Monday, August 1, 2011

Ramadan Kareem!

Yesterday, August 1st, marked the first day of Ramadan in UAE, so I thought I'd pause my vacation adventures to share what I've learned so far about this special holy month of the Islamic faith. My info comes from local newspaper articles, the internet and a little observation so far - more to come as we experience this festive month.

Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and is the month when Allah revealed the first verses of the Quran to the prophet Mohammed. If you're not familiar with Islam, the Quran is the holy book of that faith (like the bible to Christianity). Like Christmas or Easter for Christians, there are a number of ways Muslims celebrate Ramadan, the most well known being the fast from sunrise to sundown each day of the holy month (more about that in a sec). In addition to fasting, however, Muslims also recite (or listen to a recitation) of the full Quran by the end of Ramadan - one 30th of the holy book each night of Ramadan; participate in additional acts of charity - often through monetary donations; share food and well wishes with neighbors - it's tradition to share an extra dish of food with a neighbor or nearby laborer throughout the month. In general, Ramadan is meant to be a month of reflection, prayer and a time to 'get back to basics' and renew your connection to your faith (reminds me a lot of the Catholic tradition of Lent).

And what about that fasting? As someone who rarely misses a meal, I can't begin to imagine not eating or drinking all day, but that's the gist of the Ramadan fast. Fasting is one of the 5 pillars of Islam and is a central duty of all Muslims that strengthens their faith and their service to Allah. I've heard it described as a way to clear the mind of the clutter of our modern world, a way to get closer to Allah through an understanding of suffering, and a way to better understand those less fortunate. Whatever the ultimate reason, all Muslims will be fasting this month. Here are some of the particulars.

The 'day' starts around 4:30am with the morning call to prayer and with it, families consume an early morning meal, which is called the Suhoor. And it's most likely a pretty heavy one in the hopes that it will carry you through until sunset. Sunset currently in Abu Dhabi is just before 6am and will get gradually later as the month goes on, so the longest fasting period is at the beginning of the month. (Little consequence when Ramadan falls in August as it does this year - this will be one of the longest daylight periods Muslims have had to fast through in this region in many years.)

During daylight hours, Muslims are not allowed to eat, drink or smoke as part of their fasting commitment. Women who are pregnant or Muslims who are sick are exempt from fasting and required to fast at another time during the year. In an effort to ease the strain of fasting, most businesses reduce their work day by 2 hours and operate from 9-3. One of the biggest concerns during Ramadan in Abu Dhabi is the traffic this causes in the morning and early afternoon as the majority of workers start and end their day at the same time. We've been warned to try and avoid the roads during those times if at all possible. Some companies, like Brian's, offer the shorter work day hours to fasting employees and expect everyone else to work their normal hours, but even then, the workdays go into a bit of slow motion (kind of like the US in December before the Christmas holiday).

At sunset, about 7:10 in AD right now, Muslims break their fast after the Maghrib call to prayer. My understanding is that traditionally the fast is broken slowly with sips of water and dates and then once that initial hunger is sated, they move on to the Iftar. The Iftar is the evening meal and you can think of it like a Sunday brunch. My understanding is it's a lavish buffet (yes, every night!). I'm sure this varies from family to family, but I've heard directly from some Muslims that losing weight during Ramadan NEVER happens. :) After the Iftar is when the final day's prayer is conducted and the recitation of the Quran happens. Many families then do their errands and shopping after this so stores all over the city are open late to accommodate. Then it's a few precious hours of sleep and they start all over again.

For non-Muslims, there is no expectation that we fast, but there are some social responsibilities we have to respect the culture we live in and the difficulties of fasting all day. We are not allowed to eat, drink or smoke in public during Ramadan. This includes gum, eating, drinking or smoking in your car. Restaurants and coffee shops are closed for the most part and don't open until after sunset each day. There are some places to eat in the hotels to cater to guests and as the month continues, I'll figure out just what's open and what's not. A friend and I visited one of the malls yesterday and not one place was open for business. At work, Brian's company has a designated break room that has no windows and a door so that non-Muslims can have their lunch. No eating or drinking at their desks, that's for sure! A few places are still open for delivery so at least Brian won't have to pack a lunch all month. :) Finally, the expectation is that everyone be just a little more conservative than usual. Where you might get away with a sleeveless shirt and shorts on the Corniche, during Ramadan, you may be asked to cover up. Even so, I saw a women enter Brian's workplace yesterday in a short, sleeveless dress - wonder if she had a visit from HR?

So, that's what I've figured out so far. Ramadan here is different than it was in Guinea, and I'm excited to continue to learn more about the details as the month progresses. Until my next post, Ramadan Kareem! (Happy Ramadan!)

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