Phad art?

In 2001 I got an opportunity to witness a phad painting being made by award-winning artist and my guru Kalyan Joshi. I was intensely attracted to the colour and style of the painting and instantly  decided to learn and pursue this art form. I consider myself still a student forever uncovering various facets of these paintings.

Tell us about the unique artistic format of Phad painting, materials used and style of art?

Phad art follows a unique style. From the canvas to the traditional colours  everything is made by the artist. For the canvas a white cotton cloth is soaked overnight in cold water and kept for drying during the morning. While it is still moist, it is dipped into a homemade starch solution (made from flour and water) and then left to dry in bright sunlight. The cloth is then stretched and one part of it is polished with smooth glass to produce a shiny texture. Once this canvas is ironed from the opposite end it is ready to be painted on.

All the colors that we use are natural and derived from stones such as red clay to make the colour brown and indigo for blue. Due to non-availability of natural stones and colours we now also paint with synthetic colours.  Creating a phad painting takes years of practice and patience. It’s important to also have a steady hand in line drawing.

Share with us a repertoire of your work and artistic milestones?

My journey with Phad art has seen a steady growth in the last two decades. I developed my artistic skills not only by actively painting and practising the art but also by teaching art in schools. While living in Qatar, from 2001 to 2017, I participated in various exhibitions and workshops. Dubai too offers a fantastic platform to artists. In a short period of time being in Dubai since 2018 I have participated in several exhibitions including World Art in 2019 and the Hotel Show, 2019. I have received a great response for my Phad paintings from the artist community in Dubai. One of my biggest milestones was representing Phad on the international platform at the Pechakucha Art Festival, Doha, in 2005. The response to my art at this festival was phenomenal.

Did you always train to be an artist? What does art mean to you?

I have done post graduation in chemistry and had not trained to become an artist. But right from my childhood I was inclined towards painting and drawing. My mother was very supportive and encouraged me in my creative pursuits. Art for me an expression of myself and the me-time that I spent doing what I am passionate about.

What has been your most memorable artistic experience to date?

That would be when I participated in the ArtShopping Expo exhibition in Louvre, Paris in 2019. I received an amazing response from art lovers, fellow painters, curators and art critics for my paintings.

Where are the challenges in keeping this art form alive and what are your own professional plans?

Traditional Phad cloth is about five meters of scroll which is not affordable for most buyers. It is also difficult to display it, so now it is available in smaller sizes. To keep this tradition alive is our responsibility. I do it by practising the art, by teaching it to the younger generations and also by supporting local craftsmen by buying phad art. As today there are several cheaper options for art available people tend to sway towards them forgetting that such handmade art represents our valuable culture. So, in future I plan to tie-up with craftsmen, who engage in handmade traditional crafts to help them sustain their skills and livelihood.

Take us through a day in your life? 

My day is almost the same, follows a routine, except when I am travelling, sounds quite boring but I like it that way. I wake up early around 4: 45 am to walk my dog, to do yoga and pranayama. Besides cooking I love gardening along with my cat and dog pottering around. I have also recently started learning Hindustani classical music, so I practice that every day religiously and of course painting on phad is the most essential part of my day.

More about Smita and her work on her website: https://www.smitaaloni.com/

Art, Sharjah

Worlds from the Imagination at Sharjah Art Musuem

‘Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale’ was coined by the man who gave the world some of the most iconic stories of our times. Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, published 169 fairy tales in his lifetime, and gave us the fascinating tales of The Ugly Duckling, Wild Swans, The Tinder Box, Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen and many more. Each story comes with a metaphor and has life lessons that are relevant even today. From The Ugly Duckling we learn about the pain of rejection, bullying and eventually self acceptance. The Little Mermaid opens our eyes about the pitfalls of making deals. The Emperor’s New Clothes exposes the king’s vanity and his hypocrisy.

Paying ode to Andersen’s fairy tales is a two month long exhibition titled Worlds from the Imagination at the Sharjah Art Museum. Hosted in collaboration with the UAE Board on Books For Young People (UAEBBY) the exhibition runs till 30th May. On display are artistic replicas of characters and settings from his stories with interactive quotes and pop-ups.

