It was early in the morning, around 4:50 am, when the Azzan for the Fajir prayer started echoing in our neighborhood. I woke half way through it when the Moazen (prayer announcer) chanted “come for prayer.” His voice melodic and soft as if trying not to startle us so early in the morning, rather chanting an invitation to prayer. I got up and headed to the bathroom to preform the ritual of wudu. It was the start of a very busy day. My uncle, the night before, warned us not to stay out late with our friends. Every Thursday evening we would hang out on the outskirts of town. Since there were no houses or farms in that area, we parked our cars forming a semi circle. We made a small fire to make tea, and on a plastic woven mat, we sat and played cards for hours.
“We have five weddings tomorrow,” my uncle exclaimed, “I need you to start the fire as soon as you are done praying”.
“Yes,” I said. I was working for him making halwa. It was a family business that he inherited from my grandfather. My dad had died of a stroke years earlier, so I inherited his portion of the responsibilities.
At this point, five minutes had already passed. I grabbed my cuma and hurried towards the mosque hoping they had not started before me. As I stood in the back of the crowed, I started creeping towards the front trying to maneuver through the gaps left by the men as they slowly started to organize into uniformed lines. “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,” the Imam said as we started our prayer.
“yallah, go get the wood and start burning the fire,” my uncle said breaking my thoughts. I had lingered behind after prayer to meditate. “Inshallah,” I responded.
I walked towards the Halwa factory, which was only a mile away from the house. It was still dark, but a few strands of sun ray were peaking through the mountain valleys. The weather was mild and a few blows of a cool breeze brushed against my skin. I wore an old but clean white dishdasha. It was the end of the year, with lots of men tying the knot and getting married.
The factory was a single room mud-brick structure. It was raised above ground by about two meters and had five cave like openings around it called trikba. I took large branches of wood and tossed them in the openings. I lit a date palm tree branch on fire and tossed it inside allowing the wood to burn and provide constant heat. Inside, five marjals, large but shallow round copper brass pans, were cemented in the ground above the fire. I took off my dishdasha and hung it on to the wall. It was going to be a hot and sweaty inside the factory. My undershirt, however, had yellowed and looked old and dirty. It was clean, or clean enough.
I poured in about five kilos of brown and white sugar and a bucket of water into the marjal. I sat down on a wooden stool, and started stirring the mixture using a long wooden utensil that had a flat copper attachment called albistan. This allowed me to prevent any sugar syrup from crystallizing and sticking on the marjal.
Half an hour later, drops of sweat started forming on my arms and I took a small dirty rag from the floor and wiped my arms. I didn’t want my sweat to make its way into the halwa. The weather was getting warmer now as the sun rose and the heat from the burning wood were turning the room into what felt like a furnace.
“Can you turn on the fan?” I asked Saleh, my cousin. He was my partner for the day. Each of the five marjals were attended by two men. I could not leave or step aside and had to stir the sugar syrup constantly and consistently. Saleh would take my place if I needed to use the restroom.
“It’s time,” I told Saleh. The sugar had totally dissolved and the mixture was a clear golden syrup. He brought a large bowl of corn starch mixed with water and poured it into the syrup using a strainer to catch any lumps that may have formed. I continued stirring. It was a large batch and I had estimated it would take me three hours of constant stirring before we are done. My arms will be sore in an hour, I thought. Saleh would take my place.
After two hours of stirring, switching places, and never leaving the marjal unattended, it was my turn to stir. Saleh went outside to check on the fire because it was time to slowly cool it down. At this point, the mixture looked like a bubbling volcano I had seen on tv. “Start adding the ghee,” I instructed Saleh. He was three years younger than I am, and I was his mentor. We will be running the factory one day, just the two of us and a few employees. I hoped not so soon though. I liked having the freedom to hang out with my friends and taking trips during the slow season.
Saleh took a ladle and poured the ghee in little at a time. At first, the ghee would just float on top and occasionally it would splatter. I was careful though not to stir the mixture too enthusiastically or else the hot ghee would splash and potentially burn us. The ghee and halwa were slowly integrating with one another, as if dancing harmoniously before becoming one. At least that was how I imagined it.
Once all the ghee was incorporated, the halwa changed to an oily gooey texture that slid across the pan as it was stirred. In a bowl, Saleh mixed saffron with rose water and poured it in. At this point we had been stirring for three hours and the halwa was ready. We were making our special wedding halwa today. It had two kinds of nuts and cardamon. It was ready. Saleh took a metal scoop and poured it into a large plastic bucket as I continued to stir. We used decorated clay bowls for serving wedding halwa. We poured the halwa into them and decorated the top with sliced almonds.
“Yallah Yallah,” I heard my uncle yelling as he walked into the factory from the little front store, “where’s the halwa! They are here!”