On the buffet line at Al Halab, Ahmad piled another scoop of lamb stew on top of the mound of meat already filling his plate. I watched Jason carefully pour some harira soup, made with lentils and chickpeas, into his bowl; across from me, Perri added more fattoush salad to her pile of grape leaves, hummus and triangle slices of Lebanese bread. Everyone on the buffet line seemed to need at least two extra plates for all the chicken harees, hammour harra and fried kibbeh they planned to carry back to their tables. Waiters offered drinks like Jallab, a mix of grape extract and rosewater and Laban, a yogurt based drink mixed with mint. Everyone seated around us in the row of restaurants on the second floor of Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, from Chili’s to Japengos, stared at their food, forks lifted. But no one took a bite. Not yet.
Like an afternoon school bell on the day before summer vacation, the sunset call piped the sweet sound of relief through the mall’s loudspeakers. Forks immediately clanked against plates. Iftar had been called. It was Ramadan again.
Similar to last year, when I had lived in Abu Dhabi, I was once again unprepared for the month’s arrival. Because Ramadan began with a sighting of the new moon’s crescent on the ninth lunar month, it fell around ten days earlier every year on our Gregorian calendar. Unlike last year, I had new friends to share iftar meals with: Ahmad, Jason and Perri were my new colleagues at the American University in Dubai.
“It’s not like this in Syria,” Ahmad said between bites. “There, non-Muslims can eat in public during the day. The Gulf is so uptight.” A twenty-six-year-old Syrian American just out of law school, Ahmad moved to Dubai from Michigan, his hometown. A “cultural Muslim,” fasting during Ramadan was about the only thing he did for his faith. “If I didn’t fast,” he had told me, “it would be the last step. I couldn’t consider myself Muslim anymore. That would kill my mom.”
Before Ramadan started, Ahmad and I often grabbed lunch in the campus cafeteria or from the Starbucks next to our office. From my experience in Abu Dhabi, I had expected both on-campus food venues would be closed for Ramadan. Not only were they open, serving a full menu with the same hours of operation, but they continued to be as packed as ever. Emiratis still mingled in the Starbucks, not minding their non Muslim classmates guzzling cappuccinos only a few feet away. Three days into Ramadan, a Lebanese student proudly said to me, “Miss, I’ve only cheated once so far!” After a week, I got over my guilt and purchased lunch as before, but I still shoved the cafeteria food into my large purse and ate my sandwiches quickly behind my closed office door. Still, I didn’t know who I was hiding from. No one seemed to care.
In Battuta Mall’s food court, the rows of sushi and deli sandwiches normally on display behind glass cases were covered with dark cloths, but each counter was still open for takeaway during daylight hours. The popular Lime Tree café on Jumeriah Beach Road seemed deserted from the outside, but behind its boarded up windows the place was standing room only, packed with western couples in shorts and tank tops, reading the newspaper and eating gourmet sandwiches. It seemed that Ramadan gave expatriates even more of an appetite.
Thankfully, rather than focusing on what not to do, Dubai newspapers and magazines encouraged Muslim and non Muslim expatriates to enjoy the holy month, and almost all of their suggestions focused on food. Every other page in Time Out or What’s On magazine featured glossy advertisements for another gluttonous iftar buffet. In these ads, western expats and locals were pictured sitting together on Arabian carpets, smoking sheesha next to a pool, or lounging on comfy cushions with a view of Dubai’s frenetic skyline. The average price for one of these buffet meals was around forty dollars, but they could cost anywhere from twenty to several hundred. The more expensive venues weren’t only selling food, but also a fantasy of Arabian. Some hotels constructed traditional heritage villages of sorts, with tents, belly dancers and camels parading across the Gulf shore.
Older Emiratis were interviewed in newspapers about the ways Ramadan had changed over the years. They reminisced about communities coming together to memorize and recite pieces of the Koran. I read stories of Emiratis who broke their fast with dates and water, attended evening prayers, and then ate small meals of soup, rice and fish. At sunrise, a man would ride through the village on a donkey’s back, calling out to wake people just before sunrise. This Ramadan, Muslim professionals complained about all the work-related social engagements they felt pressured to attend. Others objected to all the Ramadan promotions that had been in full swing weeks before Ramadan was even called. Many Muslims wrote to their local paper about the increasing cost of the iftar buffets and Ramadan tents, complaining that the holy month had become a time to turn a profit rather than focus on individual spirituality. More than anything, Ramadan seemed to mark the great changes of modernization, and the highlight the divide between Muslims and non Muslims.
