Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ramadan and Advent

Since most of the Westerners I questioned last spring had never heard of the concept of Lent, their ignorance of Advent follows a fortiori, so I fear the analogy will be quite wasted.

Advent is, approximately, the four weeks before Christmas. During Advent, throughout Christendom, the mendicant classes come out in droves. The organized professional mendicants ask for donations to provide Christmas dinners for the impoverished of the world, and toys for their children. The independent contractor mendicants, almost always men, have either photographs or verbal pictures of a wife and children, and ask for donations to provide a Christmas dinner for their families, which, one assumes, really means a liquid Christmas dinner for themselves. Laws in the West mean that door to door solicitation is likely to lead to a Christmas dinner at a County facility, followed by 89 or so more days of rather austere County dinners, so the licensed professional mendicants stand in front of shopping centres, or on busy street corners, while the unlicensed mendicants lurk in quiet corners where they will not be observed by the constabulary, or stand outside churches where departing worshippers are usually more open-handed than at other times.

Throughout the Islamic world, this phenomenon happens during Ramadan. In front of every shopping centre in Dubai is at least one and sometimes two of the organized, professional mendicants (Dubai Charities has an old-fashioned booth with peeling paint, while Dubai Cares has an elaborate donation receptacle with air currents that swirl the donations about). These mendicants are seeking the donation called zakat, which is an obligation of Islam. The zakat will go to help the poor of the world. Dubai Cares will fund education in impoverished countries, while Dubai Charities fund other services for the poor.

So, during Ramadan, the Islamic mendicant classes go about reminding Muslims of their religious obligation.

As in the West, the individual contractor mendicants are technically engaging in an illegal activity, so some take up stations in underpasses, while others go door to door, knocking up the residential flats throughout Dubai. They are almost invariably women, often with small children in tow. They have one session from late morning until early afternoon, then go home for iftar, and return after the evening prayers to continue their solicitations. Most have letters bearing what is, I am sure, a tragic story, but one I am unable to read, since it is invariably written either in Arabic or Urdu.

Arabic, I'm afraid, is understood by less than 20% of the residents in Dubai, but all Muslims recognize Arabic and, presumably, feel an obligation to be open-handed when a woman, wearing an abaya and niqab and accompanied by one or more small children, presents them with an Arabic document, even if they cannot understand any of it.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dubai Terrorizes the US. Again.

The New York Times has another article about Dubai.

Before 9/11, most of the Gulf oil money got invested in the US and in Europe. After 9/11, the US realized that it could confiscate the wealth of anyone suspected of terrorism, which terrified many of those from the Gulf who had oil wealth to invest. Dubai saw this as an opportunity, and offered a safe haven for Gulf oil money, which poured into Dubai in unbelievable quantities. The oil money pouring in attracted other money, including money from the US, Europe, and the sub-Continent. Dubai is now trying to invest that money all over the world.

The US blocked Dubai's attempt to purchase a few US ports, but Dubai continues to move vast quantities of money into and out of the US for unknown purposes, but the US is convinced those purposes must necessarily be nefarious.

Whatever Dubai has in mind, it is successfully terrifying the US.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Iftar (3)

Iftar literally means the breaking of the Ramadan fast after sunset. Hence, someone who did not hear the cannon and had a sip of water 89 minutes before sunrise is not technically eligible for iftar, since he is not fasting. Islam does not seem to have degrees of fasting, so a person who takes a single pill between dawn and sunset is not considered to be fasting. Islam does not require the seriously ill to fast, so taking an essential pill is allowed, but that single pill means the person who took it is not fasting at all, and is not eligible for iftar, but is only having a normal dinner when he joins the fasting Muslims having their iftar.

For some Muslims, iftar consists of nothing but a cigarette. This Ramadan, I was in a shop and witnessed a worker whose iftar consisted of nothing except a litre of water. For people who are engaged in other activities at sunset, a common iftar is a few dates and water, followed by dinner when they have the time. Somehow, Condoleezza Rice heard that dates and water are the traditional iftar, so, during Ramadan 2005, she invited the prominent Muslim diplomats in Washington over for iftar. Since she couldn't find any dates, each of her guests got three pieces of candy and a little bit of water.

For Ramadan 2006, one of the diplomats invited Ms. Rice to his country for iftar, and she accepted. The spread was similar to one of the extreme up scale Dubai iftar buffets, with dozens of elaborate dishes. Her host explained that, when one invites guests for iftar, it always means a full meal, not just the dates and water.

