This Was Not My First Ramadan
This was not my first Ramadan, my first was in Egypt when I was traveling along the Nile on a felucca boat and the boat crew would wake early before sunrise to have their breakfast. They would then set sail while we slept on the deck of the boat so we awoke to a sun rising over sandy hills as we sailed back towards Luxor. Once everyone was awake the crew would pull into shore to make us breakfast, despite them now fasting for the day.
In Luxor we went to the market just after sunset and one of the shop owners let us into his store while he went away to break his fast, it was the first time of being in a store and not being hassled and followed; we actually ended up buying more things, as you didn’t feel the pressure, he was a happy man as he had just eaten and his customers bought things.
Apparently it was Ramadan during the load in of the London 2012 Olympics. I don’t remember this occurring, some people had crew that were fasting and at times it was a hot summer for London that year so it was hard for everyone. I struggled to get sent a crew, at times at my venue, from my contractors and when they did turn up they were mostly from the UK or Europe so were not Islamic, maybe this is why I didn’t realize it was Ramadan.
I experienced Ramadan again in Baku, Azerbaijan for the European Games in 2015; while an Islamic country, the majority of the locals are not practicing so when it came to crew going off to pray during the day or fasting during Ramadan it was only about 2-3 guys out of 15-20 that did this. We could still eat and drink freely everywhere and if anything, it was those that were praying or fasting, that were hidden away. I saw more women wearing hijab after 5 minutes of being back in London than I ever did in the 6 months I lived and worked in Baku.
For the first time last year I experienced Ramadan in the UAE, where I really learnt more about what it means.
I worked in an office where the staff come from a wide range of countries, nations and faiths, which is amazing. So many places talk about being multicultural but I think this is the most multicultural place I have ever worked. There are hundreds of different nationalities and languages. There are western and eastern international expats that come from more Christian countries, expats of Islamic faith and local Emeriti the majority of whom are practicing the Islamic faith. The local Emeriti have been so gracious in explaining and teaching us about Ramadan and the Islamic faith, I learnt more in the first week of Ramadan about the Islamic faith than I have in the years of traveling around the globe.
Ramadan is not just about fasting and praying, while it is a major part of it. There are many more elements to it. For example I did not realize that giving to charity was something that happened.
All around the city there were charity donation boxes to drop off clothing in, this is something we take for granted in some countries like Australia and the UK where there are charity shops with donation bins everywhere; this is not a thing in the UAE and these donation bins allowed people to donate their clothing to the poor. Also around the city at different food vendors there would be a fridge located out the front that would have free food that people could take, usually something small like fruit or milk or the popular Labneh, a cheese made from strained yoghurt that is popular here. A lot of mosques would also provide food outside the mosque in tents for Iftar, the first meal to break the fast after sunset, this sense of community and charity is far more than what I expected Ramadan to represent.
On the flip side, the commercial enterprise has risen to create somewhat large buffet style dining experiences at hotels and other establishments. While a nice experience to share food with friends and family it has less of the community aspect to it; however the art of using dates in sculpture here in Dubai is amazing. Full size palm trees and camels all made out of different coloured dates, which you can pick off and eat, it feels like a shame to destroy the art, but I think they just replace them for the next meal service. Dates are generally eaten as part of the breaking of the fast as they are a quick and easy source of energy and nutrients on an empty stomach. Another thing I learnt which is maybe more myth than truth was that you should only eat an odd number of dates. Something along the lines of an odd number will turn the dates into carbohydrates but an even number will turn into glucose; a few scientific studies seem to have been completed, but I think there are still different views on this. Personally I eat an odd number either 1 or 3, more for the cultural significance than anything.
During the day in the office, we were asked to respect those who were fasting and not eat or drink at our desks.
Only to do this in the designated areas such as the small kitchens near our desks or the larger cafeteria which is closed off so not visible to those fasting. What I found was that everyone who likes to have their morning tea or coffee usually at their desks were now segregated into the small kitchens. While this initially felt like we were being separated, it resulted in the feeling of community, the essence of Ramadan. Since we were now all standing in a small space, drinking our morning tea or coffee, rather than actually walking straight back to our desks to continue working at our silo work stations, we actually started to talk to people we may have not spoken to before. We learnt about other people that we would literally be sitting a few meters away from, or got great tips about living in Dubai or traveling to other places near by; it really did make the sense of community more apparent which I found really lovely, especially since I had only been working in the organisation for a few weeks prior to this.
This year of course it has been very different, we are not crammed into tiny spaces drinking our cups of tea or coffee, there are no big Iftar buffets to go to with friends and family and no downing huge cups of water before you head outside to get from work to home. But the few times I have been outside recently I have seen restaurants handing out pre-packed Iftar meals to workers from the side door of the restaurant; I hear of other gifts that have been given out and I am sure that those, for whom this is a very religious time, are celebrating quietly at home with their families in the true sense of Ramadan.
Ramadan Mubarak (Happy Ramadan).