As I approach my fourth Ramadan in the Middle East, I wonder not only how much I've learned about the Holy month over the years, but more importantly, what visitors should know before visiting the United Arab Emirates during Ramadan. This year, Ramadan is scheduled to begin around July 9th or 10th, depending on the phase of the moon. I decided to sit down with my friend and ask a few questions, as I knew she'd be able to explain Ramadan in a way expats and tourists would understand. I wanted to know what is was like behind the scenes during Ramadan. She is from Australia, married to a UAE national and converted to Islam in 2007.
Me: Can you please explain the meaning of Ramadan?
Friend: The month of Ramadan is the most important in the Islamic calendar. Ramadan is the month when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had the Quran revealed to him. Islam consists of pillars and these pillars are mandatory to follow in order to ‘practice' Islam. Fasting during Ramadan is one of these pillars. There are many rewards for fasting during Ramadan. It is also the month where Allah comes closest to the Earth on one particular night, and it is said that He may grant you whatever you ask for on that night. Stories of poor people becoming rich overnight are often told.
Me: What would a typical day during Ramadan be like for a Muslim?
Friend: Well, as with most things, there is no normal. A typical day for me means I wake up and do everything I normally do like feeding the children, cleaning, and any activities. There are no additional prayers during the day. The only difference is that I do not eat or drink, however, children do. About half an hour before Mahgrib (sunset prayer), we either get ready to my mother in law's house, or I set up our own eating area with water, juice, dates, fruit and salad, and my mother in law sends food over.
My mother in law happens to be a brilliant cook. No food is allowed to be served during Ramadan unless it is PERFECT. This is not religious, this is cultural, as Emirati culture has a platinum hospitality side! Food at mother in law's house is like a scene from an Arabian nights royal table. The food is abundant:meat, chicken, fish, rice, soups, salads, samosa, spring rolls, mini finger foods (Zataar manaqesh, cheese, mini pizzas), harees (tradition Emirati dish), fruit, juices, soft drinks…everything!
During the first week, everyone sits together and breaks their fast. In the following weeks, everyone comes in dribs and drabs to break fast. Throughout the night, food is readily available, from sweets to meals – you name it. After Taraweah (an optional Ramadan prayer), my mother in law packs up the food and the driver takes it to one of the poorer areas to donate.
People will stay up all night visiting friends. Many will stay up late reading the Quran. The next major meal is Suhoor (the final meal before fasting again). Some will still be awake from the night before and eat before sleeping during the day, and some will wake up early to eat and then begin their fasting for the day ahead. It is not compulsory to eat at Suhoor, but it is a good thing to do.
Towards the end of the month, Eid (three day celebration after Ramadan) preparations begin. This means last minute shopping to make sure everyone has new clothes, new shoes, perfume, etc. New clothes are an Eid norm. We give money to those in need for their own new clothes, in addition to their other needs. Many people visit the bank to get NEW money, which can be given to anyone in services, like the barber, the car wash attendant or the delivery man. Or, the money is given to children during Eid, so you carry notes on you to give when you see them. We get different denominations, so say a roll of 5s, a roll of 10s, 20s, 50s and so forth.
Me: During such a Holy month in your religion, what do you want tourists to know or do when they travel here during Ramadan? What's the balance for a tourist to come and enjoy their time here, but still be respectful?
Friend: Rules wise, just remember Islam is a package. While there are fantastic celebrations, Islam is very strict with requirements. Don't wear your sexy clothes. Men are fasting, this includes abstaining from relations. When you intentionally look in the mirror and think how sexy you look, it's is the opposite of what society is doing at that time, so expect to be considered as a person intentionally insulting the norm. Honestly, most men won't care, women will. The first week is when it will be the hardest, but towards the end of the month, most do not get bothered by others' actions.
Islam is personal. If someone else is not fasting, this should not bother a fasting person, this is a choice. But humans are humans, and have since the dawn of man, had an allegiance. Imagine it is your country's national day and a person you've welcomed to your party sits there, booing or cursing your country, showing obvious dislike for it. Respect for freedom of speech, but respect for other people when you visit their home, is also paramount to living peacefully. With so many nationalities and cultures living here with freedom to express their culture at all times, the law has to put it's foot down when it comes to Islamic issues. It is a constitutionally Islamic country, a safe haven for the millions of Muslims world wide, who want a place where the media has not tarnished their beliefs. But don't fret, UAE has open arms for everyone!
Just remember, do not begin the justifications as to why you decided to have a sip of water at the mall. The authorities do know the fasting rules, but the law is black and white. Hide it if you must. There are many blocked off places. Sites such as expatwoman.com will often have the places you can still eat in the day listed as they are found.
Me: What is your advice to someone who is hesitant to travel here during Ramadan?
Friend:Why on earth would you go to a country when you can't eat/drink/smoke during the day? Especially in this heat! Because life is about experience! Yes, you'll be told the tough side before the good, but that is because you expect the good but the dichotomy between daily life here in Ramadan and daily life abroad is so great that it is easier to think it will be much worse than it is. You'll sleep in later, stay up later, have a greater variety of Arabic cuisines, have many events to keep you entertained in the night… You'll come to Arabia and get a great taste of the best of Arabic life. Plus, you can make it a real cultural adventure and get on an Arabic sleep schedule. My dad use to say he fasts Ramadan in reverse (he isn't Muslim), that he fasts at night, as the sleep/eat schedule for many is the opposite to your daily schedule.
Why do that? Because when you look back, you really will remember!
Me: What sights should people see while here during Ramadan?
*Visit the Sheikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding
*Visit the Jumeirah Mosque
*Have Iftar (breakfast…break the fast) in one of the many hotels offering all you can eat and drink (juice/soft drink) buffets, and why not stay up and try Suhoor!
*Visit a closed off restaurant in the day and eat behind a curtain (that'll be one for the story books!)
*Try fasting 🙂 Much harder than it seems, I failed this attempt many times before I'd converted, so if you slam it, you'll have beaten me 🙂
*Go shopping, to the movies, to the souqs, out to the desert of a night. Nothing quite beats the first time you're on a sand dune and an Arabic man, dressed in white, stands at the top of a dune with the moon behind him and you feel like you're in a scene from Aladdin!
Thank you so much for all of your insights and personal stories about Ramadan. I have stayed here for one full Ramadan thus far, and half of the other two. Life goes on without much impact, for the most part. For us, the hardest thing is making sure to get all our errands done, at night, the day before we need them, or else everything will be closed during the following day. As for eating, you'll be surprised at how many places have curtain for eating during the day, such as Dubai Financial Center area. Even many McDonald's will still be open for car-side service, but not eat-in. Enjoy, and Ramadan Kareem!