Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Ramadan Foretold

Officially, Ramadan starts on the day after the 29th of the Islamic month of Sha'aban if the moonsighting committee sees the new crescent moon, or on the following day if it does not see the new crescent moon.

The Dubai Government confidently predicted (by issuing a calendar, printed on paper) that Ramadan would start on 1 Sept, something they should not have been able to know before 30 Aug.

And, indeed, the moonsighting committee announced that no new crescent moon was seen on 30 Aug., so Ramadan will start on 1 Sept., just as the Dubai Government predicted.

So, again, the Dubai government's predictions proved accurate.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ramadan, 2008

As I was wandering around Deira, someone handed me the official Dubai Government Ramadan 2008 Calendar. Everyone says Dubai is a very progressive city, and this is proof: it won't be Ramadan, 2008 for another 571 Islamic years or 554 Gregorian years.

What is also strange about the calendar is that it says Ramadan, 2008 will start on 1 September 2008 in Dubai, and that Eid al Fitr will be celebrated in Dubai on 30 September 2008.

According to a fatwa from Saudi Arabia, Islamic months must start based on the report from the moonsighting committee, which meets on the 29th of each Islamic month. The 29th of this month, Sha'aban, 1429, will coincide with August 30, 2008, and, according to the fatwa, one must not use the pseudo-sciences of astronomy and meteorology to predict whether or not the moonsighting committee will or will not see a new crescent moon, one just has to wait.

But the Dubai government did not wait, it has already printed and distributed the calendars.

Which implies that when people race up shouting, 'I saw it, I saw it, I saw the new crescent moon,' the head of the UAE moonsighting committee will reply, 'It is your mistake, my son. I am a scholar in moonsighting, and I can assure you that, whatever you might have seen, it was not the new crescent moon.'

And that when, on 29 September the UAE moonsighting committee goes out, the head will announce, 'Now that, my son, is what a new crescent moon really looks like, so you should get it right next time.'

If the head of the UAE moonsighting committee does otherwise, the Dubai Government will have the expense of reprinting the official Dubai Ramadan, 2008 calendar. And the Dubai Government seldom makes mistakes that cost it money.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ramadan, 1429 is Coming

On the 29th of each Islamic month, the official moonsighting committee must go out and look. If they see the new crescent moon, it’s the first of the next month; if they don’t, the next day is the 30th of the current month.

Currently, in Western countries, if two Imams of equal rank go out, and one says, ‘There’s the moon,’ and the other says, ‘No, that’s a cloud,’ and the first replies, ‘You son of a woman of negotiable virtue, that’s the moon,’ and the second answers, ‘May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits, that’s a cloud.’ At the end, it’s the first of a new month for the congregations of the first Imam’s mosque, and it’s the 30th of the old month for the congregation of the second Imam’s mosque. Normally, this doesn’t make much difference, except for a few months, one of which is Ramadan.

Every single day of Ramadan, a devout Sunni Muslim male must not eat or drink anything beginning 90 minutes before sunrise, but must eat and drink something at exactly sunset. (The rules are slightly different for Shiite Muslims, who start and end their fasting at slightly different times, times that differ by a few minutes from the Sunni times.) The first day of the month after Ramadan, called Eid al Fitr, every devout Muslim must say special prayers, and must eat and drink something between sunrise and sunset. So getting the days wrong is a big problem for the most devout Muslims.

And with their two Imams in profound disagreement, how can a member of one congregation be sure his Imam was right, and the other Imam was wrong?

Some have suggested that one can calculate whether or not the moon is visible, and reject any sightings if it is astronomically impossible to see the moon on the 29th of the month. This suggestion has been categorically rejected by the Saudis.

To solve this problem, the UAE government will declare the dates of Ramadan, and their declaration will determine Ramadan for all Muslims inside the UAE. And also for all non-Muslims inside the UAE.

So, on 30 Aug. 2008, which is the 29th of the Islamic month, the UAE moonsighting committee will go out. Then they will wait until they hear the official word from Saudi Arabia, where the sun won’t go down for another hour. If someone in Saudi Arabia sees the moon (someone always does), and if the sighting is accepted, then the UAE moonsighting committee will have seen the moon, and 31 August 2008 will be 1 Ramadan 1429. If all the people who saw the moon in Saudi Arabia have their sightings rejected (which sometimes happens), then the UAE moonsighting committee will not see the moon, and 1 Ramadan will coincide with 1 September1.

Farook tells the story that the King of Saudi Arabia offers $1,000 to the first person to sight the Ramadan moon, so one man came at exactly sunset and collected his $1,000. He came back about an hour later and said, ‘I saw another moon, so I’m here to collect another $1,000.’

Since the senior members of the committee sometimes reject the claims of people saying they’ve seen the moon, and sometimes accept the claims, even when, as on 30 August, there is no way anyone will have actually seen a new crescent2, we won’t know the first day of Ramadan in Dubai until about 11 p.m. on 30 August.

