The moon is full which means we are now two weeks into the Holy Month of Ramadan.  

During Ramadan while the sun is up, Muslims aren’t allowed to drink, eat, smoke, listen to music, engage in sexual intercourse or think impure thoughts for a whole month.  After the sun goes down, I know that eating and drinking non alcoholic beverages is allowed, and I think people can make love, but I can’t guarantee that.  Also, I have seen people listening to music and smoking in public after dark.  Actually, impure thoughts are probably never condoned.  

Part of the point of denying the flesh in the heat of the sun is to think about those less fortunate than ourselves that are poor or sick.  This, to me, is a really laudable aim.  Along with the requirements I described, people are also supposed to give to the poor.  This is a time when employees may get a bonus and donations of food to Mosques increase.  Also, for Eid Al Fitar, the festival at the end of Ramadan, people buy and slaughter goats and give some of the meat to poor families.  It is also expected that people try to be kind and patient with one another which is difficult when they feel hungry and thirsty.  Muslims are also required to read the entire Qur’an during Ramadan.  I saw a guard walking back and forth across the gate he was in charge of while reading the Qu’ran as a way of not thinking about hunger.  Finally, visiting family members and friends that you don’t always see is encouraged.

What do you imagine was the immediate question that came to mind when I learned about these rules?

I wondered if Muslims have a lot of “afternoon delight”s during the other eleven months of the year.  I’m not proud of this but at least I am being honest.

Once the sun goes down, there is a call to prayer.  This indicates that it is OK to break the fast.  At this time, people have a drink of water, and if they are very traditional may eat dates and camel’s milk which is the way the prophet Mohammed broke his fast each evening during Ramadan so many years ago.  Then people go to the mosque and pray.  After that, they have Iftar, which is the big evening meal.  Then they go and pray again.  Around 2 or 3 in the morning, many Muslims eat an additional meal, but my friends who are Muslim just get up to drink water in the middle of the night because they find eating at 3 in the morning makes it difficult to sleep and it makes them feel hungrier during the day.  Our students in the dormitories claim that they tend to eat and hang out with friends from sundown until the 3 am meal and I suspect that this practice accounts for their visible fatigue in class more than the fasting.

It seems that one purpose of Ramadan is to test the faith of Muslims, but here in the UAE it definitely tests the patience of non-Muslims because Islam is the state religion. This means that cafes and coffee shops are closed during the day.  Basically, no one is allowed to do any of the things that Muslims can’t do in public, including in the car. If you were caught eating, drinking or smoking, you could be arrested.  Of course, sexual intercourse isn’t allowed in public anyway, so that isn’t a real inconvenience. 

Anyway, we aren’t allowed to eat or drink in public at work either.   Our cafeteria doesn’t serve food during Ramadan, but we are allowed to sit in the room and drink and eat.  Many of us have also been reduced to drinking water in bathroom stalls during breaks when we can’t get to the cafeteria.  Even though I am not fasting during the day, the restrictions upon us do have an interesting effect which has made my experience with Ramadan memorable.  After about 3 hours of not drinking, I start to get a headache.  On the first day of Ramadan three years ago we weren’t prepared for it starting, so we didn’t bring any food or drink and after 8 hours of not eating or drinking I felt sick.  When we got home, we drank and ate a bit and then slept for a few hours.  We were just exhausted from getting so dehydrated.  It has taught me to think about the suffering of others, but mostly I feel really bad for my students when they are suffering with hunger and thirst while trying to study English. 

Restaurants and pubs are open at night during Ramadan, but no music is played.  At first it seems really weird to be in a pub without music, but you can get used to anything apparently.  Also, the outdoor seating is closed off and sometimes the windows are covered up.  Having bars open is a relatively new thing, but I have to admit it is nice that they are open just to have some semi-normalcy, I guess.

This Ramadan there was a lot of press about how healthy fasting is, but according to numerous studies most people gain weight during Ramadan because they engorge themselves at night after being hungry all day.  I have found this to be true when I had stressful jobs that didn’t really allow me to eat during the day.  After work, I used to eat a ton until I was much more than full.  Knowing I can’t eat in public makes me think a lot more about food.  Sometimes even if I have eaten a snack in the late afternoon, I feel like I should be eating when I hear the call to prayer at sunset. 

Some have criticisms about legislating the observance of Ramadan.  Their thesis is that if Ramadan is meant to test one’s faith, it is more of a challenge to resist temptation when it is front of you.  By not allowing anyone to eat or drink in public, the test of faith is made a little easier.  Oh well, it is still quite a challenge.  

I will be glad when Ramadan is over, but maybe a little sad knowing this will be my last year here.