Abu Dhabi: It's 10:30am on a Friday morning and a cafe in Abu Dhabi is filled with the sounds of conversation punctuated with boisterous laughter coming from a large group of people sitting together.

The group of friends, all Iraqi expatriates, meet here regularly as a way to revive an Arab ritual in which people meet at a designated place and time to catch up on all the latest news and events.

The group come from a multitude of backgrounds and professions, ranging from engineers to jewellers to teachers. Some have been in the UAE from as far back as the 1970s, while others only arrived a few years or months ago.

Their story is similar to most immigrant tales in the UAE, a journey to create a new way of life while still staying true to their roots.

The group got started when the "ringleader", Mohammad Sadiq Al Hakeem, started meeting regularly with two of his friends, Majid Mansour and Haider Hadi, in a café for a subheih on Friday mornings.

It is a ritual in which people, usually friends or relatives, meet at a designated place for hours to catch up on what they missed since they had last seen one another, while enjoying drinks and snacks.

Soon, Majid began to bring his wife along, and so the group grew.

People in the group often cluster together in smaller groups, always ready to join some of the other conversations going on around them.

By now the group knows when Nagham, Majid's wife, joins them, their horoscopes will be read and discussed.

"I met Mohammad when I first came here with my family in 1993," says Majid. "I lived in the UK for many years after leaving Iraq but I came to the UAE because I wanted to raise my children in an Arab community."

Mohammad invited him for coffee one Friday morning and they have been meeting ever since.

"It started when some friends asked me what I did on Friday mornings. When I told them I liked to sit in cafes, they started joining me until the group grew to its current size," adds Mohammad.

Fatima Al Hilali, Mohammad's cousin, and her husband, Ali Al Khabeer, are not among the "regulars", but they do meet up with the group from time to time. "I've lived in the UAE for about 25 years and spent 12 of those years as a teacher at schools in Dubai and Sharjah," she says.

"My husband and I only came to Abu Dhabi a year ago when I decided to retire from teaching. We did not know anyone here so Mohammad invited us to come as a way to become acquainted with new people."

All of them lived in different parts of Baghdad and didn't know each other before.

"When my parents first arrived a few months ago from Iraq, it was a bit difficult for them to adjust because they didn't know anyone," says Ahmad Ayoub. "They come with me to these get-togethers so they can meet people."

One thing they all agreed on is that the Iraqi community in the UAE is not as close-knit as they had hoped. "There isn't much effort to bring us together," says Majid.

The group tries to preserve their culture as much as they can and to pass on their heritage to their children.

"When I was a child, I remember my entire house participating in activities such as making sweets together. I would be given one task, my sister another and so on until it was time to put them in the oven to bake," reminisces Ali Taleb Abdul Majeed.

Wedding ring

"I remember as a child the men in my neighbourhood participating in a popular Iraqi game called 'Al Mheibes', the wedding ring," Majid says.

"The men are divided into two teams and take off their wedding rings. The rings are hidden and the object of the game is to find as many as possible until a certain number is reached," Ahmad says.

There are other important Iraqi traditions that they practice regularly. One is to have regular traditional meals together. Another is playing dominoes. "For Iraqis, dominoes are a very popular social pastime," Haider says. "Also, when they play dominoes, the men create small poems to tease or taunt their opponents. Poetry is another important part of our culture."

They all agree many of the Iraqi traditions they knew are no longer being practised. But sometimes they are pleasantly surprised to find that not all is lost. "When my family moved to a new building a few years ago, we discovered there was another Iraqi family living two floors above us. One day, they sent us a tray filled with food for lunch. That surprised me because that is an old tradition that was practiced when I was growing up," says Nagham.

They are careful to teach their children about Iraq so they don't forget their culture. "I speak Iraqi Arabic at home but there are days when my son comes home from school speaking different Arabic words. It's a sign of how things have changed," says Haider.

"But," he adds, "Every generation has to live in their own time. Just as my grandfather and father's time have passed, mine is passing. But my son's is just beginning and it's his turn to create new traditions."