In the eyes of many people abroad, Dubai is characterized by its excess — the luxury sports cars, the hubristic buildings, and, of course, the enormous shopping malls. But beneath the glitz and the glam exists a country strongly influenced by Islam, as becomes evident during Ramadan.
For the rest of the year, it’s relatively easy for Western expats to forget they’re in the Arabian Peninsula. Dubai becomes a sort of Miami-in-the-desert. It can be a cliquish place, marked by national, socio-economic and racial divisions. Expats tend to stick to their own; it is easy to preserve this separatism because they aren’t expected to learn anything about the culture or religion of their hosts. In some ways, Ramadan breaks down these walls. Unlike other countries in which I’ve experienced Ramadan, such as Turkey or Morocco, in the UAE, Ramadan affects everyone, whether they observe it or not.
For some expats — particularly first-timers — Ramadan can be a shock to the system. Normally buzzing areas of the city, such as Dubai Marina, are suddenly ghostly during the day. Restaurants are closed. Eating, smoking or drinking water in public — even as temperatures soar well above 45 degrees — invites the possibility of a heavy fine and time behind bars. Very few allowances are made for non-Muslim foreigners – even though, for the first time this year, Dubai eased rules regarding daytime liquor sales, much to the delight of foreigners hoping for a buzz as they watch Euro 2016.
But, Dubai being Dubai, Ramadan in many ways has become commercialized, often to excessive levels. People sometimes spend over 100 euros on lavish, all-you-can eat Iftars, when the fast is broken. There are competitions for AED 10,000 (2,400 euro) shopping vouchers, and all sorts of deals enticing people to shop. What does this have to do with Ramadan? one is left wondering.
“These big and lavish meals actually kill the spirit of simplicity and sacrifice,” someone told me last year, noting that ostentatious displays of wealth are, in fact, a serious sin in Islam. On the other hand, Ramadan in Dubai brings together segments of society that spend the rest of the year ignoring each other. Ramadan in Dubai is a time of giving, and it’s impossible not to notice.
For example, I recently saw staff members of a very swanky hotel in Dubai Marina handing meals out to cab drivers. Numerous other organizations have donated to Dubai’s unsung heroes, the laborers who have made the city’s extraordinary expansion possible. While there are certainly organizations that do their part year-round, generosity certainly peaks at this time of year.
“Charity during Ramadan is the best charity of all,” a Muslim friend told me. “The bad part is that people don’t think of them much during the rest of the year.” And so, this special season reflects on the surreal normality of the rest of the Emirate year, with its wealth of contradictions.