The Ali Story: No hard and fast rules for Ramadan

Ramadan 2012: Spending Ramadan overseas made me appreciate what I had in the UAE.

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In this serialised feature, Ali Al Saloom shares his insightand experiences from growing up in the UAE.

When you're in a Muslim country and Ramadan arrives, things really change - you can feel it, it's tangible - but the most beautiful Ramadan for me was when I was overseas.

Having Ramadan overseas made me appreciate what I had in my own country and appreciate my religion even more. My religion has always been protecting me.

Over there, it was completely normal to see people eating and drinking during Ramadan, even holding hands and kissing; things I wouldn't normally experience here in the UAE.

The first time I was overseas for Ramadan was when I was studying at a university in Florida. When Ramadan started, there was no announcement, nothing to show it was Ramadan.

But I was really practising my religion proudly. I'd found a mosque in Orlando and there were lots of nice people who were going to it - American Muslims and Muslims from all over the world.

I made friends with them and that created a great community. Everyone got to know you and if I didn't go to that mosque, I'd be missed.

When Ramadan began, I was faced with two things: fasting and going to a school where most people were not fasting.

Most people were unaware I was even fasting. It's not a big deal. And of course, some would know from their other Muslim friends, and since they know I'm a Muslim so they would ask me whether or not I was fasting. You could tell your professors and they'd understand. Most teachers understood that, if you're Muslim, you'll fast, but it won't stop you attending school or anything. The thing is, you tell your friends and classmates and that's the end of it.

When you go overseas and nobody is watching you, only God will judge you if you don't fast or don't go to the mosque. But everyone who went to that mosque in America was fasting. Everything was normal because I was hanging out with the same group of people who all got together to break the fast and practise our religion.

The biggest difficulty I faced - and it's a bit sad - is I didn't have family or relatives around, and Ramadan is traditionally a time to spend with your family.

The thing that struck me is how beautiful the opportunity I had was and that it provided a great chance to reflect on things.

I met other Muslims who were more relaxed about how they follow their religion. Some were eating and drinking and going to clubs - it's their own call and I never had a problem with it. You're still a Muslim even if you're not practising it like everyone else.

Just because I was there alone didn't mean I didn't have the opportunity to practise my religion and celebrate Ramadan in the same way.

I'd always want to have someone to break fast with and I would always want to try to cook together whenever I could. If you cook together, it's a beautiful thing.

I had Christian friends who would attend, and it's always a good thing because it's a different view on religions and how it varies from place to place and person to person because it all depends on devotion.

When I came back to Abu Dhabi, my perception had changed big time. Whenever you travel, there are many things to learn but you also appreciate what you already have. When you see how your religion is practised overseas, you have a choice to compare how it is at home.

When I went back overseas to do my masters degree, it was to Waterloo in Canada. It was very international and there were a lot of Muslims.

The communities were lively and very different. It depended on the background of the people and who they were, the activities they did and the support they received.

But it was the same thing: if you stuck with the mosque, there was a community and everyone would fast during Ramadan and we would break the fast together. That element is nice to have.

Some years, it was amazing. We were all together during that period and everyone would take turns to cook. Every time I had the chance to cook, it meant there were people I had invited into my home.

To other people, having Ramadan overseas might be difficult. Some come back. I believe God is everywhere - not just in Islamic countries and not just in the UAE - whether you pray here or there.

When I was in America or Canada or anywhere else around the world, I didn't have the same opportunities I did here to practise my religion all the time. But I did have a mosque, where we would gather to discuss things and pray.

Ramadan is beautiful anywhere but it's different overseas.

I hope and wish that every Muslim will travel to places like Malaysia, India, China and Korea, or any place that has Muslims and see how they celebrate Ramadan and how they practise Islam.