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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Ramadan Redux

I can hardly believe it myself, but not only is it my second Ramadan in the UAE, but I’m already finding we’re halfway through the Muslim holy month.

It’s strange what a difference a year makes. Last year during Ramadan I found myself nervous about the whole event. There was a sort of self-consciousness on my part about not fully understanding Ramadan, a feeling of sticking out as a Westerner, and a constant worry about making a giant gaff. I even had dreams about committing a Ramadan faux pas. In it I am struck over the head with a blunt object, only to wake up and find myself drinking water and dressing immodestly and ending up in Ramadan jail. For the record, there is no such thing as Ramadan jail, though the leering look of observers can be punishment enough so people need to be and are very mindful in these parts). 

A date and camel's milk is the traditional
way to break one's fast during Ramadan
And while my self-consciousness has pretty much abated, Ramadan does still remind me that I am a minority here. That’s not to say that I’m the only tall blonde shiksa in Abu Dhabi – believe me, we’re a dime a dozen. But when three-quarters of your community is observing a month-long fast, you feel it. You feel it in the flow of the day, in the demeanor of the people (ALL people, not just those fasting) and you feel empathy for what people might be going through.

With the focus off myself, I’ve found that I have a much keener sense of the hunger among my Muslim neighbors this year than I did last year.  

There were the first days when I was out with my running club and all along the Corniche (a waterside promenade that is a popular gathering place for everyone in the city), workers such as taxi cab drivers, security guards and well-heeled Arab families set up both simple and lavish picnic Iftar meals, waiting for the sundown call to prayer to break the fast. No matter who you were (my running group was waiting to be able to drink water), the sense of anticipation was palpable as people gazed at the sunset. Of course, it was the runners who guzzled fast and furiously when the prayer finally started a bit after 7 p.m..

Then there’s the security guard in my building. A burly and devout Muslim man, as I pop in and out of the building throughout the day I see how his look and demeanor change as the daytime hours wear on. The bright morning greeting turns to a mere grunt and nod as his eyes sink into his hungry head. By late afternoon I do my best to avoid him.

There was also the evening when John and I pulled up to a popular hotel for a quick bite before a movie and outside in front, cars were practically left abandoned in the porte cochere as those observing the fast bee-lined for the massive Iftar buffets in a specially constructed Ramadan tent that can be as opulent, popular and well-attended as the famed Dubai brunches (minus one very noticeable feature -- alcohol).

Waiting for the sun to set in Al Ain
But once that sundown call to prayer arrives, it’s feast time. While the fast is recommended to be broken with a glass of camel’s milk and a date, followed by a larger meal a bit later, extended families gather in the nighttime hours, coworkers mingle at corporate-sponsored Iftar tents at the posh five-star hotels, and even the tiny storefront kebab shops in our neighborhood stay open late and do brisk trade (for instance, the local Kentucky Fried Chicken stays open until 4 a.m., many other places are open until 2 a.m.). 

In fact, our local newspaper reports that a local hospital is currently seeing up to 50 patients in their emergency rooms each evening during Ramadan. Of course, it’s not the fasting that’s driving them to the ER, it’s the gluttony that follows – eating too much, too quickly.   

Now that I’m in my Ramadan groove, I try to avoid everything from about 3 p.m. until 7:30 p.m.  -- in the same way I always avoided rush hour on the subways while living in NYC. Driving on the roads is dangerous – what with the road rage and exhausted drivers drifting in and out of the lanes.  Even just walking the streets can be tough. Seeing people so obviously hungry, tired and worn out makes me want to reach out and give people a hug (and slip them a candy bar, though that would not be looked upon positively). Then there’s the hubs, who seems to have to partake in the fast as collateral damage for working during Ramadan. While work hours are shorter and there are special places for non-Muslims to eat in the office, many people just take the time off. Not John, and unfortunately he doesn’t come prepared to get through the day (nearly all restaurants are shuttered during the day). In other words, I don’t send him off in the morning packed with a sandwich (bad wifey).

As for me, I keep a low profile and stick to the outer edges of the community. I spend the days writing (I finished a screenplay draft!), check out the very few places I can go for lunch, play lots of golf (mainly for the post-golf clubhouse dining) and despite my best efforts of using Ramadan to do house projects like organizing my clothes closets and cleaning out my computer of old files and trying my hand at painting, I find I slow down my pace just like everyone else.

Ramadan Mubarak!
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