The American fast food chain 5 Guys has been announcing its imminent arrival to Downtown on giant hoardings for months. I am grateful that it waited till we were out of the country to finally open its doors to an eager crowd.
Sadly, this eyesore occupies a prime location at the entrance to Dubai Mall and within sight of the famous fountains. With so many better and more comfortable dining options close by it is astonishing how many people are willing to queue for a burger, hot dog and fries at all hours of the day. Change, if only for a month, is on the horizon though and this is one reason I am looking forward to experiencing my first Ramadan as a guest in Dubai.
The Holy Month begins on 18 June and how it is marked in Dubai will also be an opportunity to be better informed about the local culture and customs associated with this special time in the Islamic year. No excuses, but I have yet to visit the Jumeirah Mosque or the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding but I hope to soon.
Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam which all Muslims are expected to follow. The other four are Faith (Shahadah); Prayer (Salah), Charitable Giving (Zakah), and the Pilgrimage to Makkah (Hajj)
For Muslims, Ramadan means a daily fast lasting from sunrise to sunset. During Ramadan most restaurants and cafes will only open in the evening for Iftar, the meal that breaks the fast and stay open till much later. Some remain open till the small hours to offer Suhour menus, the meal that is eaten before sunrise. Those that do stay open during the day must serve discreetly, with blinds drawn in consideration and respect for those who are fasting. Eating, drinking, chewing gum and smoking in public is illegal at this time.
The fast is traditionally broken with dates and some water but is more festive during the evening when friends and family or business colleagues come together for prayers and a larger meal.
As Ramadan is a time for reflection, self-improvement and charitable giving the local media is full of ideas for ways that non-Muslim expats can feel engaged with their new locality during the next month.
Mosques offer free Iftar meals to the less privileged members of society, whether they are Muslim or not. These meals are usually sponsored by charities, companies, or individuals.
At the other end of the spectrum many of the smart hotels put up special Iftar tents where customers can enjoy a paid-for feast. These range from modern twists on Emirati specialties to just about every world cuisine imaginable. I have just spotted a listing for a Peruvian buffet and another venue focusing on Cajun and Creole dishes. Yet another is staging its celebrations on Dubai’s only revolving rooftop dining area.
Suggestions on what to wear to an Iftar, Ramadan hamper gift ideas for family and friends and even Ramadan apps indicate that much like our ‘winter festival’, 21st century commercial imperatives, not to mention the convenience of modern technology, have been woven into the fabric of Dubai’s Ramadan celebrations. Useful perhaps for many of Dubai’s residents is the app that allows you to calculate the percentage of your total wealth that you should be giving to charity. Less fancy, but practical is the one that links to GPS to advise travellers on the correct prayer times across international time zones.
The do’s and don’ts for non-Muslim residents during Ramadan are mostly common sense and to do with behaving in a respectful way in public. One tip that I probably wouldn’t have thought of is the one to avoid driving from 4pm to 7pm. The roads become jammed as many people rush home to break the fast and concentration can be affected if drivers have not had anything to eat or drink all day.
I have been invited to a hotel Iftar celebration later this month and am looking forward to taking in the culinary atmosphere of Ramadan for the first time. To witness a modern, buzzing metropolis like Dubai, move a little more slowly, traditionally and thoughtfully over the next four weeks or so will be a privilege.
To the Muslim friends I have made in Dubai and to those elsewhere in the world that I know too, I wish you Ramadan Kareem.