My Abu Dhabi Ramadan

The Muslim fasting period of Ramadan has been coming and going for centuries, but never before have Muslim minorities in the West been under such scrutiny. This year’s Ramadan starts tomorrow. The UK’s Channel 4 TV channel has cleverly launched a set of what it calls “provocative” programming around Ramadan, including tonight’s Documentary, A Very British Ramadan, and a call to prayer to be broadcast each morning at 3am.

It’s strange that programmes about an ancient religious festival should be seen as provocative at all, but there is now a hardcore Muslim-hating minority across the Western World that never wastes an opportunity to throw hatred at Muslims, much as monkeys in the zoo enjoying throwing shit. Thus, the Channel 4 decision to run Ramadan-themed programmes is a great piece of trolling, designed in part to provoke bigots who think Islam has no place in British society. And it seems to be working.

Of course, the average Muslim-hater has little or no contact with Muslims or the Muslim world. They live in a fantasy land where Muslim countries teem with extremists, and are dangerous places to visit. I admit that I too had preconceived ideas about Muslim countries, especially Arab ones.

Being British and Jewish, I was nervous when I won some contract work in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, in the mid 1990s. I had previously been to Turkey, but the UAE was a more intimidating prospect. The airport welcome was friendly though, and I easily got a cab, with a talkative driver, to my downtown hotel. The UAE is a fairly conservative country, although moderate by the standards of its neighbour, Saudi Arabia. I found that as a foreigner, I could order beer in the hotel, and wasted no time in doing so.

I then learned that Ramadan would begin two days into my visit, and wondered what this would mean. I soon discovered that no food or drink, even water, was served during daylight hours. The office I was working in adjusted its hours to make life easier for its employees, beginning at 7am and ending at 2pm, so that people didn’t become too hungry or thirsty during the working day.

At one point, I was in a meeting with an Arab manager, and said I was thirsty. Without thinking, he reached into his desk and produced a bottle of water for me. As I started to drink, he suddenly remembered it was Ramadan, and asked me to drink the water out of sight of the office, in the stairwell. I was discovering that for Arab Muslims, just like for my own Jewish family, religious rules are made to be twisted and broken. People of all origins enjoy their traditions, usually without thinking a great deal about their origins.

The hotel served breakfast early, so that people could eat before sunrise. And people did eat. A lot. Likewise, after sunset, a huge Iftar buffet was laid on to break the fast. Although Ramadan is supposed to be a time of fasting, in fact Muslims tend to eat more during this time than the rest of the year. A huge meal tends to be taken after sunset, and another huge breakfast before the sun rises. As I said, religious rules are made for twisting.

One of the most amusing sights I saw was in the pastry and ice cream shops around the city. In the few minutes before sunset, people would grab a table and peruse the menu. Waiters would stand to attention, waiting. And as the call to prayer began to echo through the city, the waiters rushed out and people shouted their orders. Soon, huge slices of cake and towering ice cream sundaes were being served and devoured.

More entertainment was provided by an ongoing debate over whether nicotine patches were allowed during daylight. Many Emiratis were heavy smokers, and smoking was haraam during daylight, because the smoke was taken orally. The UAE’s top mullahs pondered this deep theological problem as the nervous smokers waited; and then, to general relief, they announced that the daytime use of nicotine patches was halal.

My time in Abu Dhabi blew away preconceptions I had about Arab culture. For sure the country is run by a dictatorship, and is a deeply conservative culture. It isn’t the kind of place I could have considered staying in long-term – my party lifestyle would have been too severely compromised. Yet the people were among the friendliest I had encountered – more so than most European or American strangers I had met in my travels. As for my being of Jewish origin; after a few days I was confident enough to tell locals this fact, and met no hostility at all; the strongest reactions were along the lines of “Ah! If only the Israelis and Palestinians could work together. They are the smartest peoples in the Middle East.”

I welcome the Channel 4 experiment in Ramadan programming. For most, open-minded people, it represents the chance to learn something. And anyone who is upset by the coverage deserves to be upset: morons will be morons.

6 thoughts on “My Abu Dhabi Ramadan”

  1. I’ve had a number of friends who’ve worked in Arab countries, and have visited Dubai (a few years ago) and Qatar (in the 1980’s). My experience is pretty similar to yours (Dubai is less conservative than Abu Dhabi, Qatar was a little more so, but my friend who had worked in Saudi told me nowhere near as bad as Saudi – his term). As a resident of either you tend to need a licence to buy alcohol (in Qatar, the remaining vestige of British power was issuing alcohol licences!), but the attitude is different. In Qatar a limit was an absolute limit; in Dubai, exceeding the limit qualified you for a free case of Becks!!

    My friend in Dubai bought his alcohol from one of the smaller Emirates (because it was cheaper), and drove 40-50 miles back to Dubai, through Abu Dhabi. I think the rules may be tighter now, because he could have been prosecuted for this under Abu Dhabi law.

    Going back to Qatar, I met a few of the well placed locals, including two brothers. The elder had been brought up before the country got wealthy, the younger after, and the difference was very apparent in both appearance and “aura”. The older brother was clearly not a man to cross, the younger was softer. The passage of time probably means there are fewer of the older generation still around.

  2. Sorry, meant to add that, as a practical issue, observing Ramadan must be quite difficult in the UK at this time of year, because the days are so long (about 16 1/2 hours). Obviously, Ramadan originated near the equator, where day times don’t vary much from 12 hours. How would this work for a Muslim living in (say) the Arctic circle, where daylight is continuous at this time of year? Just curious.

    1. Good point. UK Muslims dread Ramadan at this time of year! It was January when I was in UAE, so the days were a little shorter than 12 hours, and the temperatures were cool. It must be tough to go without water for 12 hours when it’s 45C outside.

  3. Royal baby: went fishing. Got a bite (from the Indy comments section). I find the “likes” a bit odd.

    jamesdar • 17 hours ago

    I reckon they should name him after one of the Olympians who inspired us all last year.
    How about Mohammed?

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    gonwithewind > jamesdar • 17 hours ago

    How about an English name…? Or would that not be considered PC correct…???

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    jamesdar > gonwithewind • 17 hours ago −

    I believe Mohammed is currently a very popular name in England.

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    gonwithewind > jamesdar • 14 hours ago

    Only because, as everyone knows, the English are wimpish, obsequious crawlers…

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