Despite plenty of articles attempting to explain and even demystify the purpose of Ramadan to western expatriates, I still got the sense from colleagues and non Muslim students that fasting for a whole month was not only backward, passé and ultimately unhealthy, but also simply something they did and we didn’t. In order to move beyond this rift and get into my own Ramadan spirit, I began to seek places and events where open minded exchanges between Muslims and non-Muslims were taking place.
“Finally full, mate?” Jason said to Ahmad when we had all finished our plates.
“Not yet,” Ahmad said. “I’m going up for thirds.”
A pair of young Emirati men stood under the sign, “Open Doors, Open Minds” at an elaborate, starkly white booth in the China Court of Ibn Battuta Mall. These volunteer-run booths, set up in all the major malls, were intended to inform western tourists about the purpose of Ramadan.
“Hello!” the two men at the booth said in unison, beaming at me. One of them led me to a plush white chair behind the front counter and introduced himself as Mohamed. “Do you know much about Ramadan?” he asked, his accent distinctly American. He looked so delighted to tell me about the holy month that I shook my head and let him repeat what I already knew. He genuinely seemed to want to help me—the unaware expatriate—avoid feeling isolated or confused during this month.
“In Dubai we get to see lots of people from all over the world,” he said when I asked him why he decided to volunteer. “But we don’t necessarily get to talk to them. With this program, we all get to talk.” These booths and other cultural exchange programs had been established by the Sheikh Mohamed Center for Cultural Understanding. Dubbed the “media company for our culture” by the Center’s director, the headquarters in downtown Dubai hosted cultural breakfasts and walking tours. Their aim was to promote a dialogue between expatriates and local citizens, and I signed up to participate in an iftar meal at the Center.
The next evening, I took a long cab ride to the SMCCU, which was in “Old Dubai,” an area alongside Dubai Creek called Bastakia. One of the oldest parts of the city, Bastakia was settled around 1900 by Persian merchants. In the 1990s, the Dubai government bought up the homes and restored or rebuilt them into historical society offices, art galleries and cafes.
Too early for the iftar meal at the Center, I walked around the Bastakia quarter. From the stone walkways to the walls surrounding me, everything was colored in shades of cool sandy beige and earthy clay, with burnt dusty brown edges. Pieces of the coral walls looked as though they had been rubbed down with sand paper, revealing traces of limestone underneath. In the distance, the great white dome of Bastakia’s mosque was shaped like the top of a mushroom. Wind towers dotted the tops of the restored buildings. The boxy structures trapped wind and funneled it down to the living quarters as an early form of air conditioning. Open on all four sides, the wind towers had vertical and horizontal bars running through the edges, sticking out into the alleyways above our heads. Their original function no longer necessary, the towers had become a decorative feature of Arabian architecture. The swirling latticework along the tops of the walls also added to the Arabian feel of the place.
Walking in Bastakia, a cool quietness seemed to shield my mind from its usual ramble of thoughts. Calm washed over me and I felt as though I had just woken from a nap, when the remnants of a dream lingered sweetly before receding back into my unconsciousness. I had never felt such immediate connection to any other place in the United Arab Emirates, but I had felt similarly in London’s old Square Mile and on top of Vysehrad Castle in Prague, places where the weight of history had been layered over, crumbling and restored throughout the centuries. I hadn’t thought any part of Dubai possessed enough history to make me feel this way.
Through the side door of the SMCCC, a young local woman ticked my name off her list and led me into the main room. Sunk below two stone steps, rows of golden cushions surrounded a maroon patterned Arabian carpet in the center of the room. Six covered silver platters were set on the carpet alongside Arabian coffee pots, paper plates, tiny cups and tissue boxes. As more guests arrived, I studied the Open Doors, Open Minds poster hanging on the back wall. It featured an attractive young Emirati family welcoming a western family into their home. Under the Open Doors Open Minds logo—two halves of a cracked circle held together by a black cord—was written, “Take time to discover, neighbors need not be strangers.”
“Hello, everyone!” I heard a young woman’s voice call out. About fifteen western expatriates ranging in age from early twenties to late sixties gathered around the cushions while ten young locals stood in the corner of the room, smiling at us. “I’m Mariam,” said a petite woman with a big voice. “Welcome to the Open Doors, Open Minds iftar dinner. First the other volunteers and I will do the maghrib prayer up on the roof for you to watch and take pictures, then we will break our fasts together.” She appeared so poised in front of this international audience, no small feat not having eaten all day. “In the spirit of Open Doors, Open Minds, I want you to feel free to ask us anything. ANYTHING. Even the ‘t’ word is on the table. Got it?”
