Ramadan 2020: UAE expatriates who converted to Islam observe their first fast

A Scottish, Russian and Indian resident speak to The National about their first Ramadan experience

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Hundreds of UAE residents are fasting for the first time this Ramadan, having converted to Islam earlier in the year.

At least 852 people became Muslims between January and April 2020, up from 838 during the same period last year.

While this year's holy month has been different for Muslims worldwide, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, some new converts spoke to The National about their first experience with Ramadan.

‘UAE helped me learn about Islam’

Living in the Middle East, becoming a Muslim and fasting from sunrise to sunset was a scenario Sean Bessit never imagined a decade ago.

He grew up in a Christian household in Scotland, fought in the British army at the age of 16 and met Muslims for the first time in Germany in the late 1980s.

Mr Bessit, who is now 51 and lives in Ajman, converted to Islam this March and is observing his first Ramadan as a new Muslim.

He started learning about the religion a few years ago when he made his first few visits to the UAE.

“The company I was working for in Berlin sent me to the UAE in 2016. I never had much to do with Muslims and I only had the military pictures in my mind, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that had been going on,” said Mr Bessit, who runs an IT company.

“Then when I moved here and started to live here, I realised most of my friends were Muslims and we got on very well. They taught me more about Islam and changed my opinion. When I looked into it with more detail, I realised it was exactly what I was looking for.”

AJMAN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , May 10 – 2020 :- Sean Bessit UAE expat converted to Islam and fasting for the first time during this Ramadan at his home in Ajman. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Online. Story by Sarwat Nasir

Fasting for Ramadan has also been a new experience for Mr Bessit, who told The National that the journey has been "different" than what he expected.

He said the restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have added to the challenge as his friends are not as available to help him with prayers that are recited in Arabic.

“It quickly became clear to me that Ramadan is not simply fasting,” said Mr Bessit.

“I set a target to pray as often as possible, read and understand as much of the Quran as I could. Doing this during the ‘stay home’ order presented an even bigger challenge.

“My biggest challenge was learning the prayers in Arabic and reciting them, as I’m still having problems. YouTube helped with pronunciations but was very contradictory.”

For suhoor and iftar, Mr Bessit has been cooking at home by himself. Occasionally, he orders a pizza and sometimes cooks one of his favourite meals – Uzbek pilov, a dish of rice with vegetables and beef.

Russian expat prepared for Ramadan ahead of time

Ivan Knightsbridge, 40, moved to Dubai from Russia one year ago but his frequent visits to the Emirate helped him learn about Islam.

He converted on March 20 and started preparing for Ramadan a month prior by altering his sleeping, eating and exercising habits so he would be able to adapt well to fasting from sunrise to sunset.

“My first challenge is that I do my physical exercises in the evening before Maghrib, the evening prayer, when all day I’d been fasting,” said Mr Knightsbridge, who works as a real estate agent.

“The second challenge is not drinking water all day. But if I don’t focus on food or drinks and concentrate on my clients and reading the Quran, the time goes by quickly and helps me focus on my belief.”

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 10 MAY 2020. UAE expat who has recently converted to Islam observes his first month of Ramadan. Convert  Ivan Knightsbridge. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist:  Sarwat Nasir. Section: National.

He said Ramadan has helped him “improve” some of his habits, such as ensuring he is being polite, thinking “pure thoughts” and observing his actions.

Mr Knightsbridge had been visiting the UAE on and off since 2012 and observed how Muslims practised their faith.

“I learned about the religion through friends and by speaking to other people,” he said.

Indian expat who practises Islam after marriage

It is a special Ramadan for Fathima Zuhara as it is her first as a new Muslim and one that she can observe openly.

Ms Zuhara, whose Hindu name was Anushka, told The National she was discreet about fasting back home in India as her mother was not aware of her religious inclinations.

After marrying her Muslim-born husband – a marriage that her parents did not approve of – Ms Zuhara moved to Dubai three months ago. She has officially converted and now observes the month of Ramadan with full fervour.

“Back then it was not a proper fast because I couldn’t eat suhoor or iftar on time, or pray on time,” said Ms Zuhara, who is a teacher at a Dubai school.

She said her parents have now accepted her inter-faith marriage and are rebuilding their relationship.

For iftar, the couple has been cooking at home.

“We have dates, rice and curry and we have snack items. In a week we have non vegetarian food for three days and vegetarian for the remaining,” she said.