The intimate sanctity of Ramadan

By Ella Tanner - International Representative (Dubai)

Day to day, it can be easy to forget that I live in an Islamic country. Dubai is a wonderful, bubbling fusion of almost every nationality in the world; representing a number of faiths, ethnicities and lifestyles. However, for around a month every year, Islam values are at the forefront of life in Dubai. During Ramadan, we do not eat or drink (or smoke or gossip) in public spaces out of respect to our Muslim friends who are fasting.

One of my friends has agreed (following one of my ever-annoying requests to know everything about everything) to speak to me about fasting during Ramadan. I want to know why she does it, and how it is possible that she does not eat or drink during the daylight hours when the temperature reaches over 40 degrees.

When I call my friend several weeks into Ramadan, it is around 4:30pm, and she is still at work. I am surprised as working hours are reduced in the UAE by 2 hours during Ramadan (even for non-Muslims, which is why I am able to make a call that was not work related at 4:30pm!). However, as you can imagine, work does not stop just because someone is fasting. There are still deadlines to be met, emails to be responded to, and phone calls to be answered.

The first thing my friend says to me is, “let’s keep this anonymous”. Of course, I am more than happy to do this, but I am curious as to why. She (who for the sake of convenience I will call “Anon”) tells me: “Fasting is a very personal thing between one person and god’. Fasting is one of the pillars of Islam and is different to any other worship. When you give to charity or say your prayers [other pillars], you feel good about yourself. Fasting is internal, between you and god. Nobody needs to know that I am fasting.”

Anon is 36 and Egyptian. She has lived in Dubai for over ten years with her young family and lives a fairly typical life. However, during Ramadan her day is, in my eyes, anything but typical. The day starts at around 3:45am, before the sun rises. As she usually goes to bed around 1am, it is difficult for her to drag herself out of bed this early. Nevertheless, if she does not eat and drink at this time, the day will be testing, especially during the summer heat. So she usually has something small and easy, like some water and a banana, before her morning prayers at around 4am. When I suggest an earlier bedtime might help, she laughs: “I know, I know…time just gets away from us, especially with the kids’” 

I ask how, practically, she is able to deal with the hunger and thirst during Ramadan. How does she not get dehydrated and hangry? Anon explains: “The first two or three days are the hardest. I have coffee withdrawals and headaches, but after that you just get used to it.’” I push her a little further; “how can you just get used to it?”, I ask. She replies,

“God asked me to do this as a Muslim, it is very sacred to me. Plus, I have been doing this since I was very young.”

Anon tells me that she started fasting when she was 8 or 9 years old. In Egypt, the whole month of Ramadan is one big celebration. Every night, families join together to celebrate and break their fast. Anon says: “It is so exciting, you get caught up in the celebrations, you end up begging your parents to let you fast’”. Children start small, fasting from breakfast until lunchtime until eventually, after many years practice, they are able to fast from sunrise until sunset.

I asked Anon about Iftar: do they sit at the dinner table, food spread out in front of them, fork in hand, waiting for the clock to strike? Not at all. In fact, when sunset comes, Anon usually is caught-up playing with the kids so does not have a big meal straight away. Instead, she usually has a date and a drink of water or juice. Then, once she says her evening prayers and put the kids to bed, she can sit down to eat.

Anon is excited about the upcoming Eid Al Fitr that marks the end of Ramadan: ‘“It is a big celebration with your friends and family, like your Christmas celebrations! You give gifts of new clothes, eat feasts and come together as a family”.

I am impressed with Anon’s commitment and strength, but not necessarily surprised. Anon is a kind and strong person; her faith only makes her stronger. However, like Anon says, fasting is personal. This post is only able to document her experience.

I enjoy Ramadan as I am invited to big feasts most nights of the week by my Muslim friends, and always made to feel welcome. After speaking to Anon however, I have a whole new outlook on fasting. It is not about the feasts (although, what a great bonus!) it is about the personal and precious sacrifice made by one person for their faith.