It’s not dissimilar to the scene before the commencement of a race. Even to the casual observer there is a certain palpable tension in the air.
Barely a glowing orange slither of the sun sits above the shimmering horizon and eyes have already begun to dart around the room. Ears prick up and then, suddenly and sharply over the in-house speakers, the maghrib (sunset) prayer begins to wail out. Once completed, the ravenous community of Muslims who have gathered here at Asateer rise briskly and – with considerable decorum, it must be said – head for the vast array of food stalls.
This is Iftar, the ceremonial evening meal where Muslims break their day-long fast during the holy month of Ramadan. And since I surreptitiously ate earlier in the afternoon, I’m only too happy to let those who have fasted go first.
They soon return to their tables wearing expressions of gratitude and carrying plates which support small mountains of food. I can scarcely blame them. It’s now 7pm and these stoic people have had nothing pass their lips since dawn broke.
“It’s customary to end the fast with a date,” my host Maraika tells me. Observing others doing the same, I eat one of the sticky, overripe offerings. Maraika, the PR manager at Atlantis, The Palm – home of the tented Asateer dining quarters where we await our meal – proceeds to explain a little more about the food as we wait.
After the crowd thins, we approach a series of tables and cloches, where beaming staff members await. We are served a surfeit of beef and lamb, chicken with rice and currants, chick peas, vine leaves, light salads and kibbe (a croquette of fried onion and mincemeat). A cloying glass of pomegranate juice is proffered to help wash down the food.
Back at the table I tuck in and find myself lamenting that I hadn’t fasted too; the food is delectable but the quantity proves overwhelming. Feeling rather gluttonous and still dealing with a case of jet lag, I am escorted drowsily through the searing night air back to my room, where I promptly fall into a light coma.
It is after I take myself out of the hotel for a few hours the next day that I begin to better appreciate the privations that Muslims subject themselves to in the name of devotion.
It’s about 1pm and my stomach is signalling that it wants filling. Outside, the temperature is 46 degrees and the humidity is suffocating. Small tributaries of sweat running down my body sap me of energy at a rapid pace. Feeling an encroaching sense of guilt, but an even stronger sense of hunger, I retreat to my hotel, where several restaurants are serving lunch. I dine cloistered behind a series of wooden hoardings, the kind you might encounter at a building site, erected as a mark of respect for those fasting.
This is my second substantial meal in six hours. But when I return outside, feeling vigorous once more, it’s hard not to notice the industrious locals working all around me under a malevolent sun. Their hunger must be crippling.
Later that night I find myself at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) in the old neighbourhood of Bur Dubai. Here, within a traditional wind tower structure I – along with another 60 Western expats, including the US consul – am given a crash course in the basics of Islam. Partaking in another sumptuous Iftar, I can try to fathom how well received it must be by the fasters.
“It’s a most social time. Iftar provides an opportunity for Muslims to meet and share their daily experiences over a meal,” we’re told by the SMCCU general manager Nasif Kayad.
One of the SMCCU’s stated aims is to encourage expats to gain a better understanding of Islam and the local way of life. Looking around, I see the cultural centre volunteers and the visiting guests in animated, but respectful conversation. In these fraught times of religious zealotry and intolerance, this oasis of calm is quietly and admirably discharging its social duty.
Another illuminating experience follows early the next morning at the city’s glorious Jumeirah Mosque. Built between 1976 and 1979, it was a gift to the city of Dubai courtesy of the late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum. As far as gifts go, this is benevolence indeed.
Our tour here ties in with the previous night’s visit to the cultural centre and a program called Open Doors, Open Minds.
In Dubai, Islam is not just the major religion, it informs the whole way of life. And yet a mere 17% of Dubai’s population are native Emiratis, while the majority are a working class of Asian extraction. As well as the proliferation of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi expats, there is a small, affluent cross section of Westerners here too.
It stands to reason then, that in this interracial cauldron the dominant religion would look to demystify its customs to the overwhelmingly foreign populace.
In this spirit, we are led by a Miss Latifa, who is attired in the flowing jet black burqa customarily worn by Emirati women. But it’s when she speaks that I am taken by surprise. Instead of the nuanced English of a native Arabic speaker, her words carry the accent of a housewife straight out of EastEnders. “Now the fird pillar of Islam is wot’s known as zakat, the giving of ahhhms,” she explains. For an hour she addresses our group of fifty in cockney as we sit cross-legged before her on the ornate carpets, like a kindergarten class.
Through social programs like Open Doors, Open Minds, Dubai reveals itself as an exemplar of religious tolerance. In fact, the widespread acceptance of foreigners and their customs strikes you as a defining trait of the emirate. While visitors may feel a certain degree of respect for Islamic tradition is expected from them, the same tolerance is uniformly reciprocated towards foreign cultural practices.
Dubai is also notable as a remarkably orderly place. Not in the sense that the rights of the populace are curtailed, but perhaps as a condition of the prevailing religion and a certain inherent civic pride. Crime is non-existent, the roads are as smooth as glass, cleanliness within the city is a paramount concern and public infrastructure positively gleams in the desert sunshine. Even the less salubrious parts of town have a down-at-heel charm about them.
But it’s the emirate’s Islamic foundations that reach you on that most intrinsic level.
And if knowledge and understanding are considered a form of cultural nourishment, then Dubai offers an admirable level of sustenance for foreigners. Travellers to the emirate would be wise to acquaint themselves with some of the cultural experiences on offer. As anyone who has enjoyed a much anticipated Iftar meal will tell you, the world feels like a better place with a full stomach.