Ms. Rice is inviting diplomats in Washington to join her for iftar during Ramadan 2007. Presumably, this year they will get more than candy and water.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Iftar (2)

The iftars of Dubai vary enormously. At the low end, for less than €1, are two possibilities. For men here on their own with only a short break for iftar and the sunset prayer, there are communal iftars where they can break their fast among their fellow countrymen. Shortly before sunset, employees of the caterers begin rolling out plastic wrap of the sort used for picnics. One employee holds one end, while the other runs with the roll. This is about 50 meters of plastic, weighted down by stones on each corner, and sometimes there are two or three of these plastic serving areas in parallel. Then the caterers lay down place settings on each side of each roll. The meal consists of a plastic cup of water, a cup of juice, a few dates, some fresh or pickled vegetables, a huge mound of chicken and rice or goat and rice, Arabic bread, and a sweet. Hundreds of labourers sit and break their fast together along each row. No utensils of any kind are available, but this isn't a problem for the diners.

For people who have the time and their own place, some restaurants provide a take-away iftar. The items include vegetables breaded with a spicy batter and deep fried; fruit breaded with a sweet batter and deep fried; spicy chicken and goat breaded and deep fried; boiled eggs breaded and deep fried, and bread breaded and deep fried. €1 is enough to fill a large bag with enough calories to feed five adult men.

For those with more money than the labourers, there are the iftar buffets. When I first arrived in Dubai, iftar buffets ranged from about US$5 — US$10, or about €6 — €12. The number and quality of the dishes varied with the price, but all included several salads, several entrées, always including some meat and chicken, and sometimes a whole roast goat and a large fish, bread, rice, and sweets. I tried the US$5, the US$10, and, once, a US$15 iftar. Back then, the iftar buffet was much cheaper than ordering a la cart, and was cheaper than the regular lunch buffet at those restaurants that had lunch buffets. Part of the reason was that most iftar buffets lasted less than 30 minutes, with the buffet only open from about 15 minutes before sunset until shortly after sunset (diners who had already served themselves could take their time eating, but most finished in less than ten minutes).

Now, the lowest-end buffet I found is US$10 or €8, and the upper end is more than €50. For €50, the hotel promises that the iftar will be available for a full four hours.

Of these iftar buffets, my personal favourite is at the Al Nasr Club, where, last Saturday, I dined alone. It is US$10 (€7.50). It is only offered on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Each night there are five salads. There is always hummus and moutabel, but the other three salads vary. Last Saturday, the salads were Russian vinaigrette, tabbouleh, and cucumber-yoghurt salad. There are always four entrées: one meat, one chicken, one fish, and one vegetable. To accompany these, there are at least two kinds of rice, sometimes a potato dish, and bread. To end the meal there are three desserts and a cheese tray. Last Saturday, I found myself the only diner at the buffet, for reasons which escape me. And, fearing the food would go to waste, I'm afraid it went rather to waist.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Iftar (1)

My first Ramadan, the organization where I worked suggested that everyone go to an iftar, where a prominent Muslim scholar would explain about Ramdan and iftar. The iftar was optional, since we had to pay for our own food, but I was very interested in learning more about Islam, so I paid my US$5.50 and went. The iftar was catered by a Western hotel, which had erected a large tent on the grounds just for Ramadan. Had there been no scheduled presentation, the hotel only charged US$5.00 for the iftar, but we all paid the extra 50¢ to cover the honorarium and meal of our speaker.

We were told to arrive before sunset, which I found strange. In the West, if there is to be absolutely no eating before a certain time, everyone arrives after that time. But I arrived about 15 minutes before sunset, and sat down. Then I noticed that everyone was queued at the buffet, and those already seated had several plates piled high with food sitting in front of them. I asked and was told that I should get in the queue, that it was very important to start eating precisely at sundown, and it would be a violation of the customs to be standing in the queue with an empty plate, or even to be walking back towards one's place. So I got in the queue.

Most iftar buffets have traditional salads--tabbouleh, fatoush, mutabel, and hummus; entrees of meat, chicken, and fish, a roasted goat, vegetables, and desserts which must include baklava and Umm Ali. I loaded two plates, placed them in front of an empty seat, and went back for two more. I managed to sit down just as the canon went off indicating that it was officially sunset.

I was very thirsty, and began by taking a large drink, then started on my soup, only to discover that I had eaten the wrong thing first. One is always expected to begin with three dates. But I didn't know that then.

As we began eating, one of the senior managers from my organization got up. I assumed he was going to introduce the Islamic scholar who would give the presentation. I was wrong. He announced, 'Our guest for tonight called to tell me that Ramadan is about family, so he will be having iftar at home with his family throughout the month of Ramadan, and cannot be here tonight.'

