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Home > Ramadan News
 
Ramadan etiquette

Aisha Tariq / 14 July 2012

For UAE residents who have questions about the holy month of Ramadan — or perhaps don’t even know the right questions to ask — Eton Institute’s ‘Ramadan Etiquette Workshop’ opens a window into Islam and Arab culture

At first glance, instructor Kariman Al Assil doesn’t so much answer questions as ask them. Standing in front of a classroom of adult students, many of whom have come straight from the office, she poses the question that has brought them together this late afternoon.

“You see people hungry and thirsty the whole day… What’s the idea?” she queries. When no one responds, Kariman gently presses on. “When we do something in the Arab world, we mean something else—there are many ideas beneath what you can see. So what is the idea that is beneath the word ‘fasting’?”

The students, hesitant at first, answer with their own questions. “To appreciate food and drink?” ventures one lady. Kariman nods encouragingly, “and what else?”

“To appreciate that others don’t have it?” rises another voice from across the room. Kariman smiles as the answers come rolling in. When the students have exhausted their own ideas, the instructor draws attention back to the key themes they raised of gratitude, empathy and self-control.

“It is a cleansing for the soul and the body,” she concludes, as some of the students eagerly copy down her words. Without missing a beat, Kariman moves on to her next question. “Muslims say that every part of the body fasts during the month of Ramadan, which sounds strange… How can every part of the body fast?” This time, the students are ready to help tease out the answer.

For UAE residents who have questions about the holy month of fasting—or perhaps don’t even know the right questions to ask—Eton Institute’s ‘Ramadan Etiquette Workshop’ opens a window into Islam and Arab culture. This past week, the Dubai-based institute, which is primarily a language and professional training provider, presented free workshops in Abu Dhabi and Dubai as part of an effort to give back to the community.

The inaugural session in Abu Dhabi, where Eton opened an office two months ago, managed to draw twenty participants in spite of virtually no advertising, said marketing manager Moaz Khan. “It’s mostly word of mouth, because there is definitely great interest out there. I’m sure the numbers [in Abu Dhabi] will get better with time,” he said, noting that advance registration for the sixth annual Dubai workshop had reached 120. The workshop attracts newcomers to the UAE and the Muslim world who are eager to connect with their new surroundings. Witnessing preparations for the Islamic holiday season, Canadian Silvija Ulmanis wanted to learn more so she could fully appreciate her first Ramadan in the UAE.

“I can see it’s such a big deal here— there’s a build-up in the shopping malls and the food is just stacked up in the stores. It reminds me of Christmas back home, how everyone gets really excited and they cook and plan and have parties. So I’m really interested to experience what it will be like here,” she said after the workshop.

Like many expats, Silvija felt she hadn’t had enough exposure to the local Muslim community to feel certain she was behaving respectfully during the holy month of fasting.

“Even though I’ve been here for eight months now, I don’t have a big circle of Muslim friends,” she said. “I don’t know much other than what I’ve read. I want to learn firsthand about the customs and the etiquette because it’s easy sometimes if you aren’t aware of certain cultural practices to be acting in an inappropriate way.”

And while attendees of Kariman’s two-hour session walked away with the knowledge of how to act respectfully during Ramadan, the workshop’s greater charm lay in her illustration of what the month of fasting means to the Muslim community. Using questions to frame various aspects of the holy month, Kariman led her class through a comprehensive overview of its spiritual, physical, social and historical dimensions.

“Why do we visit our friends and family so much during Ramadan?” she next asks the class. “Moral support?” fires back one student, clearly recalling Kariman’s earlier description of how a fasting individual must restrain themselves not only from food and drink but all immoral acts during the daylight hours. The instructor and students share a laugh.

Kariman, who has been a language instructor for 25 years, found it to be an easy change of pace teaching a course about her spiritual beliefs. “I can talk wholeheartedly about it because I feel that it is part of me and I am part of what I am saying,” she said after the session.

Kariman’s personal anecdotes about fasting were the highlight of the workshop for participants like Silvija, who had been looking for some firsthand knowledge of Ramadan. While describing Arab traditions such as the “fanous Ramadan” (Ramadan lantern), “al musaharati” (drummers who wake people for the pre-dawn meal) and the sunset firing of the “Ramadan cannon”, Kariman recounted moments from her childhood in Syria.

“I remember when I was a little girl, I used to go to the roof of our building just to watch the cannon firing and telling us that it’s time to break the fast,” she reminisces. “Though it took time to go downstairs to start eating and breaking the fast, it was more cheerful for me to see the cannon firing.” She urges her students to take the opportunity to see it for themselves, as several places throughout the UAE still fire the Ramadan cannon.

Kariman leaves her class with the notion that Ramadan itself is like a school course. “It is a time of refreshing the human being, like going back to school for month,” she explains. “We will learn again and again how to deal with this life, every year this course is repeated. We need the course because after the month we forget about it and go back to our bad habits, unfortunately,” she concedes with a smile.

For the participants of Kariman’s Ramadan Etiquette Workshop, it seems her lessons will be less quick to fade.

—aisha@khaleejtimes.com

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