Wings from the Wild Swans
The rose from Thumbelina
The Princess’ Bed from The Princess and The Pea
Ariel’s tail from The Little Mermaid
Quote from Ole Luk Oie
Paper cut outs
Paintings of the stories
Books, Dubai Events

Dubai prison inmates stories at Emirates Lit Fest

Emirates Literature Festival Press Conference

Tomorrow, I will Fly — a book of essays written by Dubai prison inmates will be launched at the Emirates Literature Festival, to be held from February 4 to 9, 2020. The book, a ground-breaking venture is the culmination of a two-year long collaboration with the Dubai Police and a year-long project with authors Clare Mackintosh and Annabel Kantaria. Both authors worked with inmates to help them pen their stories. The title of the book, Annabel said, was inspired by a Ugandan inmate who flew only once in her lifetime, the day she came to Dubai.

Intense creative writing workshops helped male and female inmates to process their own emotions and experiences through words. The collection of essays and personal reflections, all on the topic of Tomorrow, were collated in an anthology. To be launched on February 6 at the Penal and Correctional Institutions in Dubai, it will enable the writers involved to read their work aloud and celebrate their achievements among their peers. The book is also an attempt to help them harness their skills to acquire job opportunities once they complete their sentence.

‘’Words are extremely powerful tools. They can change people, and shape how we view the world and who we will become,” said Ahlam Bolooki, festival director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. “Tomorrow, I Will Fly” is a truly ground-breaking initiative for the UAE. It is humbling to be able to creatively support inmates in Dubai and through this project, make a difference to their lives.” At the conference she also announced that over 31 literary festival directors will be attending the festival and that there will be a 50 per cent increase in the number of free events and activities that the public can attend.

Dubai Food, Middle East Culture

Making Gazan Dukka with Mirna Bamieh

Gazans are noted to be resilient but little is known about their rich culinary tradition. Ironically, years of living under occupation has dispossessed the Palestinian kitchen resulting in several ingredients and recipes disappearing from dinner tables. The Palestinian Hosting Society founded in 2017 by Mirna Bamieh, an artist and cook, aims to reconstruct some of these lost recipes through food walks and shared meal tables.

In keeping with her collective’s tradition of food art displays Mirna brought alive the Gazan Dukka — a traditional Palestinian recipe eaten dipped in olive oil at the Jameel Arts Center in Dubai last week. Also called the ‘soil of the Gazans’ because of its colour, the Dukka is essentially a mix of roasted ingredients pound together.

To make the Dukka Mirna mixed half a kilo of powdered wheat kernels into a large bowl . The kernels had been roasted in a thick bottomed pan on low heat. To this she added roasted and crushed brown lentils, dil seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and sesame. Mixing them liberally together Mirna added some salt, summac, lemon salt and lots of red chili flakes as the Gazans like their Dukka hot.

The interactive picnic concluded with small takeaways jars of Dukka and a tasting session where we savoured it with an assortment of bread, cheese and salads with ladles of olive oil. The Dukka recipe seemed easy and very similar to the Indian style of chutney powder mix especially due to the strong aroma of roasted cumin and coriander seeds.

According to the UN over 5 million Palestinians are living as refugees today. Restrictions over food and water resources and wild plant foraging has not only damaged the richness of Palestinian cuisine but it also taken away the identity of the Palestinians’ role as a host.

Mirna’s collective reactivates Palestinian recipes through public tables. After an intensive research period the Palestinian Hosting collective creates a menu that is shared over one long table for 50-60 guests. To date, the collective has created several such tables including — ‘Family Dinners’, ‘Our Nabulsi Table’, ‘Our Jerusalem Table’, The Old City of Jerusalem, a table, a tour and a map’, ;The Wheat Feat and ‘The Edible Wild Plants table’.

Some of the disappearing Palestinian recipes and ingredients that Mirna showcased in a talk before the Dukka demonstration included — the red tahini, rich with a nutty flavour, its ingredients are roasted on fire for close to 8 o 11 hours; rolled cyclamen leaves with rice and meat stuffing; a bitter almond drink, carob bseseh are roasted semolina balls mixed with carob molasses and sesame and Malateet an ancient printed bread depicting circles symbolising rain droplets when they first touch the soil. More details of several such interesting recipes can be found on Mirna’s page https://www.palestinehostingsociety.com/.

Uncategorized

From Pietrasanta to Dubai

Stefano Bombardieri

The historic medieval town of Pietrasanta in Tuscany, Italy, is famous for its marble and bronze workshops. Artists and sculptors have lived and worked across centuries in Pietrasanta since the time of Michelangelo. Some of the well-known sculptures and artworks from this artistic town are now on display at the newly opened OBLONG Contemporary Gallery in Dubai.

