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