Abu Dhabi: It may not boast a very fancy facade, but there is scarcely a person with a sweet tooth in Abu Dhabi who doesn’t know or hasn’t heard of Al Aqssa Sweets.
Featuring massive trays of ‘knafeh’, ‘halwa’ and ‘warbath’, the outlet is one of the most popular sweet shops of Abu Dhabi, where people used to drop in to satisfy their sugar cravings, well before ice-cream parlours and outlets serving cheesecake specialities also gained popularity.
It was therefore fitting when the establishment, which first opened its doors to customers in 1980, was recognised last month as an Abu Dhabi ‘Urban Treasure’ by the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi).
“We did not expect the honour, but it is certainly lovely to be recognised in this manner,” Mahmoud Hanoun, the shop’s Palestinian co-owner, told Gulf News. Hanoun runs Al Aqssa Sweets, which now has two outlets in Abu Dhabi, with his two brothers, Munir and Jamal.
The trio never expected that they would one day be running such a well-loved shop in Abu Dhabi.
Arrival in the UAE
It was Munir who first arrived in Abu Dhabi, at a time when the city boasted three to four main streets around Qasr Al Hosn, and the Abu Dhabi Corniche. Jamal and Hanoun followed soon after, along with two other brothers — Mohammed and Khalid — and Hanoun enrolled at a training programme in an oil and gas firm.
“I moved to the UAE in 1980 as a 19-year-old high school graduate and joined the oil company’s training programme. The division I joined was then a separate oil and gas entity, and I began learning operations. My brothers were also young men when they moved here. We came to make a living,” Hanoun reminisced.
Around that time, a chance encounter with another Nablusi sweetmaker presented a promising opportunity to the enterprising brothers. “He knew how to make sweets and the five of us decided to open a sweet shop with him,” Hanoun recollected.
The store was named Al Quds, after the Arabic name for occupied Jerusalem, and its ‘knafeh’ proved to be instantly popular with the residents. It was located on Mina Road, close to a well-known showroom for cars. Business thrived.
Introducing Al Aqssa Sweets
About four years later, the sweetmaker who developed some of the first recipes for the shop decided to move from the UAE. The licence was changed and the now famous ‘Al Aqssa’ name — in keeping with occupied Jerusalem’s famous mosque — came into being.
“By then, Jamal and Khalid had learnt the art of dessert making and had begun to tweak the recipes and add to the taste. Our ‘knafeh’ was always loved and the ‘qatayef’ (Arabian cream-filled pancake dessert) we offered made us famous. We began receiving orders from notable households. Ramadan, obviously, proved to be our busiest period,” Hanoun said. The store eventually moved to its current location off Sheikh Zayed Street and Al Reem Street in the 1990s. Having started with just seven workers, the staff grew to keep up with growing customer numbers.
“We were producing about 120kg of sweets a day and even more over Ramadan and Eid. We also kept a firm eye on quality, because we knew that the taste depended on the quality of the ingredients. So, we opted for best quality ghee and cheese and it distinguished us at a time when there were not too many offerings in Abu Dhabi,” Hanoun said.
Then, in the early 1990s, two of Hanoun’s brothers — Mohammed and Khalid — branched out. Moving to Dubai, they launched Firas Sweets in 1993 and achieved instant success. The establishment now boasts 29 stores in Dubai, Sharjah and the Northern Emirates.
The brothers’ success in sweetmaking certainly points to a shared history, but Hanoun said it had never been something his family practised. “Although my carpenter father would roll out the occasional ‘knafeh’ on Eid or special occasions, none of us could have guessed that this is where we would be one day,” Hanoun said.
The shop has grown in popularity over the years. Even though it is not located on a main road, its loyal patrons always manage to find their way to it, especially on festive occasions. The affordable prices also put Al Aqssa Sweets ahead of many other newer dessert-makers in Abu Dhabi. “We prefer to sell what we make and higher prices wouldn’t help that. To keep up with changing tastes, we also now offer options with less sugar,” Hanoun said.
Workers begin the sweetmaking process early every morning. While the final baking takes less than 30 minutes, getting to that point involve hours of preparation, Hanoun said. For a ‘knafeh’, for instance, the most painstaking part is making the top layer, which can either be crunchy or smooth.
The stores open their doors at 9am every day and receive customers until midnight.
The brothers launched a second branch in Al Khalidiyah area in 2019. Having retired from his oil and gas job in 2017, Hanoun also took on a full-time role at Al Aqssa Sweets. “We have plans to also set up shops in newer areas such as Khalifa City,” Hanoun said.
In the meantime, the Hanoun brothers are continuing with the sweetmaking tradition, even as their children explore careers like medicine and engineering.
“All I can say is that our family gatherings are extremely sweet affairs,” Hanoun said. “And we are grateful to the UAE and its leadership for the wonderful lives we have been able to create here,” he added.