THE apricot sun is setting over a dusty desert sky and soon, the hauntingly beautiful Muslim call to prayer, which lured me outside the previous evening under a pregnant moon, will punctuate this balmy evening. It is Ramadan in the Middle East and I am on my way to an iftar, or breaking of the fast feast, at the sparkling Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi and its grand “tent”, renowned as the best in town. There are dashing Arab men dressed in their crisp, white dish dashes and exotic Emirati women, all designer clothing, glossy, black hair and kohl-rimmed eyes.
I didn’t plan to travel during Ramadan, it’s just the way things fell, and before arriving, I am intrigued about what to expect. I am told I can eat, but not in public. I can drink water, but not in public. It is 40 degrees Celsius and I am running around in the heat, chasing stories. Luckily my private driver, Majith, is empathetic and behind the blackened windows of my vehicle, pours me water and sympathy. He even offers to buy me “best biryani” should I feel hungry. But I need not have worried, as while devout Muslims observe the rules of Ramadan (no eating or drinking before sunset), non-Muslims can eat and drink in designated areas, such as hotels.
Majith collects me for my final assignment, the iftar at the Emirates Palace and tells me I look like a Syrian woman in my long black dress with attached cape. Again, what to wear as to not offend? I need not have worried as the Emiratis are both modest and modern. I do, however, make one gaffe. I am at the feast, awaiting my host, and there is water on the table. Without even thinking, with one hand I am writing up some notes of the day, and with the other, I take a sip. A waiter hurries over and in a kind voice tells me I cannot drink until 7.05pm. Ashamed, I apologise profusely and grasp for the time. It’s 6.57pm.
On my flight to Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airlines, an article inside the inflight magazine Atlas catches my eye. Food & Travel Arabia editor Anisa Al Hawaj argues that Ramadan is the best time to travel to the United Arab Emirates as long as you observe the basic rules of not eating and drinking in public during daylight hours, and dressing conservatively.
“To paraphrase an edict from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, ‘If a non-Muslim gets it wrong and no offence to the faith was intended, let it go’,” Hawaj says.
“Come sunset, everything comes alive: the streets, restaurants, malls, night bazaars – the atmosphere is incredible. So, too, is the food. You’ll have as much fun as anywhere and at any time in this part of the world at one of the grand Ramadan tents in the UAE.
“Not just for the cooking, but the service, the people, the whole vibe. I like to say it’s Arab hospitality at its best. And it comes but once a year.”
Inside the Emirates Palace “tent” – it’s more of a grand ballroom designed to fit 800 people in one sitting (and to think I was worried there may not be air-conditioning) – I realise that Hawaj is right. Abu Dhabi has been sublimely sanguine over the past few days, the roads are quiet, the beaches are empty and there are no great crowds at many of the tourist attractions. And yes, the food is fabulous. I wander the buffet, there’s hummus and prawns and beef, salad and lamb. But it’s the dessert table with which I’m most intrigued. Apart from baklawa, I recognise nothing but wrap my tongue around the exotically-named sweets…Assafiri, Atayef, Mafrokeh, Shebiyat…they sound like destinations I should visit.
I am dining with Emirates Palace Public Relations and Communications Manager Mohammed Alaoui, who is pragmatic about Ramadan and the subject of fasting. While my plate is piled high with fabulous food, I watch as Mohammed partakes in his first meal of the day, breaking his fast with a few dates, followed by soup and salad.
“It’s a matter of conviction. It’s not about food. There’s a lot of people in this world that don’t eat. It reminds you that it is very good for the body. The fact that you fast, purifies your body over a month,” he says.
“A lot of people, when talking about Islam, go to the extremes. There is a lot of ignorance. There are political reasons and cultural reasons for this.
“The west has a total ignorance of our religion because people don’t read and the perception is that Islam is a violent religion. This just gets you afraid. We want to educate these people.”
On my flight to Abu Dhabi, I read the Gulf News and a headline catches my eye “Understanding the Right-Wing Mindset”. But they are not talking about Islam, but the United States. Author Taria A. Al Maeena is writing about the recent school shootings and an argument he had with an American who claims the war on Iraq was “necessary to protect America”.
On the Texas high school shooting, Maeena writes: “It was a tragedy that had no political or religious undertones, I told him, and there were certainly no Islamists involved to the disappointment of many Western pundits who are quick to malign an entire religion based on the dastardly actions of a few deviates.
“Making America great again is a noble thought, but it will never come through the barrel of a gun or expulsion of all non-whites.”
During my short time in Abu Dhabi I find the Emiratis courteous, contemporary, kind, entertaining and educated. Abu Dhabi is dry desert days and warm Arabian nights. It’s blue beaches, white sand, mesmerising mosques and amazing art galleries, high-end hotels and five-star spas. It’s salty black olives, smoky, smooth hummus, plump dates and fresh figs. Abu Dhabi is Arabs who roll their “r’s” when they talk in English and speak with you with an intense interest through dark and mysterious eyes. It’s full moons, full stomachs and full minds. Whether you go to Abu Dhabi during Ramadan or not, you will find a land that will challenge your perceptions of the Middle East and shift the sands of your soul.
