You’d think that not eating or drinking anything all day for an entire month in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth would be a great way to die. And yet, this is exactly what Muslims have done for more than a millennium as one of the five pillars of Islam: fasting during the month of Ramadan. And while I’d heard of the practice before moving to Dubai, experiencing it was a different matter entirely.
I had only been in the city a few weeks when the Islamic calendar month of Ramadan began, so I was still getting acclimated to the culture of Dubai when the fast began. While Muslims were expected to observe the fast, non-Muslims such as myself and most of my colleagues at the school where I taught did not. However, by virtue of living in the Muslim country, we had to make concessions throughout the month.
The primary way this affected me was the necessity to not be seen eating or drinking anything during daylight hours by an observant Muslim. The thinking behind this was that seeing someone engaged in the act of eating or drinking would tempt them to break the fast. This included prohibitions on eating in a car, bus, or other windowed enclosure. Within the first week, news began to circulate about a western expatriate who had been foolhardy enough to chew gum in a bus (strict interpretations of the prohibition include anything passing through the lips during Ramadan days), an act which was observed by an Emirati. The man had been summarily deported.
Thankfully, our school provided “safe places” for non-Muslim teachers and students to eat and drink without fear of repercussions: the students in the cafeteria, the teachers in the teachers’ lounge. Even still, I had to make sure my classroom was empty in between classes before I could steal a swig or two from my water bottle. Ultimately, the Muslim students and faculty were very understanding of the cultural divide there as we tried to respect their fasting (we all know how tough it is when you’re hungry and someone starts eating something in front of you, or even when someone just mentions a particularly delicious food or restaurant). It was a difficult transition, but one that ultimately brought the culture of the teachers and students – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – together rather than emphasizing the differences.
The Islamic calendar is a lunar one, so its cycles don’t match up exactly to the Gregorian years and months used in the West. With the Islamic year being ten or eleven days shorter than its Western counterpart, the month of Ramadan begins a week and a half earlier each year. For my first year in Dubai, Ramadan pretty evenly matched up with the beginning and end of September. So, right around the dog days of summer, in one of the hottest climates on earth (ironically, “Ramadan” is Arabic for “burning heat”). And the only water we could drink was whatever we could sneak when no one was looking. Of course, Muslims observing the fast had a much harder time of it physically, but they also had the added incentive of spiritual duty. We were mainly trying to keep from getting thrown in jail or deported.
In trying to balance both the decreased demand for daytime meals and the desires of non-Muslim expatriates or visitors, a few restaurants kept their doors open for lunch during Ramadan. In the mall nearest our school, the only sit-down restaurant that was open for lunch divided the restaurant with a screen, shielding Muslim passersby from the sight of diners eating within. In the food court nearby, only two or three of the several dozen fast-food joints served meals during the daytime.
One of those food court restaurants was Burger King. After visiting the Bangladeshi consulate to apply for our travel visas for the trip we planned to take during the Eid al-Fitr holiday (which celebrates the end of the holy month of Ramadan), two of my friends and I, famished after a long day of running around, stopped off at the food court to grab a much-needed bite to eat. While Burger King was open, the food court dining area – a public place in full view of Muslim shoppers – was not. All orders were to-go only. Which, considering it was a several-minute walk to reach the nearest exit to the mall, much less to drive or taxi home, meant that by the time we would be able to get to a safe dining area, our food would be quite cold.
So we improvised.
Bathroom stalls in Dubai are, on the whole, the largest and most sumptuously appointed of any city I’ve explored, and those in the Dubai Festival City mall are no different. Complete with a bidet in each stall, the stalls themselves are wonderfully devoid of the gaping cracks between door and doorframe that are hallmarks of American public restrooms. Thus, my friends (both females) and I took advantage of the privacy afforded by the mall’s restroom stalls and transformed our respective restrooms into our own private Ramadan lunchrooms. My burger and fries were still hot, my Coke was still fresh, and I was able to enjoy my meal without fear of jail or deportation. Win-win for everyone.
After the skullduggery of daytime eating and drinking ended at sunset, however, the best part of Ramadan began: the Iftar. The traditional evening meal breaking the day’s fast, the Iftar was a daily celebration of food and fellowship. The restaurants that had closed their doors during the day flung them open at sunset to welcome diners of all creeds. I partook of a number of Iftar dinners throughout the two Ramadans I spent in the city, from luxuriant buffets in five-star hotels to potluck affairs held at our school amid other Ramadan festivities.
Perhaps my favorite Iftar dinner, however, was at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant around the corner from my apartment in the older neighborhood of Hor Al Anz East. A few of my colleagues and I were the only Westerners present, so the bulk of the diners were Muslims breaking their fast. They hailed from Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia, Somalia, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and beyond, but the whole atmosphere was full of camaraderie and thanksgiving. And though much of the food was foreign to my American stomach, it was a smorgasbord of delicious traditional dishes that filled my belly as much as my fellow diners’ reverie filled my heart. I even got to try goat, which, while gutted of internal organs, was laid out on the buffet whole, head and all. It was a bit gamey, but delicious.
In fact, it tasted a bit like chicken.