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ramadan for Non-Muslims (3)

The analogy that I like is that Ramadan is like Christmas plus Lent, but I hesitate to use that analogy because most Westerners are no longer familiar with Lent. I can only say that Ramadan, to me, seems analogous to the Christmases of the 1950s and to the Lents of the 1750s.

One of the Dubai TV stations asked, 'Ramadan, fast or feast?' which means rather the same thing.

From 90 minutes before sunrise until sunset, Muslims have nothing by mouth: no food, no water, no cigarettes. By sunset, I am not particularly hungry, having had an ample meal at 2:30 a.m. (called sohour), but I am desperate for something to drink, and the smokers I've seen seem more desperate for a cigarette than for water.

All afternoon, most Muslim housewives have been cooking. It is, in some ways, like a month of preparing Christmas dinners. Once, Christians were required to fast during the four weeks before Christmas, then this was reduced to a single day of fasting, and finally the fasting disappeared, and only the Christmas feast remains.

In Islam, this fasting followed by a feast goes on for a month.

Ramadan is also a time of giving to the poor, called zakat, and Dubai once had a Ramadan shopping festival called, 'Dubai, The City that Cares.' Since Dubai just finished the 'Summer Surprises Shopping Festival,' most retailers were leery of another shopping festival, especially since the Dubai Municipality taxes them heavily for every shopping festival. So, for this year, HE Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum announced a 'Dubai, The City that Cares' campaign (but not a shopping festival). The campaign will provide aid to the impoverished children in the world, supplying food and building schools. All of Dubai's sheikhs have donated, and others may contribute by SMS, by Web, or by going to any of many sites provided to facilitate donations to the Ramadan charity.

Along with charity for the poor, Ramadan is a time for exchanging gifts within families, leading to the usual excesses of commercialism, or at least to perceived excesses of commercialism in comparison with the halcyon days before the first Mall appeared in the UAE.

In some Christian countries, during medieval Lents, people found breaking the fast could have all their teeth extracted. In the UAE, the guidelines state that it is simple courtesy to appear to be fasting in public, even if, in private, non-Muslims are breaking the fast; however, what happens to the discourteous is no longer specified for the UAE. In Ramadan 2005, I saw people in the Free Zones eating and smoking at noon; this year, on 14 September, I saw people smoking an hour before sunset at a mall (something now prohibited in Dubai both before and after sunset, and after Ramadan, as of 15 September 2007, and for which I am grateful).

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ramadan for Non-Muslims (2)

The main thing to remember about Ramadan is that this month, the month when the Koran was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), is the month when Muslims try to turn toward the spiritual. I would say that this is like the Christian Lent, but last Lent I asked all the Westerners I knew, and none of them had heard of the concept.

In the Middle Ages, the Church provided Christians with an extensive set of guidelines, spiritual exercises to help Christians focus on the spiritual and think less about worldly things during the period of Lent, and these guidelines included fasting. As late as the 18th Century, Almanacs clearly indicated Lent, and had suggestions to help Christians with these exercises, e.g. appropriate recipes.

I read in my grade school history text that, during the Middle Ages, to help Christians follow these guidelines, anyone breaking the Lenten fast would have all his teeth extracted (I've since learned that not everything in my grade school history text was, in fact, historical).

By the 20th century, most Westerners were unaware that Lent existed, and, while most are aware that Buenos Ares and Rio have a big party called Carnaval every year, they are not aware of the reasons for this party.

In the 1960s, Vatican II told Catholics that they were to turn toward spiritual matters for Lent, but it would no longer provide guidelines: Catholics must find their own ways to be more spiritual, and the Vatican no longer required fasting nor defined precisely how fasting should be conducted.

Islam, however, tends to provide detailed guidelines for everything, including fasting, although, as I mentioned in 'Ramadan for Non-Muslims (1),' different groups differ on the details, but all agree that the idea is to use fasting as a way to focus on spiritual matters.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ramadan for Non-Muslims (1)

Dubai has a lot of visitors who are not Muslim, and various information services try to explain Ramadan. So far, after reading pamphlets and websites, I'm more confused than ever.

All Muslims agree that Ramadan starts when the crescent moon is sighted. The UAE has an official moon-sighting committee, whose decision is final. In some other countries, different Islamic groups have their own moon-sighting committees, and usually manage to disagree (by up to three days) on when the crescent is first sighted.

