From tradition to modernity, we look back on past celebrations of Ramadan to find that the spirit of the holy month is as strong now as it ever was
If you ask anyone about what Ramadan means to them and what their favourite memory is, you’ll get a variety of answers.
It’s about breaking the fast at sundown and passing dishes back and forth across the table between friends and family. It’s about generosity and giving back to those who need it, and about togetherness.
Above all, it’s about self-reflection, spirituality and a focus on the things that really matter.
And while Abu Dhabi has expanded, becoming bigger and brighter over the past few decades, it seems that while modernity may be taking over the city, the central tenets of Ramadan have remained constant.
“The first time I fasted, I was 11 or 12 years old,” Mohammed Abdulbaki Alkhouri recalls. “It was very difficult for a child, but it was challenging in a good way.”
Born on Dalma Island, Mohammed and his family moved to the city’s Al Bateen area in 1972. He remembers a city very much still in the process of becoming: Roads were being built, the electricity was intermittent and almost nobody had a car.
These were simpler times. When the holy month came, Mohammed recalls how spirituality and voices raised in prayer would chase away the sound of a growing city.
“It was very quiet then; the population was so much smaller,” he tells us. “We prayed longer, we spent the time with people. You might go to more than one mosque. At that time, the government brought in all these religious people to pray and you would go and listen to these men reciting the Quran. They had such beautiful voices.”
It’s something Yusuf Suleiman remembers well. Arriving in Abu Dhabi from Iraq in August 1980, he tells us that he was 30 years old and recalls a calm and peaceful time.
“Life was so simple then,” he notes, with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. “At that time, it was the spirituality that made it so special; people felt the true feeling of Ramadan. There were no traffic jams before iftar time, the population was so much smaller. The only thing you could do as a Muslim was to go to your friends, to the mosque or recite the Quran.”
When the time came to break fast, Yusuf, then a bachelor, gathered with his friends in small cafes, the vestiges of which have since been lost to the passage of time and the country’s pursuit of progress.
“You can’t compare Ramadan before in Abu Dhabi to how it is now,” Yusuf states. “There weren’t so many hotels and outlets at the time – there was the Hilton, Le Méridien and the Sheraton.
“The first shisha café did not open here until 1984 – it was at Le Méridien,” Yusuf adds, chuckling. “We had no internet or satellite, so we would gather at the homes of friends or in small cafes.”
For Mohammed, it was a time to be with people: “It was beautiful, a social time for people to visit one another,” he smiles. “We’d go from home to home and visit people for coffee, to talk. My favourite food at that time were sweets – luqaimat – and once or twice a week back then we would have fish, which was a luxury. We would always have Vimto, too – it was so nice when it was cold with some ice.”
As the city’s skyline has grown vertically, sandy tracks are now paved and Abu Dhabi has become, in every aspect, a modern multicultural city. But what’s changed when it comes to celebrating the holy month?
“Nothing much has changed,” Mohammed smiles. “Some people talk about the olden days – that they were the best. Now I’m older, I enjoy it more because I have my time to be with God.”
“We didn’t even have a library back then,” he laughs. “But now we have the technology, I can listen to the Quran and preachers, I can find a verse I’m looking for or know exactly what time the sun will set. We did not have this luxury before.”
“Ramadan is more than fasting,” Mohammed continues. “It is about being kind and generous. It makes you think of other human beings in every aspect. In the Quran it says ‘you have your own religion and I have mine’. It’s as simple as that – it tells us how to respect other religions and other people.”
For Yusuf, the new pace of life has made it more challenging, but no less rewarding, to gather the family during the holy month: “These days it can be difficult to gather everyone in one place because of working hours and the responsibilities of life. But Ramadan ties people together, especially when you break your fast and when everyone unites for food.”
And for every Muslim from every corner of the globe, it is precisely these ties, these memories and this feeling that makes the holy month so treasured.
“People always say ‘I hope I live to see the next Ramadan’,” Mohammed pauses. “I always ask myself, why is that? It’s because it has its own magic.”
The Spirit of the Season
We asked members of our community what they’re most looking forward to for the holy month this year…
During Ramadan, I look forward to fasting with my family where we teach our children the essence of Ramadan.
For us, Ramadan is the time of reformation and self-reflection, where as Muslims we can ponder over spirituality and devotion and bring a change for the better.
There’s a sense of calm and peace that surrounds the whole nation during the holy month of Ramadan. I love it because it’s a great time where my friends and family come together as one. We always break the fast together and then proceed to celebrate with a feast!
The main thing I look forward to during Ramadan are the iftar outings. Before moving to the UAE, I hadn’t experienced an iftar, nor did I have much knowledge of what it meant. I’m now into my third year in Abu Dhabi, and I’ve been fortunate enough to attend many iftars, each of which offer a truly unique dining experience that represents far more than a meal.
I love that everything slows down. You can think about the things that are truly important. Normally 75 percent of the stuff we’re thinking about daily is nonsense, so Ramadan is a chance to meditate and take time to assess.
I look forward to Ramadan as it is like ‘charging’ your batteries when it comes to your faith. It is not just about not eating, it is also about cleansing the soul and practicing selflessness and patience. It’s a time to share and strive to be a better person. I also love how the whole family and the whole Muslim community comes together during this month.
WORDS Camille Hogg