Mall balances the material and the spiritual

The importance of giving during this holy month is a key theme for shopping centre managers. Jonathan Gornall visits Mirdif City Centre to find out how the holy month has been integrated into visitors' experience.

Shoppers walk by festively staged shop windows during Ramadan. Silvia Razgova / The National
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A little over half an hour before the maghrib prayer heralds the breaking of the day's fast, a brilliant shaft of sunlight bursts through the windows of the mall, briefly splashing a golden pathway across the floor of its cavernous Central Galleria.

This Tuesday evening, as the smell of popcorn begins to waft from the second-floor VOX cinema complex and the dozens of restaurants and cafes come to life in anticipation of iftar, Mirdif City Centre - a 196,000-square-metre home to more than 430 stores - is a quiet, nearly empty retail temple in waiting.

As if on cue with the lighting, a family of five appears from the direction of the car park. The traditionally dressed father, mother and three children have arrived at one of the latest and largest malls in Dubai with a shopping trolley already full, loaded with neatly bagged clothes and other unwanted items they have brought from home. They are heading for the Red Crescent charity bins, set up with a mall that invites visitors to "Make a difference this Ramadan".

Moments such as this make it hard to be cynical about the occasionally uneasy pairing of the spiritual and the business-as-usual material during Ramadan - and it is a reminder that, in the modern UAE, the mall has become much more than just a collection of shops. In the heat of a summer holy month especially, it takes on many ancient roles in modern form - marketplace, village square, community centre, a place to share iftar and (with food outlets open until 3am) suhoor with friends and strangers.

Later on this night, in the now busier Central Galleria - hung with banners, each bearing single, inspirational words such as "Compassion", "Integrity" and "Consideration" - shoppers are encouraged to write and draw what such concepts mean to them.

Mirdif City Centre, which in April celebrated its first anniversary and close to 20 million visitors, is second in size only to the Mall of the Emirates in the UAE portfolio of Majid Al Futtaim Properties, a company that works hard to balance the demands of the material and the spiritual. Situated to the north of Dubai on the Emirates Road, Mirdif attracts a high proportion of Arabic visitors from the Northern Emirates.

"Ramadan," says Younis Al Mulla, the company's senior vice president of special projects, "is a time to reflect on the lives of those who are less fortunate than ourselves, and our 'Make a Difference this Ramadan' campaign is the perfect opportunity to create awareness and reach out to those who need it most."

The impact of such a thoughtful approach to retail might be hard to assess were it not for the mall's Facebook page. There, hundreds of followers have responded enthusiastically to a competition echoing Mirdif's "Soulful nights and days" theme this Ramadan. Competing for "treats" from some of the mall's tenants, they are asked to name the thinkers behind a series of thought-provoking quotations. Any mass-market retail organisation that promotes the thoughts of the Prophet Mohammed, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama must have its heart - and its soul - in the right place.

Back at the charity bins, bulging with everything from books and mobile phones to a suitcase, a computer and bags of clothes, the family with the now-empty trolley has moved on. Without a glance at the invitation to "Make a difference", two young men walk briskly past on their way to the exit, clutching bags from Versace, Balmain and Zara.

It has definitely been business at Mirdif City Centre this Ramadan - but not entirely business as usual.