All the sites say that fasting is from sunrise to sunset, but this is clearly an inoperative statement. Fasting in Dubai starts 90 minutes before sunrise. Apparently, there are (at least) four recognized methods for determining the start of fasting, and Dubai uses the Umm Al-Qura method. Other countries use methods where fasting starts a few minutes more or less than the 90 minutes before sunrise used throughout the Gulf.

The end of fasting is also not altogether clear, since, at sunset, Muslim men are supposed to gather at the mosque for sunset prayers. Some Muslims say that the body is desperate for nourishment, and that one is too light-headed to pray properly, so, as the sunset is signalled by a cannon shot and the call to prayer, one must eat an odd number of dates (usually three), take an odd number of sips of water (again, usually three) and then pray. Other Muslims say that one must complete the sunset prayers before breaking the fast.

At a typical Dubai iftar sponsored by a restaurant, people make several trips to the buffet before sunset, laying all their heaping plates (three or more) in front of their seats, pour water and juice into glasses and set these in front of their seats, and then wait patiently. When the cannon goes off, they devour all the contents of all their plates and empty all their glasses. About twenty minutes after the iftar buffet starts, most restaurants have cleared away the entire iftar buffet. Only then, some fifteen or twenty minutes after sunset, the Muslim diners waddle off to pray.

Eating from sunset until 90 minutes before sunrise is not much of an inconvenience, it just means moving mealtimes around by 12 hours. The difficulty is that Islamic fasting prohibits anything by mouth. Not even one tiny sip of water. Some sites prohibit even taking a mouthful of water and spitting it out, others allow one to wet ones mouth so long as one does not swallow. Also (and I'm grateful for this) no smoking during the day.

I was with a Saudi and an Iraqi last Ramadan, and the Saudi said the Iraqi never fasted. The Iraqi had a heart condition, and had to take his heart pills every eight hours, so he took one pill with a tiny sip of water during the day. That meant that he wasn't fasting. There are no degrees of fasting: taking one tiny item by mouth, and nothing else, is not fasting at all, though it seemed to me that the Iraqi was just as thirsty as the Saudi by sunset. At sunset, the Saudi had three dates and three sips, but the Iraqi had nothing, then they both prayed the sunset prayer on prayer mats in the Saudi's living room, after which they had dinner together.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ramadan and Christmas Past

When I was a child, most newspapers had a Religion Section every Saturday, with articles by religious (i.e., Christian) leaders and the timings of Sunday services.

As Christmas approached, the articles in the Religion Section would invariably be about 'the reason for the season,' stern orations to eschew the crass commercialism that had, in degenerate modern times, begun to obscure the religious significance of Christmas.

Over the years, most newspapers dropped the Saturday religious supplements, and the religious leaders learned from King Canute that it is less than sage to sit at water's edge at ebb tide and order the sea to leave one dry, so they finally stopped their Philippics and trusted that, after over-indulging in crass commercialism, a fairly large number of nominal Christians would feel drawn to listen to Christmas hymns for one day out of the year.

In Islamic countries, however, I see the same diatribes from religious leaders ordering Muslims to remember that Ramadan is not about crass commercialism.

As of now, i.e., the fifteenth Islamic century, these Islamic religious leaders have somewhat more success than Christian leaders had in the West in the days of my youth, i.e., the sixteenth Christian century.

The crass commercialism still remains, especially in Dubai, but Muslims tend to turn a bit away from secular concerns toward more spiritual matters for the month.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Moonsighting Tonight

Today is the 29th of Sha'ban, so the Moonsighting Committee must go out this evening at sunset and attempt to see a crescent. The UAE Committee always waits to see what the Saudi Arabian Moonsighting Committee has to say before they know if they've seen a crescent or not.

Invariably, someone will see a crescent; however, Saudi Arabia may not accept the sighting.

Under the current custom, called Umm Ul Qura, the moon must set after the sun for a sighting to be valid, and today the moon sets in Saudi Arabia at 18:25, while the sun does not set until 18:28.

Consequently, most on-line predictions are that the Moonsighting Committee will decide that no valid sighting has been made, and that Ramadan will start on Thursday, but the predictions have been wrong in the past.

So, about 22:00 this evening, we'll know if Ramadan starts tomorrow or Thursday.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Queuing at GITEX: The Limits of Technology

I pre-registered for GITEX and received a bar-coded form, which I carefully brought with me. Upon entering the door, I saw an empty teller and gave her my €20, and received a receipt that said 'PAID.'

I then waved my form at one of the people directing traffic, and was directed to the queue for people who had pre-registered. There were about twenty people in the queue, which moved at a speed similar to the speed at which continents drift.

