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Ramadan, Dubai style

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The way to ‘respect’ Ramadan is not only to abide by rules on public eating during daylight hours, but also to partake in the occasion — swapping drinks at the bar for an Iftar buffet.

Sacha Robehmed
29 July 2012

A twitter flurry was created in the UAE when TimeOut Dubai magazine recently recommended bars to try during Ramadan. The online article was seen as disrespectful by many, sparking the hashtag #StopTimeOutDubai. But others clearly thought this was an overreaction, particularly after the article was removed and an apology issued.

Given that live entertainment, loud music and dancing is forbidden during Ramadan, clubs close, but not before holding one last party prior to the start of Ramadan, typically advertised as being wilder or better than ever. Bars stay open but are quieter and low key. Given the largely expat audience who read the magazine to find events around town, it’s not surprising that TimeOut Dubai published the article.

Everyone has to publicly observe Ramadan in the UAE. From not drinking water whilst in a car, to not chewing gum in public, everyone must remember to respectfully follow certain rules. The rhythm of the day changes, planned around the fast. Roads are to be avoided before sunset as people hurry home to break the fast. Malls and restaurants are busy far later than normal, with special opening times. As I’m not currently in the Middle East, Ramadan this year is a collection of memories and a longing for the taste of Iftar, the sunset meal breaking the fast.   

I imagine that, like every year, there are light decorations adorning lampposts in the centre of main roads, signs and newspaper adverts wishing a happy Ramadan, ‘Ramadan kareem’, and tents erected across the city, many charitably giving away food. Before Ramadan started, our neighbours would construct their own tent. In the quiet residential street, they would swiftly erect a modestly sized structure in some unused parking bays across from their house. Cables and wiring were run over, so the ‘tent’ in fact had a television and air conditioning. Walking by in the evening, we would catch glimpses of its occupants sitting on cushions, chatting and enjoying Ramadan with friends and family.

At school, special arrangements were made. We weren’t allowed to eat in our classrooms, only at the cafeteria and surrounding picnic benches which were screened off. Best of all, (or so every schoolchild must have thought) were the shortened days, arriving later and leaving earlier. Ramadan was always a welcome change in pace. 

Although a time of abstinence and fasting, Ramadan is associated with food. Everyone in the UAE, regardless of religion, seems to attend an Iftar buffet at least once. Most restaurants, particularly those serving Arabic food, offer a special Iftar menu. The meal typically begins with dates and sugar-rich foods, including a juice made from sheets of crushed apricots, ‘qamardeen’, which we called ‘Sticky Stuff’ as kids.

A personal favourite is ‘qatayef’, small pancakes cooked only on one side, which is smooth whilst the other is rough where air bubbles have risen through. Qatayef are stuffed with either nuts or sweet cheese and fried until crisp, golden brown and delicious.

We adopted qamardeen, cut into smaller pieces, for our lunch boxes, and would pair plain unfried qatayef pancakes with strawberry jam for a snack. Unconventional and certainly not how the foodstuffs were intended to be consumed, we adopted and modified some of Ramadan’s specialities. In doing so, Ramadan became a special time for us. By participating and exploring we learnt to adapt and incorporate aspects of Ramadan into our lives.

Ramadan is a sensitive time, and every year there is always debate about the true meaning of Ramadan, of piety and abstinence versus gluttony, gorging and commercialisation.

The strong sentiment that TimeOut Dubai had been disrespectful was because Islamic values and the meaning behind Ramadan were felt to have been ignored.

But to my mind, the most disrespectful aspect of the article was that it did not offer something everyone could participate in. Ramadan is a time for community spirit and shared experience. The way to ‘respect’ Ramadan is not only to abide by rules on public eating during daylight hours, but also to partake in the occasion — swapping drinks at the bar for an Iftar buffet.

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