With Ramadan upon us, take a look at the ways in which the community can join in the special tradition.
The holy month is a special time where members of the community, regardless of religion, culture, age or nationality, come together to celebrate the occasion, spend more quality time with friends and be more mindful of others.
This year, Ramadan is expected to begin on 5th May and end on 4th June, though this will be confirmed with the sighting of the crescent moon.
As the city resets itself for the next month – school and work hours will be reduced and business hours will shift as well – this is an important time to remind ourselves of what Ramadan is truly about, from volunteering time to help others to be compassionate and cleansing our bodies, minds and souls.
Here, we speak with members in the community to find out how they get involved in the holy month and their favourite memories of Ramadan in the old days, plus find out ways in which you can give back throughout the season.
A time of giving
This nationwide platform allows residents to participate in various volunteering activities that match their interests. Activities this year include helping in the renovation of cultural community clubs in Al Ain and iftar distribution in Abu Dhabi. Visit: volunteers.ae
Emirates Red Crescent
Established in Abu Dhabi in 1983, this humanitarian organisation provides relief and emergency aid, particularly to war torn countries and nations affected by natural disasters. Residents can participate by signing up as volunteers for community work or donating to fund ERC’s various humanitarian efforts both at home and abroad. Visit: emiratesrc.ae
The UAE chapter of this global organisation is conducting free surgeries for children with cleft conditions both here and abroad. Operation Smile is always open for volunteers whether students, people in the medical field or community helpers to assist in its activities.
You can also visit its office every Monday and Wednesday to purchase pre-loved books, with proceeds being used to fund vital medical procedures. Currently, Operation Smile is preparing for its upcoming medical mission here in the UAE in June. Visit: arabemirates.operationsmile.org
Emirates Wildlife Society-Worldwide Fund for Nature
Nature and animal lovers can do their share by lending their time to participate in this group’s events such as clean-ups, and offering their skills such as graphic designing and photography to help EWS-WWF in its projects. Visit: howyoucanhelp.uae.panda.org
Iftars for a cause
The Shangri-La Group’s Sharing the Flavours campaign, running from 5th May to 4th June, will see a portion of profits from iftar meals donated to help feed children in Yemen, Lebanon and Palestine. Participating restaurants are Sofra bld in Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri and Afyä in Traders Hotel.
Meanwhile, over 20 hotels under the Marriott brand in the UAE – including Yas Hotel Abu Dhabi – are participating in its Care. Share. Give. campaign, in which portions of iftar proceeds will be donated to Al Jalila Foundation.
A time of cleansing
One of the distinct hallmarks of Ramadan is fasting. During the season, Muslims refrain from consuming food and water for a maximum of 16 hours – or more if you’re in the polar regions – for 30 consecutive days.
It is believed that fasting, which begins at dawn and ends at sunset, helps develop self control, allows a person to gain a deeper appreciation of God’s blessings and teaches compassion towards the less fortunate.
But while the practice is expected from Muslim devotees, it is not rare to hear non Muslims embracing the tradition as well to express solidarity.
Jasper Hernandez, 38, had his first taste of fasting in 2016.
“I read some articles on the internet, which discussed the benefits of fasting, physically and spiritually. It was like rebooting your entire system,” says Jasper, a Catholic from Lipa City, Philippines.
Jasper would start his day early by drinking only coffee and refrained from consuming food and water throughout the day.
“My first full meal of the day was when I got back home around 5pm. So I would not have water or food for ten to 11 hours every day.”
The first three days were the toughest, according to Jasper, but his mind and body eventually learned to adjust.
“The effect on me is more mental and spiritual. It was empowering in the sense that you realise that you don’t need a lot of food to get by,” he muses.
“If you get used to eating three to five meals a day you would think that depriving yourself of food for hours would be impossible. But it’s really all in the mind and a matter of just forming a habit.”
Michelle Francois, an American expat, was also intrigued with the thought of fasting during the holy month.
“This will be my third year attempting to fast for the whole month of Ramadan,” says Michelle, who started in 2017.
“I read about the properties of intermittent fasting and thought it would be good for my blood pressure. Plus, I respect the country I am in and wanted to stand with my Muslim brothers and sisters,” she reasons.
