Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ramadan in Dubai

Worshipers arriving at Safa Park Mosque
I've been back in the Arab world for nearly four years, but I never anticipated and participated in the holy month of Ramadan as much. This is largely due to @Twitter, where sharing is the name of the game. Tweeps from many parts of the world -- the UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, the U.S., U.K, Canada --  have been tweeting and blogging about their experiences and activities during this blessed month.
Waiting to break the fast
My friend Naeema (@Naeema), who you met in a previous post, wondered a couple of days ago if I would be writing about Ramadan in Dubai. Though I don't go out much, I have so far formed a few personal impressions and perceptions of Ramadan in the emirate.
Iftar gets underway
The first is the spirit of sharing and community at the mosques just before Iftar, or the evening meal when Moslems break their dawn to sunset fast. Colorful straw mats cover the pavements outside the mosques or their courtyards, sometimes in tents or marquis, and the meal is laid out for all, mainly the less fortunate, to come at will and share, whether Moslem or not.
The hustle and bustle in anticipation of the Maghreb prayers and Iftar is truly infectious and I couldn't help but stop to take some pictures. I was greeted with enthusiasm by those distributing the food on the mats and those arriving to take their place. Everyone was eager to chip in on what the evening meal consisted of. And while I was taking pictures, people kept on arriving with bags of food and fruits to include in the Iftar. These meals are donated by the affluent or benevolent organizations to mosques in their respective neighborhoods and are part of the traditions of Ramadan.

Rice and chicken on menu at Jumeirah Al Wasl Road mosque
This spirit is also shared in smaller circles -- for instance, where I live I am always welcome to share Iftar with my landlord and his family. No invitation is needed. When you hear the call to prayer, you can just join.

I haven't been to any of the Ramadan tents around Dubai, but I was out with some friends a few nights ago for Suhoor, again at Reem al Bawadi (driving phobia, it's two minutes from my home). The cafe and restaurant were packed with patrons enjoying live entertainment by Syrian singer and oud player Ahmad Bassem, which was interrupted by one of the most famous Syrian TV series -- Bab al Hara. Now in its 5th season, the series is compulsory viewing during Ramadan as are many others, including 3yza Atgawi

The mellawi dancer at Reem

Every half-hour or so, a mellawi dancer took center-stage and charmed with his traditional Arab dance, similar to that of the Dervish. The place was full of families and groups of friends enjoying sheesha, Arabic sweets, fruits, juices, delicious Moroccan tea and playing cards or backgammon.

There's also a kahwaji, or coffee man (above), who goes around topping up cups of bitter Arabic coffee. And the gathering lasts until the early hours, preceding Suhoor, the light meal consumed before Fajr or dawn, or late at night for those who prefer not to interrupt their sleep.

Traditionally, Suhoor and Iftar are supposed to be very simple meals to help remind the faithful of those less fortunate since Ramadan is a time for worship, self-discipline, self-purification, prayer and charity. It is also held that the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) broke his own fast at Iftar time by eating a date -- hence the custom of having a date and some water, praying and then enjoying the main course.

But what has captured me most this Ramadan, and again because I heard so much about it on Twitter, is the Taraweeh. These are special prayers featuring recitations of the Qur'an after 'Isha (the last evening prayer). From the Arabic word meaning rest and relax, the Taraweeh are long prayers, sometimes lasting over an hour. They are performed at the mosque and the congregation stands upright to read and listen to passages from the Qur'an. After each cycle -- standing, bowing, prostrating, one sits for a period of rest before continuing, hence the name rest prayer or Taraweeh. Some 1/30th of the Qur'an is read each evening so that by the end of the blessed month, the entire Holy Book would have been completed.

Attending Taraweeh in congregation at the mosque after 'Isha is recommended but voluntary and seems to be a very popular and anticipated feature of the day. Personally, I live right next to a mosque and sit out in the garden to join in these prayers, and try to connect as much as possible.

When I asked an Emirati friend what Ramadan meant here, he said worship, charity, family gatherings, volleyball (it seems young people enjoy playing that on the beaches or in the desert) and Taraweeh. I can subscribe to that!

(More pictures taken at the Safa Park and Jumeirah Al Wasl Road mosques can be seen in my Picasa Photostream in the sidebar)