Located in Bluewaters Island, OBLONG Gallery was inaugurated under the patronage of His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan Mubarak Al Nahayan, Cabinet Member, Minister of Tolerance, UAE. The debut exhibition titled The Nascence showcases the works of Igor Mitoraj, Stefano Bombardieri, Pablo Atchugarry, Robert Indiana, Gustavo Velez, Helidon XhiXha and Jimenez Deredia, to name a few. For most of these artists, Pietrasanta has played a significant role in the development of their artistic careers. 

Jimenez Deredia

Founded by three women entrepreneurs — Mara Firetti, Emanuela Venturini and Paola Marucci — whose love for art brought them together, OBLONG aims to create a platform for cross-cultural exchange between Italy and the UAE. The gallery’s name was derived from the ‘oblong’ shape, which comes from three other shapes; a square, a circle and a rectangle. Firetti, Marucci and Venturini described the shape as a representation of their different backgrounds and characters.  The gallery will host workshops, educational initiatives and a cross-cultural art exchange programme between the two cities .

Igor Mitoraj

“I believe art is an instrument for social and cultural integration through which differences between cultures are merged. The UAE is becoming the centre of art in the Middle East, thanks to the vision of its respective leaders who have embraced art in different ways. The country is home to more than 200 nationalities who have individual preference for art, and I am thrilled about the contribution that the opening of OBLONG Contemporary Gallery will make.  I envision it to bolster the art scene in Dubai and the UAE through the different exhibitions, workshops and activities that we will offer,” says Marucci, who has lived in Pietrasanta for the past 20 years.

Art, Dubai Events, Middle East Culture

Learning Palestinian tatreez with Joanna Barakat

A few tomes on Palestinian embroidery are placed strategically across the long table. I open one of them, a page where a pink slip was used as a bookmark, the headline here reads – ‘Embroidery under military occupation’.  

It’s mid-afternoon and as I sit leafing through the book, the other chairs in the conference room of Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, slowly fill in with a diverse group of enthusiastic women, who like me had signed up a few days ago for this Palestinian tatreez embroidery workshop with artist Joanna Barakat.

Born in Jerusalem, Joanna’s family moved to the United States when she was only a year old. So, according to her tatreez (Arabic for embroidery) was part of her growing up years only in the form of nostalgia sewn on cushion covers at home. Yet for people in Palestine, tatreez was one of the finest art forms intrinsic to village life, passed on through generations. During war and displacement it took on a new meaning as women kept it alive in refugee camps. The creativity of the art form provided a calming effect to them. It was also used as a weapon against the occupation when embroiders stitched motifs of the Palestinian flag on clothes.

Joanna, who is also the co-founder of The Tatreez Circle in the UAE, begins her workshop with a presentation on tatreez styles across Palestine before 1948. Each region, it seems had a distinctive embroidery pattern. In Bethlehem embroiders used to follow a unique couching format. As the area had several traders and merchants, their embroidery styles reflected the influence they carried from their travels. The region was synonymous with heavy embroidery on long sleeves and geometric patterns woven on silk wedding dresses called Malak.

On the other hand Ramallah was well-known for the cross stitch embroidery pattern. Dresses from this region were sewn with a wine-red cross stitch. Jerusalem interestingly had both couching and cross-stitch tatreez patterns.

The designs depicted the socio-economic status of the people and the motifs they sewed were influenced by their daily life. Famous for their native oranges, embroiders in Jaffa, for instance, stitched orange blossom patterns. Natural dyes using indigo were woven on dresses to ward off the evil eye. The hems of long dresses worn by Bedouin women were stitched with dark blue embroidery. If they remarried they added bursts of red along with the blue to showcase joy back in their lives.

Post the historic Nakba in 1948, however, these distinct embroidery styles became a mishmash of patterns drawn from each region to become universally known as Palestinian tatreez.

This informative presentation was followed by the actual workshop that involved some real stitching and sewing. Each participant was given a kit with a needle, a meshed cloth and a tatreez pattern. The goal was to learn to sew a cypress tree motif from either — the Hebron style, Beersheba, Gaza, Ramallah or Jaffa areas.

Joanna showed us that to maintain an easy grip on the thread the length of the yarn should be only as long as one’s hand. She quickly measured a red thread and effortlessly put it through the needle and showed us a simple cross stitch pattern. We could choose a style we wanted to follow and stitch on.

