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.