A class for expats in the UAE on Ramadan etiquette

Eton and SMCCU team up to offer the opportunity to get a better understanding of the Holy Month.

Nasif Kayed, of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding, talked about etiquette during the month of Ramadan and answered questions posed by non-Muslims at the Eton Institute in Abu Dhabi. Asmaa Al Hameli / The National
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The Holy Month involves customs that may be known but not necessarily understood by expatriates in the UAE. Mitya Underwood looks at two organisations that have teamed up to bridge that gap

In spite of its importance in the Islamic religion, the month of Ramadan can sometimes raise questions, and even frustrations, for both the local population and expatriates living here.

In an effort to try to answer some of those questions - and avoid some of the possible frustrations - the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding, in conjunction with the language training centre Eton Institute, has been delivering talks to inquisitive expatriates in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Nasif Kayed, the managing director of the centre, is something of a bridge builder between the two communities and is happy to face the tough questions about his religion and culture.

"People always ask me: 'How do you keep your white dress clean?' I would tell them my wife doesn't do the laundry and men don't wear dresses," he says with a laugh. "Or they ask: 'Why do you wear white and make your wives wear black?' They say: 'It's something very strange for us.'

"I would say: 'Tell me where there is a man that actually tells his wife what to wear everyday. The ladies, they tell us what to wear. And what's wrong with black? It's elegant, like tuxedos at the Grammy Awards'."

As a sort of cultural relations professional, Kayed says he isn't offended by any topics of conversation. When he delivers his talks, he says, he doesn't want the participants to hold back. Nor has he any intention of saying that his way, or the Emirati way in general, is the best.

"I'm not here to convince you that my way is better than yours, we are just talking. Although we are different, it doesn't mean one is better. We are different, but can we learn from each other? Let's see."

Each year, Kayed travels around the country to help expatriates understand how the UAE and its people function during Ramadan, which, this year, has fallen in the hottest month of the year.

Anna Pisano, originally from Sweden, was one of the expatriates at his talk held at the Eton Institute in Abu Dhabi last week.

The 28-year-old kindergarten teacher moved to the country with her husband, Luke, at the end of February from Hong Kong.

"It's my first Ramadan and I thought it would be a good chance to learn. You get told by other expatriates that 'you can't dress in a certain way' or 'you can't eat or drink in public', but no one explains the reason why."

After living in Hong Kong for six years, Pisano says she is used to different cultures and religions - the major religions there are Buddhism and Taoism - but knew very little about the Muslim faith.

"When I moved here, I thought: 'I'm going to try and figure out what's going on, even though I'm not a Muslim.' It's about tolerance and understanding. We can know what happens but it's good to know why it happens."

For non-Muslims, fasting can be the most obvious sign of the Holy Month, even though many know very little about its purpose.

For Kayed, the purpose is simple.

"Food, we eat it then we throw it away. Why? Why not always make sure it goes somewhere, or cook less? So when it's not allowed, it becomes desired. Don't take the spare for granted."

The same principle applies to sexual relations, he adds, which are forbidden during daylight hours.

During Ramadan, many of the country's restaurants, cafes and hotels stop serving food and drinks during the day. It is also forbidden for anyone to smoke, drink or eat in public. Many offices also provide special eating rooms and ask employees not to eat or drink at their desks.

"If you aren't fasting, allow other people to feel like they're fasting," Kayed says. "It's like a gym atmosphere, you're not going to go to the gym and find people eating chips and smoking.

"There is a misconception that 'why do I have to put up with this?' This concept of 'it's theirs, not mine, what do we have to do with it?' - you're in a Muslim country.

"The concept is it has to stay in the atmosphere. It's not about making it easier. Many people come, who lived in the West, and they say: 'I feel Ramadan'; it has this atmosphere. You get the atmosphere to help it and that's why, here, we create a Christmas atmosphere."

For Pisano, Kayed's information about the atmosphere resonated the most, especially after being told so much about what one can and cannot do during Ramadan.

"It wasn't like I was going to go out and eat in public, but I will definitely have more sympathy and understanding for them. I didn't realise they gave meals to a poor person everyday. That was new to me. I need to go and figure out where to go and do good deeds now."

One of Ramadan's most important concepts is zakat, which, Kayed says, is not quite the same as charity. It's a mandatory way of giving money with the purpose of redistributing wealth.

It is also one of the five pillars of Islam, which are obligatory for every Muslim. Officially, every Muslim should give 2.5 per cent of the value of their capital assets. This is then distributed to those less fortunate through various Islamic organisations.

Elize Kruger, 32, who has lived in the UAE for just four months, had no idea there was such a major charitable element to Ramadan.

Having moved from Cape Town, South Africa, the jewellery and fashion designer had little comprehensive knowledge about the Islamic religion.

"The thing that stood out most to me was the very humble sense about their whole Islamic faith. It's not about hiding it, but the gift that God has given you, your beauty, your intelligence, your wealth. It's interesting because it can be such a flashy country and the divide between the haves and have-nots seems to be vast."

Another important element for Muslims during Ramadan is modifying their behaviour and refraining from blameworthy thoughts, gossip, hurtful behaviour and vain language.

It would help, Kayed says, if non-Muslims tried to do the same. It would also make life easier for everyone if certain things such as meetings that include lunch, meetings that extend after 5pm, department parties or social events were avoided during the month.

"After 5pm, it makes people very nervous, especially if they have to go home and cook," he says, adding that people should be careful about what they eat in the workplace. "You're not eating in front of me, but you go do your popcorn in the microwave and the whole office smells of popcorn."

Kayed also urges employers to be flexible with their Muslim staff during Ramadan and to plan ahead when it comes to staff taking holidays at short notice.

Aside from the dos and don'ts, Ramadan should be a time to bring all communities together, he says. The hundreds of iftars across the country attract thousands of people who may never normally mix.

It also offers non-Muslims the best chance to learn about Islam.

"Invite someone for iftar, as long as you understand the culture of the people you're inviting and see what suits them. Check what their preferences are: do they prefer to pray then eat, or eat before prayer? Do you have a prayer room? What is the right direction? Is there a mosque next door?

"If I'm praying and there is a cabinet of alcohol, it's not good, just hide it. Always, just ask people, we will not be offended."

To help people on the move during the Holy Month, the Eton Institute has released an iPhone app. It includes cultural tips, Ramadan tips, daily phrases, prayer timings and iftar timings. It can be downloaded from iTunes.

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