We pray together, we play together

Football is a integral part of Ramadan in many corners of the UAE, where prayers in a mosque are often followed by an impromtu knockabout with a ball.

Ras Al Khaimah , United Arab Emirates- August 10,  2011: People playing midnight  Volleyball in Maaridh area during ramadan in Ras Al Khaimah  .  ( Satish Kumar / The National )
Powered by automated translation

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Ramadan is synonymous with charity, prayer and compassion … but it wouldn't be the holy month without a little sporting competition.

When the month arrives, men flock to the mosque - and the sand pitch. "Football is Ramadan," says Mayed Al Tamimi, 20, an Emirati who visits his pitch every night in the holy month for midnight matches.

"We can't afford television and even if we had TV, we'd rather play. It's a habit, a hobby. We pray together and come to play together."

Most neighbourhoods follow a year-round Friday ritual of prayers, lunch and football. But during Ramadan the entire city turns nocturnal.

Late shifts and family feasts let boys and men live the life of star athletes, enjoying 30 days of non-stop competition.

Few know this better than Mushtaq Mukhtar, 23, a Pakistani who sports a mass of black curls under a tightly folded kaffiyeh.

Mr Mukhtar comes to the sand pitch beside his mosque every night after taraweeh prayers to play volleyball for the neighbourhood in which he was born and raised, hoping for victory against other neighbourhood teams that travel from as far as Umm Al Qaiwain in the holy month.

Sports are so popular in his neighbourhood of Al Maaridh that on any night in Ramadan you will find three football games, one cricket match and a volleyball competition under way in an 800-metre stretch.

"By day we are fasting and by night we play," said Mr Mukhtar. "We fast together, we break the fast together, we pray together, eat together and we play together. Ramadan is the time of year we get to meet every day. Otherwise, it's only Fridays."

Friends arrive by motorcycle and by foot, sipping energy drinks and Canada Dry at 10pm - an early start by Ramadan standards.

The sand pitches in this old coastal neighbourhood of reclaimed land are strewn with bleached seashells and litter.

The spectators' seating is basic. Nearly every pitch has a few bricks for squatting spectators, or tattered couches so worn they are more plywood than padding. The cheers grow as the hours pass.

Maaridh tradition dictates the losers treat the winners to suhoor before fajr prayers.

To Mr Mukhtar, the game is evidence that the community spirit forged through fasting and prayer does not end after sunset, or when people leave the mosque.

"During Ramadan everybody becomes closer," he says. "Even if we don't know the people they come here and we all play together. If you want to play, no problem. Come."

Maaridh's rival neighbourhood of Al Sherisha is usually without streetlights and there are no festive lights in the storefronts. The football pitches are the only places lit up especially for Ramadan.

Waheed Matar, 17, plays and referees games in Sherisha along with 30 boys a foot shorter than him.

"I pray, I fast, I read the Quran … and I play football. This is Ramadan," Waheed says, tossing the ball to a swarm of boys.

His friend, Mansour "Messi" Al Kinji, knows the secret to sporting success in this month is choosing the right sport.

Messi says volleyball reigns in Ramadan because men are eager to use up their iftar energy but need to play a game that can last until 3am. Football is too intense.

The unlucky who have work the next day catch a few winks after morning prayers before reporting for duty at 9am.

The men play like pros, despite the fact that the volleyball is untouched for the rest of the year. Boys are prone to lapse into the comforts of football but their volleys and spikes improve with each passing holy month.

"Every Ramadan it's a holiday from work and from school, and volleyball is our Ramadan hobby," says Zayed Abdulla, 18, an Emirati.

"In this sport there's no fighting. It's playing together to be happy. We are brothers on the pitch."