Cypress tree embroidery motifs from different Palestinian cities

Only it wasn’t as easy as it looked. As women around me were sewing cypress trees with their nimble fingers I was still struggling to put the thread through the eye of the needle. Exasperated after a few failed attempts I took the assistance of the skilled lady next to me. Then funnily enough went on to sew a motif that nowhere resembled the ones synonymous to Palestine. Amused at her errant student Joanna readily offered to resew it so that I could start afresh. In reality the most fitting outcome of the workshop for me was not stitching the embroidery but going back richer with insights on the tradition and history of tatreez.

Art, Dubai Events, Interview

Connecting art and history

Sadaqar P Q (1)

Driving through the scenic roads of Fujairah on family holidays Sadaqat Pervaiz often stopped enroute to admire the historic Al Bidiya Mosque. The diminutive rock and mud structure known as the oldest existing house of worship in the emirates held a special place in his heart. Over the years he captured its rustic charm by clicking innumerable pictures till the artist in him decided to pay the ultimate ode to his muse with strokes of paint on a canvas.

The allure of portraying a slice of the bygone era through his art led him to paint a number of historical sites of the UAE. Curated as part of his Heritage Collection these paintings will be showcased in his upcoming solo art exhibition – Back to Basics – at Gallery 76 in Dubai International Art Centre from June 22 to 29, 2019. Forty incredible artworks from Sadaqat’s collection will be on display. Besides Al Bidiya five other heritage sites are part of the exhibition. These include the Al Bastakiya Mosque, which was first established at the end of the 19th century by textile and pearl merchants, the Al-Hayl Castle, once used as the headquarters for Fujairah’s ruling family, Al Jazirah Al Hamra — an old abandoned town in Ras Al Khaimah considered by experts to be one of the best places to study traditional coral-stone architecture, the Khor Kalba Village and the iconic RAF Sharjah

Al Hayl Castle
Al Hayl Castle

Well known as a celebrated landscape artist in his native Pakistan, Sadaqat has lived in the UAE for over two decades. A deep appreciation of the local culture and the untouched nature of the historical sites of the UAE inspired Sadaqat to paint them. “It was almost like stepping back in time and that feeling is what I hoped to convey through my paintings. There is no shortage of inspiration in the UAE as all the seven emirates have a wealth of historic sites.”

He believes in using art as a form of documentation to preserve culture and history. “History is a bridge to the past and art is a bridge to connecting with people. Both leave you feeling like you have learned something valuable with a new appreciation and outlook towards life,” says Sadaqat.

Photography is an integral part of his artistic process. “Often the journey begins when I hear about a site from someone or find it over the Internet. After I drive to the location, I carefully examine the details and take several shots of the forts and castles from different angles. Unfortunately, as much as I would like to most of the places do not have conditions that permit one to paint on site. So, the photos I click become the premise for most of my paintings,” he says.

Al Bastakiya Mosque
Al Bastakiya Mosque

Through his art he hopes to draw attention to the incredible historical restoration work done in the UAE. Most of all, he wants to ignite a desire in people to visit some of these locations, to learn more about them and then share their experiences.

Al Jazirah Al Hamra
Al Jazirah al Hamra

Born in 1956 in Wazirabad, Pakistan, Sadaqat grew up in an art inspired environment. His father, a government officer, was also a water colour artist. This early encouragement led him to pursue a formal art education in the National College of Arts in Lahore. Under the mentorship of a famous landscape artist Sadaqat developed a distinct personal style.

But family circumstances paved way for him to move to Sharjah in 1991. Soon after he took on the job of an art director at the Expo Centre in Sharjah. For the next 18 years he spear headed the formation of the company’s first art department. It was only when both his children completed their education he felt it was time to go back to art.

Water colours and oil paints are his preferred medium today. “Sometimes I like to experiment with charcoals, chalk and coloured paper. But most of my landscapes are in water colour and some of my portraits are in charcoal and chalk,” he points out.

Back to Basics is Sadaqat’s first solo exhibition in Dubai at DIAC from June 22 to 29, 2019.

