Sharing in the festivities: Christmas a global online tradition for this Emirati

Islam embraces all religions. Since Christmas is around the corner, its high time the multitude nationalities show mutual respect and understanding toward other faiths.
Shaima Ibrahim considers religious festivals an opportunity to experience different cultures and increase her knowledge of the rituals of other religions. Clint McLean for The National
Shaima Ibrahim considers religious festivals an opportunity to experience different cultures and increase her knowledge of the rituals of other religions. Clint McLean for The National

Shaima Ibrahim might not have a Christmas tree with lights in her home, but her heart is glowing with a desire to embrace all religions and beliefs. And with Christmas around the corner, she has already started receiving gifts from her non-Muslim friends from across the world.

It all started when she was a teenager. Her list of online friends got bigger and she began to mix with people of other backgrounds and faiths.

“Since childhood, I wanted someone to send me a letter,” she says. Her wish was granted in 2008. “I received my first parcel from the US including a Christmas card and a mug from one of my online friends.”

Last week, she received designer clothes all the way from Australia, from her online friend Krizia Elizabeth, as a Christmas gift.

For a majority of Muslims, Christmas is just another day of the week. But for Ms Ibrahim December 25 provides an opportunity for intercultural dialogue and to increase her understanding of religions.

Until a few years ago, the 25-year-old says, she was not very interested in the religious holidays of other faiths. But as she began to explore other beliefs and to meet people from other backgrounds, she says, she had to be more open to different views and opinions.

Not only does she receive gifts during Christmas, she gets gifts on Eid too. “My friends are also thoughtful about Eid,” she says.

“I too reciprocate. Sending gifts reinforces the spirit of friendship and it’s their way of wishing me a very good year ahead.”

Ms Ibrahim says her parents also practice a culture of tolerance and consider it important for building a better world.

“I remember my mother would spare Christmas day for our household staff and encourage them to go out and celebrate their holidays.

“Religions do not necessarily make us friends or enemies,” she says. “Through mutual respect, understanding and tolerance do we connect with other faiths.”

But she has one minor complaint. “Why is there less enthusiasm in shopping malls and hotels during the Eid and National Day holidays?

“I and many other people wonder why the shopping malls and hotels invest huge amounts of money on Christmas decorations,” she says. While equal attention and money should be spent on all occasions, at the end of the day Ms Ibrahim says she is fine with the UAE turning colourful in December.

“We have many expatriates in this land. Most of them are away from their families and loved ones. If a Christmas ambience in the UAE makes them feel at home, then that’s the basic human right we can offer them.”

Both Sheikh Zayed, the Founding President of the UAE, and his brother, Sheikh Shakhbout bin Sultan, when he was Ruler of Abu Dhabi, promoted religious tolerance and helped to provide places for Christians to worship.

Other Rulers have given land for non-Muslims to build houses of worship, with more than 35 churches established on land donated by royal families in the UAE.

The UAE constitution allows for freedom of religion and practice, and the US state department praised the UAE in its 2012 International Religious Freedom Report for welcoming cultural and religious diversity.

At prominent shopping malls a big corner is dedicated to Christmas activities. A snowman, snow flakes, stars, and gifts are usually displayed at the entrance of hotels and malls during the Christmas season. Special discounts, special events and kids’ activities are another highlight.

The Christmas season means different things to different Emiratis. For Rashid Almazrouei, who lives in Tokyo, everything about the festival is magical – from sparkling shop windows to colourful trees and the indulgence of Christmas food.

For the 36-year-old born to a British mother, this time of the year reminds him of his childhood, when friends and family would gather and Santa delivered a bag full of goodies to a well-behaved little boy.

In previous years he has visited his mother’s hometown in the UK to spend the holidays with the family. “We get together either at my uncle’s or mother’s house,” he says. “We open gifts and then enjoy a great turkey feast with all the trimmings.”

What Mr Almazrouei likes the most about Christmas, he says, are the decorations and lights. Also the thought of giving his loved ones a surprise and seeing their faces light up with delight.

After spending eight years in Japan, he is charmed by Christmas festivities in what is still mostly a Buddhist nation.

“Japan embraces Christmas in a manner that would put many western cities to shame,” he says. “The shops are decorated and the streets illuminated from the first of November.”

Mr Almazrouei has his own store of Christmas memories, and the best one was from when he was five. His mother kept him away from the dining room in an attempt to hide a giant Christmas gift. “When I woke up to open the huge gift, which has been too big to hide, it was a bike. The best gift ever.”

Islam calls for its followers to be peaceful with all people and respect all religions. Like Ms Ibrahim, Omar Mohammed does not celebrate Christmas, but calls for mutual respect and peace for a productive society.

From Sharjah, he studied in a school run by nuns during his primary school years, so that Christmas was part of school life.

Although only 17, he fully understands the importance of showing tolerance.

“Though there are certain differences in the practices and beliefs between Islam and Christianity, we share a common ground that we are lovers of peace and have co-lived in tranquillity since the times of Prophet Mohammed,” he says.

Those who promote violence between Islam and Christianity follow an agenda that does not truly represent either faith, he says.

It is important to create a festive mood for Christians during the Christmas season because they are our guests, he says. This principle applies to all religions and cultures living in the country.

“As we celebrate Christmas as a country, I find it heartwarming to see an expatriate celebrating Ramadan, Eid and National Day,” he says. “It is a proof of the peaceful coexistence between a multitude of nationalities.”

aalhameli@thenational.ae

Published: December 22, 2014 04:00 AM

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