On The First Day of Ramadan…in the UAE (United Arab Emirates)

It feels like Christmas in July. Ubitiquous are lamp posts, trees trunks and branches adorned in pearl white, emerald green, and celeste blue lights. Lining the medians of streets and bridge crossings are fixtures of crescent moons and stars, Arabic teapots, lanterns, and other symbols of Islamic faith.

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Shopping malls and official businesses are resplendent in hues of amber and blue violet with lighting delicately layered like traditional African beaded necklaces.

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The entire city of Abu Dhabi is radiant and gives one the impression that this is indeed a time for rejoicing and celebration…..and that is particularly true if you are an adherent of Islam. June 29, 2014 marked the beginning of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, which is considered to be the “holiest month”. It is during this month that Muslims fast, abstaining from all types of foods and drinks during the hours of sunrise and sunset (5:40 AM and 7:14 PM respectively here in Abu Dhabi).

Having barely survived the infamous “Master Cleanse” (concoction of distilled water, lemons, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper) for 5 days, I feel that completing the fast would definitely test my limits. The biggest challenge being, as I assume it would be for most non-Muslims, is being denied the privilege of consuming liquids during the hours of sunrise and sunset, especially since, this Ramadan, the weather is unnervingly hot in the city (the temperature has been hovering around 105- 110 degrees as of late with approximately 43% humidity).

I was told that I’d probably want to make a rapid exit from the UAE and entire Middle East during this period, but I thought that loitering about in July would grant me an esoteric glimpse into a culture that is vastly misunderstand throughout the Western world due to the myopia of many individuals. It is with frank conversing with Muslims (from the UAE and other surrounding Arab nations) that I became privy to the various guiding principles governing the Muslim faith. Some of more provocative being:

• There is an indeterminate way by which individuals gain “points” to go to heaven. For example, a handshake and good morning/good afternoon qualifies as one point, greeting of Salaam Alaikum warrants 10 points. An individual can earn up to 70 points for any “good deed” and it is the two angels (one on the right –raqib and the one on the left, atid) who keep a record of your righteous and unrighteous deeds. Minus points can be awarded as well. If you steal an item and as a result, it affects ten individuals, 10 points would be subtracted. It is not simply a matter of “racking up” points to gain access to heaven’s gates, a person’s intentions is what is truly scrutinized.
• During Ramadan, you must fast, pray (5 times a day). It is expected that you will read and digest the contents of the entire Koran within the 30 days.
• It is believed that the act of abstaining from food and drink during Ramadan will teach you to develop a fonder appreciation of the two, empathize with those who “have not”, those who are impoverished prompting you to be more generous and give freely of yourself. If there are 5 family members living within a household and you have the means, it is expected that the “man” of the household, will give away 5 meals during the month of Ramadan. Furthermore, if you are rich, 2.5 % of your salary must be given to the poor, otherwise you will be punished. (However, there have been some who try to prey on the generosity of Muslims during Ramadan. Last week, 70 “professional beggars” were arrested for soliciting around mosques throughout the UAE . It was reported that some of them had collected donations in upwards of 15,000 dirhams per week, a little more than $4,000)
• The day following the end of Ramadan (evening of July 28 here in the UAE) after morning prayer, you must go to the houses of all those individuals whom you have transgressed against, those individuals whom you have may have ostracized/shunned, those individuals whom you have been at odds with and “make peace” with them.

To many, the laws of Islam do not seem unnecessarily burdensome as most of them deal with how you treat your fellowman, continually mindful of the 1st commandment to “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. And it appears that if you abide by the following rudimentary rules /basic do’s and don’ts as a visitor during the holy month of Ramadan, you will be sure not to unintentionally offend your neighbor:

• Dress respectfully (of course, no mini skirts or dresses) – covering shoulders, knees and elbows is the general rule of thumb that I follow during the month of Ramadan. Besides, it is what is required for work everyday.
• No eating (this includes chewing gum), drinking, or smoking in public view on the street between the hours of sunrise and sunset.
• No public display of affection (holding hands, hugging, kissing). In general, PDA is frowned upon throughout the UAE regardless of the time of year.

If you do decide to visit during this time of year, you will notice that things appear to be running in slow motion- a blanket of stillness befalls the city during the day. Work hours are generally shorter- 4 to 6 hour workdays for most individuals depending on your industry. I am told that most Muslims stay home and rest during daylight hours to conserve their energy. So that you will not become utterly disillusioned when you travel to the UAE during July, here is what you can expect when visiting during Ramadan:
• No live entertainment.
• Bars and nightclubs are closed with the exception of the British and Irish pubs housed within hotels, some of them hosting underground soirees (I assume that the owners must be fast friends with Skeikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan).
• All restaurants (in malls and on the streets) are closed for business between the hours of sunrise and sunset. However, you will find that some restaurants housed within hotels are open, providing sustenance for those uninformed and unsuspecting tourists. As a last resort, you can always swing by the closest petrol station (Adnoc stations are to the UAE what Shell or Mobil is to the U.S) for cold refreshments and nibbles/bites.
• Some shops (generally the non-Middle Eastern chains like H& M, Promod, Aldo, Dune) are open during the day for those shopaholics like me. However, the majority of specialty shops and boutiques open after sunset (7:14pm) and stay open until 1 or 2 in the morning.

After sundown, as you can imagine, the city streets and malls are ripe with clamor and commotion (In fact during Ramadan, the police have witnessed a surge in the number of car accidents, probably due to individuals rushing to “break bread” at the table or due to compromised concentration as a result of lack of sustenance for more than 12 hours). There appears to be a consistent buzzing at the malls and restaurants as waves of individuals shop and “carry on”, filling their bellies in the midst of family and friends.

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Ramadan tents are set up at various locations throughout the city to host “Iftar” – the evening meal when Muslims break their fast. The merrymaking and festivities can carry on to the wee hours of the night—up until morning prayer at 4:14 am.

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Although from the outside, it appears as if this is a month of excessive restrictions, it is truly a welcome time for Muslims to convene as a family, strengthen their beliefs/faith, reconnect with friends, demonstrate their deep reverence for the Prophet Muhammed’s teachings, and I feel honored to have been a recipient of their selfless generosity and compassion this month.

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