After about three-quarters of an hour, I was second in line, and then I saw what had been happening as the man in front of me tried to obtain his entry permit:

'Welcome to GITEX. Are you pre-registered?' asked the teller.
'Could I please see your registration receipt?'
'I forget it.'
'Do you have your registration number?'
'I forget it.'
'Could I please have your name?'

The young lady was very courteous about all this. I didn't hear the name, but she said,

'I'm very sorry, but I can't find your name. Are you sure you pre-registered?'
'Yes, I pre-registered. I wait in this line forever. Now give me entry permit.'

At this point, it was clear to everyone that the lying excrescence who had been directly in front of me in the queue had not pre-registered. He had either seen that the queue for pre-registered attendees was shorter than the regular queue, or he'd wandered into it by accident. In any case, the culture here, like that of former President Clinton, is, when caught red-handed, to vehemently deny any wrong doing.

Unlike my own approach, shortly before being dismissed from a similar job as the courteous young lady's, which is to say, 'Get out of the pre-registered line, you lying excrescence,' she continued to be very courteous.

'Perhaps your name is misspelled. Is there any other way you could have spelled it?'

This went on for about fifteen minutes, until a manager, concerned at the speed at which the queue was moving, came over to see what was going on.

'My friend pre-register me under another name.'
'We're very sorry, but you must register under the name on your ID.'
'I in this line one hour, you register me now.'

By now, a couple of large bouncers were visible, but they didn't have to do anything except to be visible, and the irate man preceding me finally went to the correct queue.

I handed the young lady my bar-code, and in 10 seconds I had my entry permit.

Total time: 1 hour 10 seconds.

The best technology can't overcome the local (or, for that matter, the Arkansas) culture.

But at least Dubai, unlike Arkansas, does have the technology, for what it's worth.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Moonsighting and GITEX

On the 29th day of each month, the Moonsighting Committee must go out at sunset and look for a crescent. If they see one, it is the first day of the new month; if they don't, it is the 30th day of the old month. This is particularly important in Sha'ban and Ramadan.

Next Tuesday will be the 29th of Sha'ban, so the Moonsighting Committee must go out at sunset.

According to Farook, there is a cash award to the first person who sees the moon on the 29th of Sha'ban, so, beginning some time well before sunset, several people will see the crescent. Sometimes, again according to Farook, some people manage to see several crescents and feel they should be given the cash award for each one.

Which means that the last day of GITEX may well be the first day of Ramadan, as is indicated by one of the two Islamic calendars on my computer (my other Islamic calendar says the first day of Ramadan will be on Thursday, the day after GITEX).

Several of the biggest participants in GITEX have decided to skip this year, giving various reasons unrelated to the extreme heat or to Ramadan.

So it remains to be seen if GITEX 2007 will be, like all previous GITEXes, the 'biggest GITEX ever.'

Next year, Ramadan will start in August, so GITEX 2008 will have to be scheduled after Ramadan, and should definitely exceed GITEX 2007.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Lapsang Souchong

Back when I was a teenager, I was stuck on a boat filled with pairs of animals for forty days, and passed the time reading. The dashing, sophisticated protagonist in one story enjoyed an afternoon tea of lapsang souchong and watercress sandwiches, and I was determined to try some in hopes that some dash and sophistication might accrue. I asked in the galley, and was told to drink Lipton's tea and like it.

Many years later, I wandered into a small, exotic café one afternoon and found that they offered an afternoon tea with watercress sandwiches, and with a choice of teas that included lapsang souchong. The watercress I will, in future, leave floating on the stagnant ponds where it belongs, but I liked the lapsang souchong.

About five years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find a tea shop in Deira City Centre that sold lapsang souchong, but after a year or so, the shop closed. I was again pleasantly surprised to find lapsang souchong available at a Choitram's in Bur Dubai, at a reasonable price (about €4) until a few months ago, when they discontinued it.

Lately, I found a new purveyor of lapsang souchong, located in Bur Juman, but they want €14 for about half as much tea as Choitram's formerly sold for €4.

I may have to switch to an alternative beverage to consume daily at 4 p.m.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Good News, Bad News

It is now the First of September, so:

Good News:

  1. Secret Dubai should be delighted that Summer Surprises are over, so Modesh, whom my Aussie friends describe as a 'yellow worm,' will be gone for the next nine and a half months.

  2. Today, according to a link on The Desert Weasel's blog, the temperature did not break 40, as it has most days for the last two months.

Bad News:
  • Workers required to toil in the sun no longer get a break, although most days will still exceed 40 for the next two weeks.

Not Sure:
  • The fact that it's the end of summer and back to school is good news or bad news, depending on one's perspective.