Um Ali is arguably the most popular dessert to come out of Egypt. The story of its beginnings is as rich and colourful as the dessert itself. Raja Karthikeya writes about Um Ali and how it made its way into his life in the month of Ramadan many years ago.
In July 2006, as a young sales manager in Cairo representing an Indian IT company, I was finding my feet in the complex world of international business. Maher and Radi were CTOs of two of Egypt’s largest banks, and my clients. They were powerful men who featured on the covers of business magazines, and controlled the chambers of commerce. But they were also bitter business rivals locked in a game of one-upmanship.
When Ramadan came, I went to extend my greetings to each of them. They thanked me, and in a gesture of legendary Egyptian hospitality, offered me tea despite fasting themselves. I politely declined and revealed that I too was fasting. When asked why, I explained that Ramadan meant a time for reflection to me; a time to find inner strength and peace. Ramadan was not about the differences between those who felt obliged to fast and those who don’t. It was about celebrating one-ness, and I felt at home enough in Egypt to identify with the Cairenes among whom I lived. And I was young enough to not worry about being judged.
A few days later, I received a phone call from Maher to meet him at the Aga Khan park at sunset. I walked into the open-air bistro in the park expecting a business meeting. But I saw Maher at a table on the edge of the hill, and with him, Radi. I was pleasantly surprised. We shook hands and sat down.
As the sun began to set over the sprawl of old Cairo lined with minarets, a cannon roared from the adjacent ancient citadel of Salah Din - a Ramadan tradition instituted two centuries ago. The call to prayer rose from the mosque of Mohammed Ali pasha and in an unending relay of prayer, the voices of hundreds of muezzins joined in from every minaret in this city of a thousand mosques. The sight of the crimson sun bathing the sandstone of Al Azhar University, and the lyrical calls to prayer filled the ether and held me in thrall.
Maher offered me a plate of Nubian dates. Radi ordered us lentil soup served in a hollowed loaf of ciabatta bread. Appetisers or muqbilat, as they’re known in Arabic, were brought to the table - mutabbal (crushed grilled eggplant with a dash of olive oil and garnished with pomegranate seeds), hommus (the popular dip made from chickpeas and sesame) and tabouleh (shredded parsley mixed with tomatoes and a dash of lime juice). The entrée was an Egyptian classic, shish tawouk, marinated chicken grilled over an open flame much like a shish kebab. But the best was yet to come - the quintessential Egyptian dessert, Um Ali, served with a dollop of history.
It was presented grandly in an ornamental silver bowl. Consisting of layered puff pastry filled with raisins and almonds, topped with pistachio in a bed of hot buffalo milk, Um Ali is the best seller at my neighbourhood café in Zamalek. As we dug in, I wondered out loud at the strangeness of its name. Um Ali was clearly the name of a woman; in Egypt, married women take on the name of their first-born son. So Um Ali literally translated to "Mother of Ali.”
Maher replied with a smile, “Not a strange name, just a strange history.” He then recounted a tale of love and intrigue unlike any other.
“Shajar al-Durr was the queen of a Mamluk sultan. Some say she was from Turkey, some say she was Armenian. Wherever she was from, she was beautiful, canny and ambitious. She had her husband, the sultan, murdered to ascend the throne herself. She was unpopular and tyrannical but none could raise their voice against her. As the legend goes, Shajar al-Durr took on a lover, a married man whose wife, Um Ali, was understandably unhappy but came to terms with the situation for her husband’s safety. Before long, however, her lover became drunk with power and began to act like a mini-monarch. Shajar al-Durr would not tolerate this; she had him imprisoned and executed.
When Um Ali received the news, she was heartbroken. She had accepted her husband deserting her for his queen, but never imagined that she and her son, Ali, would lose him forever. Filled with grief and anger, she stormed into the queen’s palace and found Shajar al-Durr bathing in the royal swimming pool. Placed along the edge of the water were the queen's wooden clogs. Blinded by rage, Um Ali picked them up and waded into the water, and clobbered the queen to her death with her own shoes. The palace guards, too stunned to respond, let Um Ali walk free out of the palace. Drenched in blood and water, she walked through the streets of Cairo, into her home, and shut the doors behind her. News of the assassination spread through the city, and a growing mob gathered outside her home. The air filled with nerve-wracking expectation. A few short hours later, Um Ali threw open her doors and stepped out into the street. She held in her hands a large cauldron filled with rice pudding. “Come, people of Cairo," she said. "Let us celebrate. The tyrant is dead.” And with that, every Cairene shared 'Um Ali’s delicacy,' thanking her for the end of Shajar al-Durr.”
Maher’s tale fascinated me. Although historical accounts of Shajar al-Durr’s end differ, the legend of Um Ali has survived to this day. But what struck me most about Um Ali’s story is the universal, deep-rooted and primal connection between food and family. In Cairo, no other time is this more apparent than during Ramadan. Breaking bread at sunset to end a day of fasting is very much a familial activity. Why then were two devout Muslims in Cairo setting aside four decades of family tradition to break their fast with a foreigner?
Maher explained: Neither Radi nor he, both in their 50s, had ever broken fast away from their family in all the years of Ramadan they had observed. But when he saw that I, a foreigner, was fasting alongside Egyptians, he was touched. He felt compelled to break tradition and break fast with me because he felt that I too was like family. Maher looked at Radi. He confessed that my conversation with him had also made him reflect inward - If a foreigner could identify with an Egyptian, couldn’t two Egyptians overlook their differences? As is often the case, food is the magic potion that brings people together. In the time of Um Ali, as in the time of Maher and Radi.
Raja Karthikeya is a Political Affairs Officer who has served with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and is currently serving in Iraq. Prior to this, he was in business development with an IT company, for the North African markets. He carries a secret stash of homemade Andhra gunpowder in his back pocket, no matter where in the world he is.
Image: Rose Sponseller, Avocado Bravado http://avocadobravado.net/