An international cosine in al-Hilla Market during Ramadan

For Muslims, Ramadan is not only a month of fasting; it is also a month of bringing back the communal traditions that go back for centuries.  In a cosmopolitan city like Riyadh, one can see a variety of such traditions during the holy month.  

The triangular area between al-Medina, al-Russ and al-Hilla streets, which is famous for selling and repairing musical instruments, turns into an international cuisine in Ramadan. People from different nationalities prepare meals in their homes and bring them for sales in that area. There are no organisers behind this temporary market; it just happens.

Idam (a food made of meat and vegetable) and lahooh (a homemade bread) strike the visitor by their variety and good taste. They are eaten together as a main course. Easha, an Ethiopian young woman, told me about the lahooh or ingara as she calls it: “There are two kinds of lahooh, the Ethiopian which is made of grain and the Saudi which is made of wheat. These two are salty ones, but there are other sweet ones that are made of wheat or millet”. 

Her neighbour, a Saudi middle-aged man, sells different kinds of idam. “I have an idam for any nationality,” he told me. A dish of idam costs between five to ten Riyals depending on the ingredients. The price of salty lahooh is two Riyals and three to five for a sweet one.

Sobia reigns queen for drinks. It is a traditional drink known in the western region of Saudi Arabia. It is made of stale bread or barley in addition to raisin, sugar, cardamom and cinnamon. It comes in different colours and flavours. One litter cost ten Riyals for any flavour. I ask Abu-Sami, a sobia-seller, whether he makes sobia or only sells it. He does not like may question because it implies dishonesty, as I understand latter. “No, we do not make it, we bring it from Taif ... There it has production factories licensed by the government. Sobia is a real industry, newspaper articles and books are written about it”, he told me.

There are also small dishes sold by children as appetizers and dessert. Their mothers prepare the dishes at home. This is apparent from the polished containers in which they put the food and the neat and organised way with which they handle their small trade. I asked a small Afghani boy about the source of his merchandise. He said proudly: “my mother makes it at home”. He sells two traditional Afghani cakes (manto and mangish). “The complete dish is five Riyals, two pieces one Riyal. No discount unless you buy too much,'' he insists. 

Despite the crowd and the hot weather, people never lose their benevolence. Even the shopkeepers, whose trade is completely different from food, never get angry with these temporary shoppers and sellers.

Comparing the princes of the meals here with the prices of the normal restaurants, one finds these prices are a bit higher, but who cares. At the end of the day, this happens only in Ramadan and people do not come to this market every day.

Al-Hilla Market provides its visitor with a unique Ramadanic experience.  It brings in one place meals from areas as far as Afghanistan and Nigeria. It also provides many housewives with a small income in addition to showing their skills in preparing the traditional Ramadaic dishes of their own countries. 

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