Saturday, September 5, 2015

(VERY VERY belated) Ramadan Kareem

I wanted to reflect on and write a bit about being in the UAE for part of Ramadan this year back in June. "Ramadan Kareem" is a greeting, used like "happy holidays!" But I think it's lovely that the more literal translation is something like "have a Ramadan season full of charity and generosity." That's one of the elements of the month-long season as we learned at the Ramadan 101 session we went to sponsored by the Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. The big public obvious part of Ramadan is the fasting. No food, drink (not even water) from first light until after sunset. Exceptions for the aged, the young, travelers and menstruating women. At Ramadan 101 class, we also learned that smoking, being a rude driver, thinking uncharitable thoughts and engaging in sex are no nos at this time. But Ramadan isn't all about what not to do, it's also about what you ought to do during the season- namely pray more, enjoy family time, be selfless and generous.

click on the pic to read- temp walls blocking the food court
My friend Amanda had a go at fasting- it's actually made easier by the many rules about not eating or drinking in public during the day time and by the slow pace of things. Many cafes and restaurants close during the day, the ones that stay open cover their windows or put up temporary walls to block the view of people enjoying lunch for passers-by. At work, there is a special dining room with drapes that close where employees who are not observing the fast can go- I mostly just had water and light snacks in my office behind a closed door. Because there's no lunch break and because people are running on empty, work days are shorter. Everyone heading home early to relax, pray, or prepare for the iftar. Iftar is the Arabic word for breakfast and also describes the lovely meal that breaks the day's fast during Ramadan.

our iftar at the Oberoi hotel
We were lucky enough to join several iftars, all with a different feel, each one really great. On the first night of Ramadan, we shared iftar with my friend and colleague, Shaimaa, and her family. We had traditional Egyptian dishes and strawberry shortcake for dessert- our contribution! It was a sweet and homey meal where we learned about their family traditions and favorite iftar treats. The next night, we went to an iftar hosted by my South African friends in Abu Dhabi. While they, like me,  were not fasting, at least half of their guests were. As the evening call to prayer sounded, people broke their fasts with some juice and dates, something small to not overwhelm the system. Some went to pray right after while others ran outside to have a long anticipated cigarette, and then on to pray. There was more silliness at this iftar, and a mix of great foods including a South African ground meat dish that I'm hooked on (bobotie)! We went out one night to a special iftar set up in a hotel ballroom. This is pretty typical, hotels set up tents or deck out the ballrooms to look sort of tent-like and offer a big, luxurious buffet spread. There are all kinds of iftar deals and offers- I guess it's kind of like hotels and restaurants making a special Christmas dinner, just doing it every night for almost a month. They set aside places for prayer and serve traditional foods and drinks: dates and juices are pretty much required.
box packing assembly lines

While I wasn't up for the fasting (especially from water! It was June in Dubai!), I was pretty into the idea of doing some service for the season. We volunteered for a few hours one night packing boxes of foodstuffs for distribution to needy families. I got a kick out of the items included. Some staple goods like flour, sugar, rice, pasta were not so unusual. I also think many places in the world would find lentils, tea, canned tomatoes and a vat of cooking oil pretty normal. The regionally specific items were cans of foul (a yummy dish a bit like baked beans) and a bottle of Vimto which I just learned (from the Wikipedia entry on it) originates in the UK but is a big tradition at Ramadan. It's a bit like a fruit soda, I guess. I worked the lentils loading area mostly and because the workroom AC couldn't begin to deal with the open loading dock door and the hordes of hard working volunteers, I had a number of stray lentils from burst bags sticking to my sweaty arms!
chairity box top- Ramadan Kareem

I was only in the UAE for about 6 days of Ramadan this year before heading to the US for a conference and vacation, but the date changes and I suspect I might be around for a bit more of the holy season next year. The dates coincide with the Islamic calendar which has lunar months lasting approximately 28 days instead of the 30 or 31 most calendar months run so Ramadan moves approximately 10 day earlier each year. The actual start date, however, can't be known until it happens. There is an official Moon Sighting Committee whose members must actually see the moon in the proper phase and point in the sky in order to announce the first day of Ramadan. Cloudy weather can postpone things, luckily, there aren't so many rainstorms around here so there are some pretty good guesses abotu the start date before it's official but in the end, it's not about official moon timetables, it's dependent on actual sightings.

I really enjoyed learning more about Ramadan and I liked the slow pace and reflection on sacrifice that was a part of the experience for me. I might even try a modified fast next year to feel even more in the spirit of things.