What in the world was the “t” word?
“Terrorism,” she said. “There. I’m the first one to say it. That word is now ok to talk about.”
Having lived here in complete safety for over a year, I had forgotten that terrorism was even an issue for foreigners when deciding to visit this part of the Middle East. But these locals had clearly been prepped on general western misconceptions and were poised to debunk the prejudices that existed between the two sides of that cracked circle in the Open Doors logo.
Mariam led us up the stairs to the small roof as the call to prayer resounded from the neighboring mosque. Dark pinks and blues filled the sky as the sun went down, illuminating the wind towers and alleyways of Bastakia below. The young Emiratis found their places on the prayer mats, boys in front of the girls, while the rest of us lined up to face them. Their movements, so uniform and precise, resembled a slow dance to the lingering call. As they bowed and prostrated, I thought of their whispered words as a prayer to the rising moon, the lapping waves of the Creek, or the layers of history underneath old Dubai. Far from the Arabian fantasy of Ramadan typically advertised to western tourists, I felt privileged to be on this rooftop, witnessing this prayer.
Back downstairs, we took our seats around the carpet while our hosts poured us coffee and tea and offered us dates. Watching them pleasantly pouring our beverages, I truly saw what was meant by Arabian hospitality. If I were one of those volunteers, I would have torn into the food hidden under those silver covers rather than serving coffee and dates to non Muslims who’d surely had their fair share of food throughout the day.
“Let me describe the Emirati food our volunteers made for you,” Mariam began. “Our food is not tabouleh or hummus or any of the Lebanese dishes you’ve eaten in Beirut Café in the Mall of the Emirates. We have our own food and our own way of preparing meals.” A young blonde man asked why there were no restaurants serving local dishes and Mariam explained that many of their recipes were labor intensive, sometimes taking days to prepare. “Sadly, today, we order most of our food rather than cook the traditional dishes ourselves.” She lifted the covers off the platters. “So first we have our biryani. It is rice and chicken spiced with coriander and cumin. And then there is harees.” She opened another platter to reveal a gray gruel-like substance. “This is made from crushed wheat and lamb. And then we have thareed, a meat stew. And the rest is for dessert later.” We shuffled around on our knees to scoop the various dishes onto our paper plates.
One of the more mature looking locals joined me. He introduced himself as Nasser and said he worked at the Dubai International Financial Center. I asked him if he would ever consider working in the US or Europe, and he looked at me aghast. “Why would I settle anywhere else? Everything is here.” Nasser saw the world coming to him, not the other way around.
I told Nasser how surprised I was to see locals of the opposite sex mingling freely at the American University in Dubai, a very different atmosphere from the conservative college where I had taught in Abu Dhabi. “Does that happen all over Dubai?”
He bristled, visibly uncomfortable, and I wanted to say, would you rather answer a question about terrorism? Then I worried that he might. He could brush aside the threat of terrorism rather easily, while the topic I brought up was even more sensitive. I was asking about western influence, which my presence, and all the guests that evening, represented. After deliberating, he said, “Now that Emiraits are working, men and women are seeing each other more and interacting. I know to you this may sound silly, but for us it is wrong for unmarried couples to date. Most local men will go through the proper channels to marriage if they like a girl, rather than dating her.”
I decided to push it. “How do you feel about some Emiratis taking on western attitudes?”
“It is difficult to say. We are very happy about all that Sheikh Mohamed has done for us and proud of Dubai’s fame and achievements that have attracted so many foreigners. But we shouldn’t take on those ways because they are not ours. It is a struggle, but this is our country and we have to keep at least some of our traditions.” Even though Dubai had always been a place where cultures mingled, giving its locals a much greater interest in interacting with foreigners than those in Abu Dhabi, Nasser clearly still saw himself as rather separate. Yet here he was, participating in this cultural exchange. Rather than keeping his beliefs private, he decided to share them with us.
Desserts of doughnut-like pastry balls and milk pudding with caramel sauce were served. A local woman wrote our names in Arabic on sheets of hard paper and gave them to us as souvenirs. The atmosphere became even more chaotic and familial as kids ran from cushion to cushion and adults lounged on the carpet. Perhaps we were necessarily too polite with one another; maybe there were questions that could never be asked let alone answered, but these young locals were willing to present their identities to us and examine our preconceptions and reactions. They seemed to be the only ones who could act as that black cord in the Open Door Open Minds logo, connecting the two halves, east and west, together. At the end of the evening, I stepped into lamp-lit Bastakia, satisfied, even exultant, feeling that the world might be, if it wasn’t already, a better place tomorrow.