Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A foodie in the UAE: Ramadan

This is my first post on our blog, not because I haven’t wanted to write or haven’t had the time, but because I have had so many new experiences and thoughts about this place that I’ve had trouble picking out one topic. I decided it’s best that I start with something I know well, so while Sam provides you with deep philosophical insights about life in the Middle East, I am going to periodically write about food – eating it, buying it, cooking it, and any other gastronomically-related activities that come to mind. Those of you who know me will agree that this is appropriate.

Eating has taken on new meaning since we arrived. Not only because the ingredients and dishes are different, but because we are in the month of Ramadan, which means Muslims are fasting (no food, water, or even gum) between sunrise and sunset for 30 days. At the same time, all residents and visitors to the UAE are required to respect the fast by not ingesting food, water or gum in public. This is a rule that is taken very seriously and is punishable by law, so that even at work there is a special “lunchroom,” which we have affectionately dubbed “the infidel room,” which has been set aside for all non-Muslim employees, complete with blacked-out windows and a screen in front of the door so that it is impossible for anyone fasting to see what is going on inside. If am hungry or thirsty during the work day (which I usually am within 15 minutes of arriving), I must leave my building, walk across the simmering parking lot, and up about 40 stairs to get to it. Seriously, not even sips of water at the desk are allowed.

Knowing that people are most cranky and least productive in the afternoon hours during a 14 hour fast, most businesses (including mine) close between 2 and 3 pm so that people can go home and nap during those most difficult hours before sunset. After sunset, the fast is broken with the traditional Iftar meal, a virtual feast, and the city comes alive with activity. Because of the shortened business hours, most need to re-open in the evening to make up for lost time. Thus, you can find pretty much any service available from 8 pm to 1 am (no lie – we had workmen in our apartment at 11 pm last night drilling holes in our concrete walls to hang curtains until we kicked them out in order to keep from being mobbed by our neighbors), which then means that people stay up to the wee hours of the morning, get a few hours of sleep, and then rise before the sunset to have breakfast, renewing a cycle of sleep-deprivation followed by hunger, followed by over-indulgence, etc, etc. We are about two weeks in to Ramadan now, and everyone is acting a little kooky.


  1. Hi, Sweetie,

    I am so excited to find not only a new posting by Sam, but your first one. It brings back memories of watching "Julie and Julia" together with Lisa on our final day in Boston.

    I am relieved to know that you do have a refuge you can run to, even if it's not convenient, to grab a sip of water and something to eat. I cannot imagine going all those hours without any sustenance, especially water in that heat.

    I can't help but recall when you and Lisa were with us in Nairobi as teens how much you longed for home, crying out in that totally alien environment, "God bless America! I want to go home to America."

    You're more adaptable now, but it wouldn't surprise me if those thoughts haven't crossed your mind here and there as you meet new challenges and frustrations while adjusting to a totally new and alien way of life.

    Having this connection with you is a small consolation to not being able to just pick up the phone to talk with you. Please keep the postings coming. It's very informative and also a very much needed link to you way over there.

    Love you so much and miss you terribly, but I am excitedly looking forward to following all your adventures.


  2. When I lived in Togo I did not have to hide my food consumption during the day but the morning call to prayer (via a loud speaker on the roof of the next building)was a pain. But I was also impressed that people got up that early to pray.

  3. hey shannon & sam,
    i hope you don't mind, but i gave the blog address to a friend of mine who is moving to Al Ain (shayne's wife is already there and he will be moving in a few months). this is a great way for him to find out a little more about the UAE.

    love reading about your experiences there!