Art, Interview

An insight into the art of Khalid Mezaina

Bold illustrations showcasing contemporary and culturally-inspired designs is the forte of Emirati artist Khalid Mezaina’s work. Centered around local traditions his art largely includes hand-drawn elements. He has a Bachelor’s degree in visual communication from American University of Sharjah and a Master’s in textiles from Rhode Island School of Design, USA. Khalid is an independent artist, illustrator and graphic designer, who has participated in several exhibitions and has some iconic projects to his credit. In 2016, he was commissioned by ADMAF (Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation) to create a series of illustrations called cafeterias of the UAE, depicting a slice of the vibrant shawarma shops and cafeteria culture in the emirates. At Jam Jar, in Al Serkal Avenue, he presented a project on talismans. With Sharjah Art Foundation he curated a workshop called Tapestries exploring the trends and history of tapestries in Sharjah’s old textile souk. From illustrating the walls of a music store in a mall to his  textile project on wearable capes Khalid’s artistic vision is diverse and deeply personal.

At the recent Ramadan Flow Talk series Khalid shared his work and his thoughts on what went behind their creation. Here is an excerpt from the interview he gave me for middleeastmasala.

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What does art mean to you?

I think art is about having something to say and also speaking to anyone out there that shares the same sentiments as you.

How would you describe your style of work?

I would describe my style of work as illustrative. I illustrate things that I see, things that interest me or things that I would like to talk about.

Is there a common artistic thread that we can find in your designs?

I like to incorporate something hand drawn in all my work. Everything starts as a hand drawing which is then scanned and enhanced digitally. Be it an artwork for exhibition purpose, a design for a pattern layout, or work for a client — everything starts with a hand drawing in my sketchbook.

wind towers
Traditional Wind Towers

Do you feel it’s time we broke stereotypical representations of the region in art — for instance the overuse of lanterns and camels?

There is a common tendency to appropriate or recycle stereotypical visuals to depict the region. For it to be less predictable, I think the challenge is figuring out a way to use these common motifs and imagery in a fresh way. I personally do not mind the use of certain imagery that is a direct representation of the culture or region we’re in. I just think what makes something stand out is not copying something that’s already been done before.

How do you represent iconic cultural motifs of the Emirates through your art?

I create work that represents my experiences of belonging to the Emirates. I try to create visuals that are contemporary and relevant to the times so that my work does not look redundant or appear to be similar to what something someone has seen before. Artists do tend to fall in this trap where they use certain motifs the same way. I hope my use of cultural motifs represent a different perspective that is based on my understanding of what it means to be from the Emirates, which can be a unique take compared to others.

shops
Shops in the emirates

Take us through the journey of documenting the designing of the ‘cafeterias of the UAE’ project that you did for Abu Dhabi Music and Art foundation in 2016. ‘Cafeterias of the UAE’ was an illustration series for ADMAF’s 2016 exhibition ‘Portrait of a Nation’. The exhibit showcased different perspectives of the United Arab Emirates through the works of the selected artists. I thought a perfect idea to represent the Emirates was through the cafeterias found all over the country. Emiratis, expats and everyone in between flock to these cafeterias daily for an affordable sandwich, a humorously titled juice, or a plastic cup of sugared, steaming hot chai. These cafeterias are iconic structures in the UAE’s cultural and urban landscape. The final result was a series of six illustrated cafeterias that caught my attention as I drove around finding them.

cafeterias
Cafeterias of the UAE

What are your favourite cafeterias in town — any childhood memories that make them special?

I do not have a favourite cafeteria. But the word cafeteria instantly brings a flood of memories from high school and university days, when my friends and I would walk or drive to one close by after classes, to get a quick (affordable) bite to eat and chat together.

What are your current projects?

In the lead up to summer, I am trying to take things easy. It has been a year since I moved back home after completing my master’s and I have been mainly occupied with commissioned work and client based projects. Now I would like to be playful in the studio to experiment and work on projects for myself. I am currently completing a couple of client based illustrations including a mini comic with a friend. I am also scheduled to teach a series of workshops for young creatives at Tashkeel and Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and at Warehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi.

Lastly, what do you want people to take away from your art?

Honestly, at the end of the day, I hope the audience would relate to my work in some way. I hope it would make people connect to the stories or narratives conveyed through them, they would relate to the messages shared, and feel happy and positive.

Khalid blogs at http://khalidmezaina.blogspot.com/. His brand Krossbreed has a range of t-shirts, prints and stationary.