“Last year, I fasted five days a week, 12 hours a day. I didn’t fast on weekends,” says Michelle.
For Michelle, not drinking water was always the hardest part. It didn’t help either that she’s a teacher, a job that requires her to talk constantly.
Like Jasper, Michelle also realised that she didn’t need a lot of food to keep her going for the day. Fasting helped her lose weight and manage a few medical issues along the way.
But more than anything, fasting instilled in Jasper and Michelle a deeper admiration for the sacrifices made annually by Muslims to honour their religious tradition.
“Having no water and food for 14 straight hours is no joke. I’ve only done ten to 11 hours daily and it was tough,” mentions Jasper.
Michelle agrees, saying, “I have a great appreciation for my Muslim brothers and sisters, especially the ones that work through fasting hours and endure throughout the month.”
Jasper advises non-Muslims to find a deeper meaning on why they want to fast rather than just to think merely of shedding pounds.
“Fasting offers lots of benefits such as cleansing the system, resetting your appetite, changing your relationship with food, and there are spiritual benefits as well. Read everything you can about it and ask your Muslim friends for guidance.”
Not so fast…
Thinking of fasting this Ramadan? While fasting has several health benefits, it can also be detrimental to your health if not done properly.
Dr Hania Sobierajska, specialist, internal medicine at Bareen International Hospital, shares her healthy habits for the holy month.
Do stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water before and after fasting so you will stay well hydrated during the day. It is recommended to drink at least 500mL of water during suhoor. Before the Fajr prayer, it is recommended to take a few dates or a banana for their potassium content.
Don’t stop working out during Ramadan. Exercise aids both the body and the mind. You can do yoga early in the morning, which can be composed of breathing and stretching exercises, low-impact exercises and strength training as this will help you avoid becoming too thirsty. Add moderate activity into your regimen to keep your body’s metabolism in the right tempo – moderate-paced walks are a great option.
Do eat slowly: Avoid eating your food in a hurry, as this can cause gas to build up in the stomach. Undigested food can lead to bloating and constipation, so eat slowly and chew your food well. Eat figs and drink lemonade with mint, or peppermint tea to aid your digestive system.
Don’t take your health for granted. If you have diabetes or any chronic illness, visit your doctor before the holy month. You need to have enough time to adjust your medication and doses during Ramadan. Along with your doctor, you need to evaluate your ability to fast or not during the holy month.
Do stay positive. Changes in your sleeping and eating patterns can put your body under stress, so plan your meals ahead of time to make sure you get the necessary hydration, nutrients and rest that your body needs so you won’t feel sluggish and tired.
A time of reflection
Having arrived in the UAE in 1984 at the age of 31, Indian expat Shaikh Mohammad Abdul Baseer has seen his fair share of changes in the country. We speak with the long time resident to find out how Ramadan used to be celebrated in the city.
I first arrived in Dubai in 1984. I was 31 years old then and was working for Al Futtaim.
Now I am 65 years old with four children who grew up in Abu Dhabi.
Back then, during Ramadan, all the restaurants were closed – this was compulsory – and only the supermarkets were allowed to open.
Most people used to celebrate the holy month by religiously praying to God and donating zakat (a religious form of giving alms) as much as they can.
Many expats used to call and invite their parents here to show them how the holy month is celebrated in UAE.
His Highness Sheikh Zayed used to donate lots of money to poor people and developing nations during this month. He also used to pray for it to rain in the UAE.
We used to offer prayers, give zakat and invite guests to our homes. It used to be hotter back then but people never used to get tired. Non-Muslims also loved to fast along with Muslims as they liked the way Ramadan was celebrated.
We used to have aloo paratha and kheema paratha, which is an Indian dish for suhoor that is prepared in most of restaurants even today.
Like today, dates used to be distributed in large quantities for free; there were also tents open to the public and iftar used to be distributed within the masjid.
I remember experiencing the UAE National Day and Ramadan falling in the same month.
During Ramadan, the entire city used to be covered with light decorations on buildings, trees and streets.
As it is considered a holy month, the police used to forgive any small traffic offence or petty crime back then.
No business establishments were allowed to increase the prices of commodities during Ramadan. The old days were very different if you compare it today – I do miss the old times.
WORDS Ferdinand Godinez