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.

Morons, War and Oil Reserves

Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of which countries the US is at war with, or to guess who might be next. Without understanding the global picture, morons often believe the justification for each war individually: Afghanistan was because of 9/11; Iraq was about WMD; Libya was about protecting civilians… and so on.

Last week’s Economist magazine (a great read if you haven’t tried it) included a handy little table showing known oil reserves by country. Surprisingly (for morons anyway), the table correlates tightly with US foreign policy. As well as the bar showing the absolute number of barrels, the number on the right shows how much longer the oil will last, based on current rates of extraction.

A key statistic here is the size of the US reserves: only 11.3 years of home-produced oil left. Given that the US is hopelessly addicted to oil, and is by far the world’s largest consumer, it becomes easily understandable why America spends so many dollars (and military lives) on securing those territories that have most of the remaining oil.

Let’s run through the top ten countries in the list:

  1. Saudi Arabia: the US maintains a conservative Islamic dictatorship with a terrible human rights record. The presence of 5,000 US troops in Saudi Arabia led to the 9/11 attacks (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi).
  2. Venezuela: as every moron knows, Hugo Chavez is an evil dictator. Except in reality he’s been elected repeatedly in free and fair elections. In 2002, the Bush Administration attempted (and failed) to have Chavez removed in a military coup. America can’t tolerate a democratic regime outside its control sitting on 200bn barrels of oil – watch this space.
  3. Iran: they’re trying to make nuclear weapons! And the free world can’t have that, can we? Iran’s last democratic government was toppled by a CIA-backed coup in 1953. Sorry Iran, we simply can’t afford to let you have democracy.
  4. Iraq: over 100,000 civilians and 4,780 US troops have been killed to secure these 100bn barrel reserves.
  5. Kuwait: a US “ally” like Saudi Arabia (meaning a dictatorship backed by US military). Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 triggered the first US Gulf War).
  6. United Arab Emirates: another US “ally” (two of the 19 9/11 hijackers were from the UAE).
  7. Russia: these reserves are probably beyond US military reach. Sorry America!
  8. Libya: we’re only bombing to defend the poor civilians, honest! (On the other hand, civilians in Syria, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Bahrain and elsewhere will just have to look after themselves).
  9. Kazakhstan: borders both Russia and China. Perhaps this reserve partly explains the long-term US presence in nearby Afghanistan.
  10. Nigeria: a country corrupted almost beyond repair by its large oil reserves. Other West African countries such as Ghana are also finding large amounts of oil. Watch out Africa, China and the US like the look of your oil!