Dubai Food, Glorious Food, Memories, Outdoors

Savouring Arabic sweets at Al Samadi

“Two overjoyed kids in a candy store!” that’s what we transformed into as we pushed open the glass door of Al Samadi sweet shop in Deira. Surrounded by trays full of sweet treats in all hues, oozing appetizing aromas, it was overwhelming to make an appropriate choice to begin our sugary adventure. So, we hopped from one end of the store to the other, curiously absorbing each colourful detail of the Middle eastern delicacies on display, asking the patient Filipina shop attendant for their names, toppings and ingredients. This conversation opened a window to the several unique Arabic desserts I had never heard of, let alone tasted.

Now here I have to confess that I have never been a big fan of baklava and kunafa, the most common Arabic desserts laid out in iftar meals and in Middle eastern restaurant menus. But I have enjoyed eating milk based puddings — Umm Ali and Mahalabia. That is why we started our culinary trip at Al Samadi — with the familiar bowl of Mahalabia — only this one was covered generously with sliced pistachios, slivers of almonds, topped with cream and cherry and looked more like the pastry version of Mahalabia.

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Creamy and crunchy, we savoured each spoonful of the milk dessert made by boiling corn starch mixed with flavoured milk. Interestingly the dessert gets its name from a seventh century Arab general called Al Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra . The general was served the milk pudding by his Persian cook and he liked it so much that he named it after himself. It is today a popular dessert in all the Middle Eastern countries. My first memory of eating Mahalabia was in a street shop in Cairo, a much simpler version topped only with powdered cardamom and pistachios.

The bowl of Mahalabia was accompanied by a cream filled Ghraybeh. These melt in the mouth Middle eastern butter cookies are a staple all year around, but at Al Samadi, the shortbread came with a rich filling of cream, making it a mix of crumbly and sweet squishy when eaten. Well-known in the middle east Ghraybeh has a string of variant pronunciations and diverse ingredients — in Iran it is called qurabiye and is made with almond flour, sugar, egg whites, margarine and pistachios. In Morocco it is made with semolina and goes by the name Ghoriba. It is also an equally popular tea time snack and dessert in Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Greece. This Lebanese version was filled with cream, unique to the country called kashta or ashta. Made by boiling milk with a tinge of rose or orange blossom, kashta is a local delicacy and used as a filling for many other desserts. At al Samadi most of the sweets, specially made for Ramadan, were filled with kashta.

sweets

Here they look appetizing as toppings on kunafas and inside qatayefs (the d-shaped folded desserts in the picture). Qatayefs, I discovered, are specially made during Ramadan in many Arab countries. They can have various fillings — including unsalted cheese or an assortment of nuts, are usually fried and coated with sugar syrup or drizzled with powdered sugar.

The kunafa, of course, is more well-known and comes in several shapes and colours. A historic sweet delicacy from the Levant region it is made with  phyllo pastry dough and also with semolina. Layered with cheese, cream and nuts kunafas are soaked in sugar syrup. At Al Samadi there were trays full of kunafas, pictured above is the popular bird’s nest (also called osh al bulbul) kunafa filled with ashta and topped with nuts. For this a stringy version of the kunafa dough is used. And for that bright orange colour confectioners add food dye in the kunafas.

In this sweet paradise the most delicious of all desserts turned out to be the mafruka.

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Very similar to the kunafa the mafruka is a Lebanese dessert made with crushed pistachio dough, clotted cream and semolina. It was buttery soft, moist and heavenly.

A visit to an arabic sweet shop is incomplete without tasting the baklava. So iconic is the baklava to the Middle East that its origin and invention is widely debated and claimed by several nations in the region.

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The crunchy sweet treat is made by layering phyllo pastry dough and chopped nuts, drenched in a sticky sugar syrup. It is typically prepared in large trays and then sliced into different shapes. For the baklava lover Al Samadi has quite a wide range — one of their most popular is the bukaj baklava — it looks like a purse or a parcel (bukaj in Arabic) and is stuffed with pistachios, pine nuts or cashews. The Borma baklava is cylindrical in shape and is made with stringy kunafa dough and nuts. Cashews crushed inside phyllo dough shaped as fingers are called Asabi and chopped pistachios sandwiched between layers of kunafa dough become Basma.

There is quite a staggering variety of Arabic desserts at Al Samadi. There is enough to try one sweet every day of the month, spoken like a true dessert fan. Originally established in Lebanon in 1872 the store today has branches in Ukraine, UK and in the UAE. We hope to come back soon for more luscious times.