Ramadan Kareem to all my Muslim friends. There are a few things I really miss about living in Dubai and being there during Ramadan is one of them. I don’t fast. Instead, I was in the office cupboard with all the other non-Muslims, drinking forbidden coffee, standing elbow to elbow. Guaranteed that someone else in the cupboard was microwaving a curry. It’s a great way to get to know your colleagues!
During Ramdan, office hours finish at 3pm, there’s no traffic and everything is just a little bit more relaxed. It’s a really great month to be in the Middle East. There are down sides of course. Not being able to eat or drink anything in public during daylight hours being the obvious one. I’m a stickler for rules so never had any issues. At sunset, usually around 7pm, we’d meet for Iftar and celebrate breaking the fast, despite having spent most of the afternoon sipping lattes in the cupboard!
My 2-year-old nephew came to visit on a stop over from London to Melbourne one Ramadan. I didn’t know at the time but his Mum was secretly two months pregnant and I dragged her all over Dubai in the Summer heat with no water or food and she didn’t complain once. We had the best three days. Their body clocks were all over the place due to the long haul flights so while I went to work, they slept and then played in my apartment pool until I got home early from work and their day officially started.
Mall Food Courts are open to non-Muslims and children. Big wooden barricades block the view of people eating from others observing the fast. We were behind the barricade, finishing our late lunch when we got up to leave. My nephew was sipping on a giant fruit smoothie and was toddling in front of us. His Mum asked if he was okay with it. I said “yeah, worse case, if he spills it, we’ll find a janitor to help us clean it up”. She replied with “no, Ramadan?”. I have never wrestled anything off a toddler faster! There's zero tolerance for rule breakers; you go to jail until sunset and there are massive fines. To be fair, I think children are exempt but you still shouldn't flaunt it.
The high point of my entire year, possibly my entire time living in Dubai, was taking my nephew to play in the snow at Ski Dubai. Living in Australia, I’m not even sure if he’d ever seen snow at this point. We put on our snow suits and ventured out of the sunshine and into the -4 °C conditions of the snow park. We started off with a visit to the King penguins. While we listened to the instructor and watched the smaller penguins swimming in their enclosure, the bigger penguins had waddled into the space behind us. When we turned round to discover this, my nephew looked on aghast “the penguins are out, the penguins are OUT”. He tried his hardest to alert the adults of this disastrous situation. We were then given some fish to feed the penguins. King penguins are really big, taller than my poor nephew. He held out his gloved arm with a dangling fish but the penguin’s huge beak surrounded his arm and went in for a nibble. You know that crying silent laughter that can only be achieved when something so unbelievably funny is happening? My nephew is now sobbing “the penguin bit my finger”. We’re trying to console him. Do penguins even have teeth? While being bent over and howling with silent laughter. He is now 6 and doesn’t remember any of this so no lasting damage was done.
After the penguins we went on the chair lift. We asked if my nephew was allowed on, they said it was fine as long as we went with him (er, obviously, he’s 2). We jumped on and it was all fun and games for the first 10 seconds. Then the realisation that the chair had no back, no seatbelts, was ten metres up in the air over about 3cm of “snow” and we had a very slippery 2-year-old between us wearing a nylon ski suit which was anything but grippy. Thus began the scariest 15 minutes of my life. When we reached the top, the attendant asked if we wanted to stay on or get off. We said stay on, thinking it would just go around the wheel we could see up ahead and take us back down. To our absolute horror we turned the corner, only to reveal an enormous incline with hundreds of metres of Scare Lift track ahead of us. Aaahhhhhhhh. We were stuck on it for another 7 minutes with my nephew wriggling, demanding to get off. These are memories that I’ll keep forever.
My friends will be sitting down to their first Iftar soon. Maybe? Not sure what COVID restrictions are still in place. While living in Dubai, I received multiple group Iftar invites, always to amazing hotels. I never had to pay. An impossible selection of world foods set out as a buffet to choose from. After the call to prayer, we always waited for the people who had been fasting all day to hit the selection first. My favourite Emirati dish is Lamb Machboos - spiced lamb served with saffron rice from an enormous metal pot. The chef uses his hands to scoop it out and put it on your plate. The first time I saw this, I was horrified. Now in our post-COVID world, the thought of simply shaking someone's hand fills me with the same dread.
That first post-Ramadan coffee at your desk is really exciting. Not being allowed to do something makes doing it when you are allowed, really special. For weeks after every Ramadan, I would see people eating ice cream or sipping from a water bottle and panic, then remember, Ramadan is over for another year. Ramadan Mubarak to all those celebrating the Holy month.