Recently, I attended an Iftar party at a luxury hotel in Baghdad. After I finished the main course, I found a nice, sweet dessert there — a type of bread pudding: bread, pastry were combined with raisins, pistachios, nuts, and almonds, then drenched in sweetened milk and baked. I was told that it’s called Um Ali (or, Om Ali) and the name surprised me as it means “Mother of Ali” in English. I first devoured the dessert and yes, it was really delicious and I took more! It’s, in fact, a darling dessert among Arabs, made during Ramadan in the entire Middle East.
The name was intriguing to me since then. Some personal inquiry and online research revealed that it’s not the story of a royal chef preparing an innovative dish at the behest of a discerning king, but of a murder and a rather cruel one! Weird and gory!
Om Ali has a rather alarming tale behind its creation. This delightful and filling pudding — made from bread, nuts, coconut, raisins, honey, and hot milk — was named after the wife of a ruler from the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt.
The story goes back hundreds of years into Egyptian History. It took place during the Egyptian Mamluk era (1250-1517 CE), before the Ottomans rule of Egypt. As-Salih Ayyub (1205-1249 CE) of Ayyubid dynasty, the Sultan of Egypt, purchased Shajar al-Durr as a bondmaid before he became Sultan. Shortly after, Shajar al-Durr gave birth to a son named Khalil, and As-Salih Ayyub made her a Sultana. They lived in Al Mansoura in Egypt’s Nile Delta. Shajar al-Durr was described by historians as a beautiful, pious and intelligent woman.
At that time, Egypt was under attack by the crusaders when the Sultan died. Shajar al-Durr decided to conceal his death and led the country and army and together with Turanshah, the Commander in Chief, and defeated the crusader forces. Shajar al-Durr gained power among the Mamluks who supported her as a Sultan and, in order to remain powerful, they conspired to assassinate Tarunshah to appoint Izz Al-Din Aybak as a Commander in Chief.
Struggling to earn respect from her predictably-all-male-peers, Shajar al-Durr married Izz al-Din Aybak, a warrior with Turkish roots, so that she could abdicate the throne and hand over her power to him. Her intention was to steer his decision-making, not to relinquish her influence.
The new Sultan was, incidentally, already married. He was also insatiable, drunk on the reach of his newfound power. Within seven years, he sought to marry yet another powerful woman to expand his control. He decided to marry the daughter of Badr Al-Din Lo’alo’a, the Ayyubi Amir of Al-Mousel. Shajar al-Durr was very jealous and she ordered her husband to be killed by one of her loyal servants. The newly widowed Shajar al-Durr claimed it was a sudden death, but Izz Al-Din Aybak’s first wife, Om Ali, did not believe that and decided to avenge the death of her former husband and father of her child.
The 15-year-old al-Mansur Ali, the son of Aybak, was made the new Sultan and his mother, Om Ali, ordered her bondmaids to kill Shajar al-Durr in revenge for stealing her husband and killing him as well as plotting against her son becoming the new Sultan. Shajar al-Durr was stripped and beaten to death by the bondmaids with Qubqab (wooden made slippers) in the bathtub. Her naked body was found lying outside the Citadel. According to the historian Ibn Iyas, Shajar al-Durr was dragged from her feet and thrown from the top naked, with a cloth around her waist. She was later buried in a tomb.
In celebration, Om Ali ordered the cook to create a new and delicious dessert and distribute it to everyone announcing that the dessert is celebrating the death of Shajar al-Durr. Not stopping at that, Om Ali ordered that a Shajar al-Durr gold coin be placed in every dessert bowl for the people to have. All the people were happy with the delicious dessert, the gold coin and the reign of their new sultan, and his mother Om Ali. They were chanting her name in thanks and called the dessert after her.
Om Ali, the dessert became known as the dessert of celebrations in Egypt, the dessert served at big events and in congratulating newlyweds, newborns, and in celebration of Ramadan too. The recipe became the national dish of Egypt. Om Ali has since exceeded the boundaries of Egypt to be a well-known dessert all over the Arab world. Sadly, this delicious dessert actually celebrates the nasty death of Shajar al-Durr!