In step with spirit

Karen Ann Monsy
Filed on July 26, 2013
In step with spirit

Non-Muslim expats in the UAE talk about the virtues of Ramadan: how the Holy Monthís spirit has been infectious, and how thatís made them better human beings

Ramadan is a time for reflection and 
discipline for Muslims. But the spirit 
of the Holy Month has rubbed off on many more. We speak to a few non-Muslim residents in the UAE who have come to respect — and execute — the values that Ramadan stands for.

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Indian expat Raj Jhajharia cannot forget his first Ramadan that fell just a month after he’d first arrived in the UAE in 1981. “I was single, living in a guesthouse, unfamiliar with the culture and brand new to the country. Back in India, everything used to remain the same during Ramadan: there was no closure of restaurants or shorter working hours. So suddenly when I was faced with a situation where there was nowhere to eat from, it was a bit of a culture shock… But I quickly understood the significance and then it was all right.”

The Abu Dhabi resident has practised fasting every Tuesday for years — getting by on liquids and fruits alone — but, interestingly, over the last 10 years, when Ramadan sets in, he observes it “just like [the Muslims] do”. And he’s found many benefits to the abstinence. “Those related to physical health and well-being cannot be overstated,” he explains. “But my experience goes 
beyond: in terms of mental peace and a better understanding of the misery of those who go without food.”

To him, the whole process — which initially started out of curiosity, because he “wanted to know what it would be like” to go so long without so much as a drop of water — comes down to training the mind. “It’s very strange that on a normal day when I’m not fasting, I feel hungry but on the day I’m fasting, I don’t,” he notes. “Perhaps it has to do with the mind setting. When you decide you’re going to fast, there’s a higher goal and the mind automatically switches off from the physical need.”

As someone who has experienced the season in the region several times, the 60-year-old offers a word of advice to those new on the scene. “Talk to someone who is familiar with the cultural import of this practice, understand it and then respect it. I’d say anyone who does that would stand to gain rather than lose anything — because it’s when you understand the cultures and perspectives of others that you add many more dimensions to your own personality.”

For culinary travel blogger Ishita B Saha, it was growing up in Kolkata that resulted in them embracing “all kinds of religions”. But though she was surrounded by Muslim friends, Ishita says she had a very different notion of Ramadan back then. “The non-Muslims wouldn’t even know that people around were observing fasts. Only when bowls of special sweet rice pudding arrived home in the evening would we know that it was Ramadan.”

Dubai, of course, was a whole different deal. While she finds some of the emirate’s more elaborate iftar buffets actually clash with “the very principle of abstinence”, she also considers them a great chance for communal meal sharing during Ramadan — especially since most of the residents are away from their families and home countries. “As an expat, I feel Ramadan is the only time when all the residents living in Dubai integrate into one society as they enjoy the spirit of Ramadan, irrespective of the countries or the religion they belong to.”

Waitress and cashier at a restaurant in Dubai, Filipino Nelly Lopez admits she too hadn’t a clue about Ramadan before she moved here in 2005. “Back home in the Philippines, people belong to a Christian majority,” she explains. “Ramadan is not observed in a big way there at all.” The 32-year-old’s understanding of Ramadan came mostly from her sister, who is married to an Emirati. “I’d see how my sister’s family would fast for about 12 hours, even the kids. It was a very different experience for me.”

Nelly says she’s spent almost every Ramadan in Dubai since moving here and it has helped her slowly acclimatise to the cultural code of ethics in place. While she does have colleagues at the restaurant who observe Ramadan, she is particularly appreciative of the understanding the staff share when it comes to respecting the practices of those who do and do not fast.

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It’s all about tolerance, believes American expat John Edward Noe, who is spending his fifth Ramadan in Al Ain this year, where he’s lived since 2009. The 56-year-old, who works as a teacher, has a “pretty cool” memory of his first Ramadan. “I’d been put up at the Intercontinental Hotel with a balcony that overlooked three mosques in a triangle. My first experience with Ramadan was hearing the call for prayer echoing from those three mosques 
at the same time. That was the year we observed the Ramadan fast out of 
respect for the culture: nothing after sunrise, nothing before sunset.”

There’s something “good different” about the all iftars, John feels. “As kids, we were punished if we used our fingers instead of our forks and knives to cut meat. But eating as the Emiratis do here with the bread and the communal-ness at iftars, there’s something different about it. It would never happen in the United States but it’s a good kind of different.”

Does he have a favourite dish at these get-togethers? “Believe it or not — camel meat!” he reveals. “I once attended an iftar with some Arab colleagues and they were very excited to acclimatise me with the culture. At one point, they insisted I try a certain dish that looked like a beef roast to me. They wouldn’t tell me what it was till I tried it; I did and only then did they tell me it was camel. It was absolutely delicious.”

Above all though, John admires the charitable aspect of Ramadan best. 
Every Ramadan, he goes out with a few colleagues to take meals to needy 
employees they know who can’t afford to buy more than a few small breads that have nothing inside. “We just thought: well, we can do better than that. It’s that helping nature that I like best. Besides, it feels like the right thing to do.”

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Fellow American Katie Foster recalls she didn’t have an understanding of what Ramadan was really about until after it was all over. The Abu Dhabi resident moved to the UAE in 2010 with her husband and soon “realised it was an enormous community effort to help the poor and a personal one for spiritual renewal. Honestly, I was embarrassed because I didn’t really do anything that year.”

Katie promised herself she’d do something meaningful next year in keeping with the spirit of the month, and that’s how she got involved in distributing 8,000 care packages together with Seher Shaikh from Adopt-a-Camp over the last two years in Dubai. Now that she’s moved to the capital, Katie is attempting to do a mini version for workers at one of the camps on Reem Island. “People are so generous here — I’ve had a total stranger call up to ask if she could donate 200 bags of flour — and I’m really humbled. I wasn’t quite sure how it was going happen at all, considering I don’t know many people here. But it has and it’s just been very heart-warming so far.”

It always takes her a week to remember the month of fasting has begun, 
Katie says. Still, she believes quite strongly in respecting the local custom. “I’m a guest in this country,” she reasons. “If you go into somebody’s home, you observe their customs. So I’ve decided that during Ramadan, I will do things to help others and participate with them. Yes, it may be a little restrictive [for non-observers] but it’s just a small sacrifice in the big scheme of things and in supporting the local community in what they’re doing.”