Living in Australia the entirety of my 28 years on earth, I’m the first to admit I have a somewhat limited knowledge of other religions. While moving from a small regional town to a city and holidaying overseas did broaden my knowledge to some extent, I’m largely clueless when it comes to the Muslim faith.
Identifying as ‘spiritual but not religious’ myself, the majority of what I know comes from articles I’ve read or podcasts I’ve listened to, but I learn best when I’m plonked in an IRL scenario, so I travelled to the United Arab Emirate of Dubai, to get a real idea of what exactly Ramadan is like.
Ramadan, for the uninitiated, is the annual festival of fasting, sacrifice and worship, where Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, or smoking between sunrise and sunset, in addition to avoiding any ill thoughts, language, and actions. Uh oh, I might be in some trouble here.
Falling on the ninth month of the Islamic year, fasting during the holy month is one of the five pillars of Islam and is obligatory for every adult Muslim, although certain people are exempt (including those who are elderly, pregnant or menstruating). As it is based on the Islamic lunar calendar, the dates of Ramadan vary from year to year (this year it falls between May 16 and 14 June 14) and lasts for 30 days until the next new crescent moon has been sighted – before closing with a big festival to break the fast in festive style. And while Dubai is renowned for being cosmopolitan and synonymous with a Kardashian level of extra, during the month the beat slows down, and the city takes a slow, deep breath.
Ready, set, Ramadan
There were plenty of considerations when visiting a city where religion plays a significant role, meaning a more modest code of behaviour is not only appreciated, it’s also the law (so my usual slip dress and sandal holiday attire wasn’t going to cut it.)
On arrival, I’m told eating, drinking or smoking in public is strictly prohibited. I take a mental note and buy several Bounce protein balls to stash in my handbag, just in case. However, I needn’t worry as most restaurants remain open, serving behind screens until sundown.
I learn that it is acceptable to drink alcohol in hotels, but instead I use this as an opportunity to take a break from the booze. And while some may struggle without a beer in the 45 degree heat, it was the no water rule that was tricky. While there are allocated areas out of the public eye to take a sip (weirdly your car is still off limits) you’re in a constant state of thirst during the day. I battle on knowing that everyone around me is going without a single drop of water at all though.
From AM to PM
The days are slow and steady, but after dark, the city is a buzz. Once the sun sets, an iftar, or breaking of the fast happens. We gather around with some Emirati locals and break the fast with a date before feasting on traditional Middle Eastern fare. Dates are known as holy fruits in Islamic culture and Arabs cherish them not only for their health benefits, but also for cultural connotations they have with some of their great virtues like generosity and gratitude. We eat a lot. Think Christmas Day lunch – then times it by 10. There are warming curries, slow-cooked stews and more palm sugar laden pudding than my eyes knew what to do with, but more importantly, there was conversation.
Ramadan is when the entire community comes together in a euphoric effort to become better human beings – and it was evident sitting in a living room with locals. I learn the fast is a way of cleansing the body and soul from impurities and re-focusing on worship, atonement and expressing gratitude. Fasting is also about putting yourself in the shoes of those less fortunate, and I scowl myself for whinging about the lack of water I’ve drank through the day. The festivities and socialising go well into the night, with malls staying open until 2am, the city operating almost nocturnally.
Soon enough though, the crowds to disperse to get some rest before the suhoor, or morning meal, is served just before dawn. Fruits, sweetened grains, yoghurts and puddings are the main fare, but I turn off my alarm and sleep in instead. I need all the rest I can get if I’m going to get up and do it all again tomorrow.