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Ramadan and me

As a non-Muslim in Abu Dhabi, the month-long fast took Brian Cummins some time to get used to

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, and inset, Brian Cummins with his wife.

Fri, Jul 4, 2014, 11:39


Brian Cummins

I have lived and worked in the Abu Dhabi with my wife since 2010. This year, I am teaching an English summer course to young Emirati students fasting during Ramadan. Like many Irish and western expats living in this part of the world, being a non-Muslim during Ramdan in a Muslim country can be difficult, especially when you are out and about in the hot desert sun and have to remain conscious of where to eat, drink and how to go about daily life during the holy month.

So what is Ramadan? Ramadan is the ninth lunar month of the Muslim calendar and occurs about 11 days earlier every Gregorian year. The start and end of the month is determined by the sighting of the new moon. The word “Ramadan” comes from the Arabic root word “Ramida” meaning “scorched heat” or “parched thirst”. The month holds special importance since the Quran, the Holy Book of the Muslims, was first revealed to the Prophet during Ramadan. Furthermore, fasting is recognised by Muslims around the world as one of the five pillars of Islam; the others being faith, prayer, charity and the pilgrimage.

Ramadan fasting is not just about the food; no drink, no cigarettes and no sexual relations are permitted either during the day time. Lies, slander, greed and backbiting all nullify the fast. So it is a time for restraint.

With a growing expatriate population in the UAE, the country’s laws demand that public eating and drinking is banned and non-Muslims like myself working here must also restrain themselves. Like all westerners here, we try to respect local customs. It is frowned upon to flaunt food in public.

The fast is during daylight hours, from dawn to dusk, between roughly 6am and 6pm. The first meal of the day is called “Suhoor”, which is followed by the call to prayer. The meal to break the fast is called “Iftar” and so to lure in the hungry masses, many restaurants serve remarkably inexpensive Iftar buffets.

The simple task of keeping yourself hydrated and fed during the day can be an ordeal when you’re not used to it. As a teacher, I cannot drink or eat my lunch in front of my students because they are fasting. I try to eat a large breakfast every morning and bring a large lunch, which I consume in hiding with my non-Muslim collegues in confined spaces such as a pantry or kitchen. I forgot my lunch yesterday though and spent my lunchtime searching for Abu Dhabi for a café or restaurant serving food. It was not an easy task – those that are open have blacked out windows or curtains.

In recognition of the difficulties of fasting, UAE labour law prescribes a reduction in office hours by two, and most places work from 9am to 3pm. This is usually factored into the yearly work plan and many account for Ramadan being a dead month, work-wise. As most employees take annual leave during the summer months to avoid the scorching heat, there is about three months of low work activity per year, which is remarkable in such a fast-growing economy.

Some restaurants and many nightclubs are closed since an alcohol ban is enforced across the Emirates during the month. However, some hotels in Abu Dhabi which are popular with tourists continue to serve alcohol to keep the customers happy as we near the end of this year’s World Cup.

Another thing to note during the month is the predominance of dates being sold at supermarkets, since the date along with water is used to break the fast (petrol stations offer free dates and water to travellers on the road needing to break their fast).

There are also extra prayers called Taraweeh, specific to this month – and Muslims try and read as much of the Quran as they can. The last 10 days become especially significant since it is believed the Quran was revealed during this time. Although the actual date is unknown, many Muslims believe it was the 27th night of the month, and many stay up praying.

Night becomes day – malls are open until 1am, shisha tents until 3, and then it starts all over again with the call to prayer just before 6am.

Ramadan does have one major downside, and that’s driving – the roads become even more hazardous than usual. Speeding and traffic accidents increase between 4pm and 7pm daily with people rushing home to be with their families for iftar. There is a radio campaign running continuously at the moment asking drivers to slow down and be respectful of other drivers during Ramadan, and there is a large police presence on the roads every morning and evening.

I’ve found a new admiration for my Muslim friends, colleagues and students for fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. My students “just get on with it”, even though they’ve been up for five hours already before my 9am classes start. What I really appreciate about Ramadan is how it brings families and neighbours together, because they visit one another’s homes every night for iftar parties.

As an expat and non-Muslim you get used to it too. I would like to believe that westerners and non-Muslims here become more appreciative of the simple things, like having a sandwich or drinking water when we want. Many of these daily freedoms we take for granted for the other eleven months of the year in the Muslim world.

There are only 24 more days until the moon sighting committees of the region decide when Eid-al-Fitr will begin, therefore signifying the end of Ramadan 2014.

Ramadan Kareem from Abu Dhabi.

Brian Cummins is a teacher of English in Abu Dhabi and founder of the free information website Brian will host a series of free “how-to” sessions for new arrivals to Abu Dhabi, beginning August 20th at the Grand Millenium hotel. Email for details.