At long last Ramadan is here and everyone in our house is excited by its arrival. After all, so much has been built up about Ramadan in the six months that we’ve been here.
It seems ever since arriving in Dubai people have gone out of their way to tell us about the holy month– warn us is actually the more accurate term. Expats, in particular, seem to take a certain pleasure in detailing all of the ways Ramadan can dampen the Dubai life. There are so many rules, they cautioned. And it’s true, during Ramadan there are many rules in which we must abide by including: no eating, no drinking, no smoking in public during the daytime; no loud music, no chewing gum, no wearing tight or suggestive clothing (I think I’m safe), no ‘speaking ill’ about others (e.g. gossiping or salacious language); and, perhaps not surprisingly, no public displays of affection.
So it’s understandable that as a non-Muslin and new resident I felt intimidated by Ramadan. I was consumed with worry about how we’d get on with our lives. The thought of staying hydrated in 100+ degree heat without the safety of even a water bottle had me in a panic. Plus, I wasn’t sure how I would keep two kids entertained indoors when most everything is closed—that means no stopping off for a quick ice cream or an afternoon pick me up. From here on out it would have to be point-to-point travel only, and so I would plan our days with military precision and grit.
Fact: Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The month lasts 29–30 days based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon—which, by the way, are identified by humans and not robots in outer space (Wikipedia)
But then one morning as I was driving in the car listening to the Cultural Affairs Minister on the radio, it suddenly hit me. He was explaining the meaning of Ramadan and why the eating/drinking ban exists in the UAE. He said that Ramadan is all about reflection, about self-control and about appreciating life through personal sacrifice. The rules exist not to trap or hamper foreigners, but rather to create a community-like atmosphere where everybody supports everybody in their collective efforts to fast and abstain.
And it was then that I realized, mine wasn’t a problem of logistics or practicality. Not really. Mine was a problem of perspective, of empathy– or lack of it.
One of the reasons we came to the UAE was so that our family could gain a greater cultural understanding for this part of the world. And unfolding before us was the single most important holiday of the year in the Gulf. Sure, day-to-day life would be different and confusing and slightly uncomfortable. But so is living abroad. So instead of hiding under the duvet or high tailing it back to the States, I’m taking this opportunity to learn about and embrace one of the most fascinating aspects about living in the UAE.
The word “Ramadan” comes from the Arabic word Ramad meaning heat or drought. So the literal meaning of Ramadan is the month of heat/drought. [Ramadan Explained: A Guide for Expats in the GCC]
Without question fasting during Ramadan– the abstaining from food and water for 30 days from dawn until dusk– is an incredible challenge of the body and mind. In an act of solidarity for our new compatriots, Justin and I are attempting to fast. It’s Day 1 and already horribly painful— I broke down midday and ate bread while Justin has remained steadfast. But despite how disciplined– or undisciplined– I am, I’ve already gained a heightened sensitivity to those around me. I’m constantly thinking about the people that must endure this kind of lifestyle not by choice but, sadly, by necessity. These are important lessons to be gained regardless of your religion, culture or location in the world.
Fact: Fasting allows Muslims to test their self-restraint and to control their desires. It serves as a reminder to distinguish between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ and to live a balanced life, free from excess and extravagance. [Ramadan Explained: A Guide for Expats in the GCC]
One reader in The National recounted how to her Ramadan “is the month to purify the soul…an opportunity for detachment from the world and for deep reflection and thought.” I hear this sentiment a lot. In fact, one Emirati father whose son is in class with our younger son described how Ramadan is the perfect time for him to take stock of his personal and professional life. Each year he and his family reflect on their accomplishments and lay out their goals for not just the coming year but the following five years.
But Ramadan is not just about fasting and prayer. There are celebrations that are enjoyed when the sun goes down- Ifthar and Suhour dinners– and those fasting get together with family and friends to break bread and celebrate life. It’s a beautiful time of day and I find myself a bit envious about how we Westerners only have the one-shot holidays (e.g. Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc) while here they have 30! Which means people have one whole glorious month to cook, eat, dine out and generally enjoy the company of family and friends. Not such a bad deal, if you ask me.
One of the things I admire most about Ramadan in the UAE is the way the Emirates have remained steadfast in their traditions. It could be quite easy to adopt a structure like that in Morocco or Turkey where “most facilities remain open to some extent to serve non-Muslim travelers, and in general the change in the normal routine isn’t too striking.” (WikiVoyage)
Like the UAE, these countries see a high number of tourists in the summer months, and I’m guessing some will choose to bypass the UAE out of a perceived fear of being inconvenienced. Which is a shame, as the holy month can be a once in a lifetime experience. I applaud the UAE for sticking by their beliefs and for creating a system where everyone supports one another. What would it say about our community if Suzy Expat is sitting eating a Shake Shack burger out in the open while her neighbor struggles to make it through the day without food? Does that really help foster a communal spirit, a ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude? And so I agree with the Minister when he says Ramadan and fasting is deserving of the entire community’s support, and that is why the rules are the way they are. To me, feeling a slight pinch makes me more invested in everyone’s success and also more empathetic, which is really the point of Ramadan after all.
My hairdresser once told me that he loves being in Dubai during Ramadan because of the ‘spiritualness’ that is felt around the city. There’s a palpable energy that only surfaces at this time of year. I can see it forming already– holiday cards with well wishes are circulated, restaurants encourage diners to celebrate Ifthar with grand buffets and heavy discounts, stores display mountains of holiday foods such as dates, jams, cakes and other specialties. And it’s nice to hear on the news a break from the usual horrors and instead stories about the many charitable acts occurring around the UAE, where food and water are delivered to the poor and even prisoners are set free.
It’s truly thrilling to be at the center of such a hugely important event and to have our eyes opened to a whole new way of life. I’m guessing it’s the same excitement one might feel when experiencing Easter at the Vatican or Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. The spirit of Ramadan is everywhere and I feel lucky to be here and experience it.
A happy Ramadan Kareem to you.