The Global Goddess flew to Abu Dhabi as a guest of Etihad Airlines in one of their world-class Business Studios http://www.etihad.com/en-au/
She stayed as a guest of Abu Dhabi Tourism https://visitabudhabi.ae/au-en/default.aspx
This year’s Ramadan runs from May 17 to June 16 – the dates move forward by 11 days every year
LAST Friday I was attacked by a man I had never met before in a supermarket car park in Brisbane. I use the word attacked because while it was not physical, it was very verbal and extremely emotional and at one point, I believed he was about to become physical. I could also use the word abuse. So what prompted this attack? While parking my car, I had mistakenly parked over two car spaces, as the white lines indicating where to park had faded. It was a tight two spaces, because a tree in the corner had uprooted the bitumen, so I chose to park as far away from the uprooted bitumen as possible.
What happened next rattled me. As I alighted from my car, an angry white male, in his late 50s to early 60s, was standing there, screaming at me, saying he had wanted to park in the space beside me (for the record, there were plenty of empty car parks around). And in an absolute rage he started roaring: “Just take a look at yourself Sweetie!” At first, I didn’t know what I’d done and then I pointed out that I simply could not see where the white lines were meant to be. He paused and agreed with me, stating he had already complained to the shopping centre about this. Which I would have thought was the end of the argument. But then he came menacingly close, and just kept yelling at me: “Take a good look at yourself Sweetie!” The only thing I could do was mutter: “Don’t call me Sweetie”, which further infuriated him as he spat out the word “Sweetie” over and over again, at one point stepping close as if he was going to hit me. Eventually he drove off, and I sat in my car and wept. I cried because I was shocked, scared and stunned at the blatant sexism of this man.
I texted a male friend who urged me to call the police. But I argued the man had not committed any real crime. At the same time a female friend texted and she insisted I make my complaint to shopping centre management, which I did, feeling embarrassed and foolish the whole time, as I wept and shook. They were kind, giving me water and tissues and recording my complaint, but essentially powerless to do anything. As I drove home, without my groceries, I wondered what would have happened had I been dressed in a burqa. I’ve been thinking for weeks about writing about the simmering anger that seems to be pervading Australian streets right now, but until this incident, I felt unable to articulate this new paradigm.
I am not, for one minute, suggesting last week’s incident compares at all to what is happening to peace-loving Muslims in Australia right now. If there are any parallels to be drawn, it’s how unjustifiably angry and disenfranchised some Australians seem to be. And how prepared they are to act on this anger. And that scares me. In the past week, there’s been numerous reports of attacks on Muslim people simply going about their business. A woman in a burqa being set alight by a man; another woman having hot coffee thrown on her from a car window; Muslim kids in a kindergarden in lockdown to protect their safety. Every single day, there’s something nasty and new against Muslim Australians.
I’m horrified and disgusted by what’s happening to our country right now. And ashamed. I love Australia and I believe we are a big country with a big heart. There’s no room for bigotry. And no room for stupidity. For a Prime Minister who is meant to be showing leadership, I’m appalled that all Tony Abbott has achieved is whip up a culture of pure hatred. I’m stunned that those attacking everyday Muslims going about their business are so ill-informed that they cannot separate the radicalism of those who support the Islamic State from everyday people who look a little different. Given our long record of immigration and multiculturalism, I’m bemused when somebody accuses someone else of being “un-Australian”. I am yet to see a definition of what being an “Australian” is. Is it in how I dress? The colour of my eyes, hair and skin? What I eat or don’t eat? Does it lay in my religion or lack of faith?
The day after I was abused in the car park, I returned to the shopping centre, as I still needed to get my groceries. And for the first time, I felt fear. But as my morning progressed, I realised that Australians are essentially good people. He’ll never know it, but I thank the man who accidentally bumped into my grocery bags, and then stopped to apologise. Another man let me go first in the queue, even though it was his turn. And so, my confidence returned and more interestingly, I found myself remembering to be compassionate towards others. Yes, we’re Australians, but we are also global citizens, who happen to be incredibly lucky to either be born or have immigrated to this amazing land Down Under. This largely peaceful place of droughts and flooding rains. Of sunshine, beaches, barbecues, rainforests, reefs and yawning Outback. An attack, whether it is by a terrorist organisation, or an angry man in a car park, has always been likely. But a life lived in fear is no life at all.
IT’S bang on mid-winter Down Under, so I thought I’d bring you a few snapshots of sunshine from my recent trip to Thailand. As travellers, we find sunshine not only in the sky, but in the colours, characters and culture of a destination. Please join me as I explore Phuket. I hope you can feel the warmth of this beautiful place, inhabited by sunny people.
I was walking through the floating Muslim island of Koh Panyee when I turned around and noticed this little girl simply sitting against the wall, chatting with her friends. I snapped a series of shots, some of her looking bored, some of her laughing, some of her looking pensive. This is my favourite.
This kids on the floating Muslim island off Phuket were more aware of the camera. Happy kids, normal kids, just going about their business, is always a great delight when you’re travelling. Somehow it centres you, reminds you we are all the same.
Sometimes you stumble across some cool dudes, as this Phuket Life Saver proved late on a sunny afternoon as I was walking along the beach.
And this cool dude, I met at the Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort pool.
Sometimes you just get a glimpse, a tiny snippet, into someone’s life…
Sometimes life is there on a platter, in all its splendidly, colourful glory…
And then there are those days, sitting on your own private Phuket island you’ve borrowed for a few hours with some new friends, when your heart really sings.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Laguna Phuket. For more information on how you can experience some of this sunshine, please go to http://www.lagunaphuket.com