The air, still and heavy with silence, oddly reminded me of the unused water cooler in the office today. An evening walk on the Abu Dhabi Corniche proved to be a beautiful idea during the first days of Ramadan. Traffic was infrequent, the walkway far less crowded than normal, and the air was less hot than the hair dryer heat that gushed at me between the office and my car this afternoon - now cooled by troughs of evening that floated inland from the Arabian Gulf.
There is something different in these breezes that permeate the air: tinged with a sense of peace and a reflective atmosphere that accompanies the quiet street corners. It's the start of Ramadan, the Holy Month on the Islamic lunar calendar.
The Islamic calendar doesn't follow an annual cycle directed by the sun. Rather, months are determined by the cycle of the moon. In the UAE, a moon siting committee stands watch over the religious holidays and announces them officially a day or two before the holiday arrives. This year, the first day of fasting was expected to begin on Monday, the 6th of June, and Ramadan was not announced until the new moon was spotted on the night of June 5.
This month is best known by the non-Muslim world for the ritual of fasting, or sawm: one of the five pillars of Islam. Fasting, of course, plays a very large role in the observance of Ramadan. In fact, in the United Arab Emirates, and other neighboring countries, it is not allowed to eat, drink, or smoke in public during daylight hours. This can be a challenge to those who are not accustomed to the practice, but is made up for by a government-mandated shortened workday (by two hours in the UAE). Business is reserved for a few hours during the day and again, late into the night. Restaurants close while the sun is up or cover their windows if they decide to stay open. Finding alcohol at a bar is just about impossible. The daily atmosphere in which people live changes overnight - from the first siting of the new moon.
In my North American Christian upbringing I was never aware of the practices and observances of Ramadan. In fact, I learned next-to-nothing about Islam until I began to read about the widespread religion in my mid-twenties; and I still have a lot to understand. As I learned and asked questions about the religion, it seemed quite odd to me that I knew so little of the Islamic faith, given a number of profound similarities to my own Christian upbringing. Among other mutual beliefs, we share a deep ancient history through a common "Father of the Nations," Abraham; live by a similar moral code; believe in charitable giving in accordance to what was given to us; and believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, Mary.
Flash forward 30 years from my uninformed childhood, and zoom into the Corniche Beach Park (a sea- and city-flanked brick and boarded walkway that stretches seven kilometres along the Abu Dhabi waterfront - and is uninterrupted by street traffic), and you will find me running and walking nearly every evening of the Islamic month. These evening excursions are part of my observance of Ramadan. I'm not so bold to fast all day, but I do set a disciplined schedule and give up food during my working hours in respect of those who are fasting.
During the summer months in the Middle East, Ramadan is quite difficult due to length of the Northern Hemisphere days and the parching temperatures that can reach 45C/115F or higher. Road traffic near sunset can be dangerous as often, dehydrated and famished, people dash off to break their fast. Occasionally, boughts of hangryness are evident amongst typically docile colleagues who have to work late (myself included).
While food and drink are the most notable things Muslims abstain from, they also fast from smoking, sex, and anything else that can enter the body. It's a quiet time in the UAE; when music is not listened to in public and generally, everyone dresses a bit more conservatively than normal. Incidentally, it is the best time for a non-Muslim to see new movies. Many of my friends have found themselves alone in a theatre during the day watching a film on its' opening weekend.
This is also a time of year when it is common to see generous individuals giving food and tips to gas station attendants, street cleaners, maintenance staff, and other workers during the month. In fact, the President of the UAE announced that 2017 is the "Year of Giving." I like this idea to help the world and humankind - and think it should reach far beyond this country or religion of this country for one month of the year.
"I think Ramadan is most like having Christmas every day for the month; but without the presents each day," explains Swedish expat, Tanja Bulatovic, the Marketing Manager at Bab Al Qasr Hotel. After careful discussion we decided that although there is great anticipation each day for the fast-breaking meal, the holy month is actually like the four weeks of advent before Christmas. Instead of Christmas, the month of Ramadan ends with Eid al Fitr, a two or three-day holiday. Similar to Christmas, feasts are hosted, gifts are given, and zakat al-fitr (a charitable contribution typically given prior to the Eid holiday) is distributed so that all Muslims have the resources to celebrate the holiday. Christians may relate to this or the practice of Lent - but Ramadan is its own celebration that marks the revealing of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
In the United Arab Emirates, the hotels do serve a Christmas dinner equivalent, called iftar, each evening when the sun sets - every night for the entire month. Iftar is the highly anticipated, fast-breaking meal. On the Arabian Peninsula, the meal most traditionally starts with dates, an energy-boosting food, and lentil soup which gently prepares the digestive system for a larger meal. In modern times, hotels raise elaborate tents and turn iftar into a luxurious evening meal. Locals, expats, and tourists alike can celebrate the breaking of the fast and spend time with their friends and families over the decadent hotel buffets filled with Middle Eastern specialties. Those who fast usually catch a few hours of sleep after iftar and wake again for a pre-dawn meal called suhoor.
In countries with larger Christian populations like Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, my friends grew up in communities where everyone would join in the the celebration of iftar during Ramadan, regardless of religious background; where Christians and non-religious people share the meal with their Muslim neighbors. It's this spirit of community, reflection, and goodwill that I choose to observe while living in the Middle East.
While most others enjoy their iftar nights over elaborate dishes of food, my Ramadan routine this year includes waking up for breakfast and coffee, fasting during our shortened work day, arriving home for a light snack and a coffee or a nap, an occasional coffee with a friend, a walk or run, and a possible impromptu evening out with friends.
This particular evening brings me out on an evening run. I observe only a few cars turning onto Corniche Street. The typical crowds of people have dwindled to a group of volunteers who wear abayas and kanduras* with yellow reflective police vests while handing out water and boxes of food to hungry drivers as the sun dips below the horizon. Just a few walkers and bicyclists leave sweaty prints on the distinct, baby blue and beige bricks that lay the way ahead. The quiet reflective atmosphere is what I need to unwind from a busy start to the year, to focus on my personal health and wellness.
Just before I ducked back into my apartment building, I spotted that sliver of the moon - the one that indicated on June 5 that the month of Ramadan was upon us. I feel profoundly grateful for the spirit of religious tolerance (link to news article in The National) that the leadership of the United Arab Emirates has bestowed on the people living in this country - so that I am free to practice the faith of my choosing and attend church in a Muslim country. I am also grateful for the opportunity to observe, learn about, and respect the Islamic faith throughout this month of Ramadan.
Like I said, even I am still learning about Islam: If all you know about this faith is what you see on television news - and you are interested in understanding the less-western-media-influenced version of Islam, pick up a book or check out these links:
Time Out Dubai: A Beginners Guide to Ramadan (published April 2017)
Gulf News: Ramadan (2017)
A great starting place is with this slightly antiquated book, God is One: The Way of Islam by Christian author, R. Marston Speight
Bruce Feiler: Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths Where God was Born: A Daring Adventure Through the Bible's Greatest Stories
*Abayas are the black gowns that women in the Arabian Gulf wear. Kandouras are the white robes worn by local men.
Food and majlis photos are from the following hotels that hosted me for their iftar dinner.
© 2017-2018 Andrea Rip | The Earth Ink. All Rights Reserved.
Originally posted 22 June 2017 at theearthink.blogspot.com.