The holy month of Ramadan is almost here – but what does it mean for non-Muslims? And how will the UAE do things differently to our previous experiences of Ramadan in Qatar?
(Ahead of our first Ramadan in Qatar I wrote this post, which explored what the holy month means for non-Muslims in a Muslim country. This post is a kind of updated remix as we approach our first Ramadan in the UAE.)
Being based on the lunar cycle, Ramadan moves forward by around 11 days each year.
That means it will start next week, most likely on Monday, once the crescent moon is observed. That’s more than a month earlier than our first Ramadan in Doha, which affects everything from the temperature outside to the timing of the school day.
Yes, it’s hot here currently, but Ramadan falling at a time that’s as much as 10 degrees (C) cooler than previous years can only help when it comes to walking off all those post-Iftar calories.
And whereas Ramadan in 2013 and ’14 was within the holidays and so had no impact on school life, this year (and for the foreseeable future) it falls almost entirely within term time. For example, Kid A’s end of year exams were brought forward to the last week, in order to be completed before the school day shortens.
So whether you’re Muslim or not, Ramadan affects pretty much every aspect of daily life for the month. Eating and drinking in public is forbidden for everyone – in the park or in your car, you can’t drink water or even chew gum.
It affects where you can go as cinemas, restaurants and shops all reduce their daylight opening hours. (Naturally, Doha also closed parks for renovation during previous Ramadans, a move I can’t see being repeated here.)
And it affects the working day, from what happens at lunchtime (when non-fasters will gather in kitchens, or appropriate an empty meeting room, and eat behind closed doors) to spreading out the rush hour (to reflect the reduced working hours during Ramadan for Muslims).
We loved Ramadan in Doha; the city transformed from a snarling ball of pent-up frustration to become almost unrecognisably chilled out. Mrs LC loved it for the brief respite it gave from the Dohapocalypse traffic. Her 45 minute commute became a nine-minute thing of joy and wonder.
Reflection and calm
Ramadan is not a public holiday itself; that comes at the end of the month, with the festival of Eid-al-Fitr, a time of celebration and gratitude.
It is one of the five pillars of Islam and requires all adult Muslims to abstain from food, drink and tobacco between sunrise and sunset. During the holy month, Muslims should have a special focus on repentance, increased prayer and increased charity.
Living in a Muslim country means Ramadan is a time for reflection and calm whether you’re fasting or not. You’d think mindfulness, fasting aka 16:8 and giving back to the community are new ideas, but they’re all absolutely core to the philosophy of Ramadan.
When a new crescent moon is seen, Ramadan starts the following day. In a nice tradition, this is still done manually and reported to a special committee which forms for the occasion.
When the sun goes down…
Everyone is expected to dress conservatively, and adults are not allowed to eat or drink in public (yes, even including a cheeky swig of water whilst you’re stopped at a red light).
In Doha, almost nothing was available for sale or consumption during daylight hours, but from what I can tell, that’s not the same here in Abu Dhabi (in the same way that malls, supermarket etc are open on Friday mornings here, which they weren’t in Qatar).
I had also forgotten that Qatar also froze new releases at the cinema for the month (which is why I found myself buying two tickets to see San Andreas last July; by the final week of Ramadan, there was literally nothing else left to see).
So I don’t know, kids – my cinema app says Finding Dory is coming to the UAE on the 16th, and I guess we’ll find out then.
Qatar goes completely dry for the month, which doesn’t appear to be the case here, either. QDC, Qatar’s only outlet for buying alcohol for home consumption also closes completely (which means that this weekend brings the annual treat of outraged tweets from people stuck in the world’s longest queue as they stock up before it closes.)
Again, the suggestion is the UAE takes a more liberal approach, with restaurants and bottle shops remaining open, but with altered hours. (For a full Ramadan guide for Qatar, Doha News has got you covered.)
Iftars worth crossing town for
The city will come alive again as Iftar looms. Everyone I’ve spoken to here in Abu Dhabi suggests that the roads will be no place for the faint hearted as the last light of day fades (around 7:30pm here, currently). “Stay off the roads in the run-up to Iftar” seems like sensible advice wherever you are, as fasters low on blood sugar travel across town to be with family for the breaking of the fast.
For non-Muslims it’s perfectly ok to fast alongside your Muslim colleagues. Just don’t expect any prizes for doing for eight hours what they will be doing every day for a month.
Iftar, the meal taken to break the fast, is an enjoyable activity which non-Muslims can join as well, and the hotels and restaurants compete to build the most lavish indoor tents and serve the grandest feasts.
I’m really looking forward to trying some of these Iftars. The meal itself begins with some traditional nuts and fruit (to deliver a quick burst of energy) before moving onto what is essentially an evening brunch.
The clock is ticking because the meal needs to be served, the restaurant cleared and everything reset for Suhoor (the final meal taken before sunrise).
As I can attest, the prospect of sitting down to another meal of equal size within hours was literally the last thing on my mind. Now imagine doing that every day for a month…
Ramadan is also, unsurprisingly, commercial. I’ve had Ramadan greetings from everyone from my credit card provider to our favourite ride-hailing app (hi, Careem).
The supermarkets – never slow to spot an opportunity – have been gearing up for this for weeks. And that’s where the Vimto comes in.
Sales of this oldest-of-the-old-school British fruit cordial go through the roof in Ramadan. Here in the Gulf it has a generations-long association with Ramadan, its British origins now long-lost on its biggest market.
Its fruity sugariness is considered by many to be the perfect accompaniment at the breaking of the fast.
Whilst the idea of fasting may seem very hard to those of us who haven’t grown up with it, for Muslims Ramadan is looked forward to and welcomed back with open arms. It’s a time for increased reflection, for prayer, for families and friends.
Their happiness at the start of this month is infectious and turns Ramadan into a very special time for everyone.