Dubai has set up six cannon. As of 1 Ramadan, at exactly 90 minutes before sunrise, all six cannon will go off to tell those Sunni who are fasting to start their fast. At exactly sunset, the cannon will all go off to tell those Sunni who are fasting to break their fast.

Many restaurants will stop all table service beginning with the dawn cannon until the sunset cannon. Some will have take-away service for those who are not fasting, which includes some Muslims who are exempt. Other restaurants will close during the day, but then remain open all night. Some restaurants will close for the entire month of Ramadan.

As of 1 Ramadan, the Ajman and Umm Suqueim liquor stores will close. The Dubai and Abu Dhabi liquor stores will have shortened hours. Abu Dhabi nightclubs will close; Dubai nightclubs will have shortened hours and no music.

The local TV stations, including all the MBC channels, will have a special Ramadan line-up, with all different shows. Unlike the West around Christmas or Easter, when all the TV channels catering to Christian audiences show special Christmas or Easter shows (e.g., 'Charlie Brown’s Christmas,' 'Charlie Brown’s Easter,' 'Quo Vadis,' 'The Robe,' etc.), the shows on the English-language MBC channels will have nothing to do with the holy month of Ramadan, but they feel that changing all TV schedules is necessary anyway.

(I’ve been told that Arabic and Urdu stations actually have Ramadan-specific programming, but I have no way of verifying that fact.)

Music is discouraged, so those who usually hum or whistle to themselves are advised to stop for the month.

Eating, drinking (this includes water), or smoking in public between the time the dawn cannons go off and the time the sunset cannons sound is illegal.

Everyone is advised to wear conservative clothes for Ramadan, not exposing any skin other than hands and face.

Many restaurants will have iftars at sunset. Iftars are special meals to break the Ramadan fast. I recommend the one at Al Nasr Club, though it’s only on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The Al Nasr Club is a municipality project, so it charges below-market prices.

Iftars used to be very cheap, as a Ramadan promotion to create goodwill for the restaurant, but this is now mostly a thing of the past. Prices for iftar have gone up by anywhere from 400% to 900% in the restaurants where I’ve been keeping track.

There will also be many free iftars (served precisely at sunset) and sohours (served between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.) in tents around the Emirates. Highly recommended for those who like cabrito biriani and companionship, or just free food.

So I advise everyone in Dubai, Muslims or infidels (whether kuffirin or kaffirin) to prepare for Ramadan, which will begin very soon.

1And, in the same way that the UAE moonsighting committee ensures that it always sees the moon on the same night as the Saudi moonsighting committee, other countries who are not on the best of terms are careful that, if one sees the moon, the other does not see the moon. Doing this several times during the Islamic year, the Islamic calendars of the countries can be several days out of sync. Return.

2 Some years, the new crescent has been 'sighted' when the old crescent was still clearly visible. Return.

Friday, August 22, 2008

At Al Quoz Cemetery

Farook called to let me know that a mutual friend whose bread I had eaten had passed away. Farook was going to the cemetery, and wondered if I would join him. Of course, I said, ‘Yes.’

We started in the opposite direction to the cemetery, since we had to pick up another mourner, Abu Khalid, before going. As we waited in Abu Khalid’s office, I heard Arabic on the CD player, and asked, ‘Is that the Koran?’ ‘No, that is du’a,’ said Farook. ‘Du’a means praying.’

Arabic, it seems, has quite a few words for praying, all with quite different meanings. In English, we try to explain the differences with adjectives, but English is, for the most part, completely lacking in words to describe the different varieties of Islamic prayer. Du’a, as best I could tell, is a chanted prayer, and one need not do anything physical while listening to someone chant it.

We then proceeded to Al Quoz Cemetery. The cemetery is surrounded by a high masonry wall, with several entrances. We entered through the main entrance and parked by some buildings. I didn’t see any sign of any graves, and assumed that Islamic graves must be unmarked. All I saw was plain, natural desert. ‘In Saudia,’ Farook explained, ‘they do not allow any markings. You go to see the tomb of your father, but you cannot find it.’ I assumed that must be true in Dubai.

Abu Khalid went into one of the buildings, while Farook and I stood outside in the 45 degree heat. Then Farook said, ‘Remove your shoes, and I will show you,’ so I removed my shoes and followed Farook into the building, a rectangular one-story building that was air-conditioned and which felt very nice after the Dubai summer heat. There were signs by the entrance, but all were in Arabic, so I just followed Farook.

The room was carpeted throughout, and the wall opposite the entrance had bookshelves filled with books, some of them obviously Korans. Farook and I sat down near the entrance. Other people were praying, meaning, in this case, standing, kneeling, bowing until their heads touched the floor, and standing up again, the prayers called, I think, rakas. I realized I was an infidel inside a mosque, something normally prohibited in the UAE, but I was not inclined to leave, so I continued sitting beside Farook while Abu Khalid and the others inside performed rakas. Then a Pakistani Imam entered, and led the noon prayer. Everyone except myself lined up and followed as the Imam recited the words that go with the rakas when performing the prayers called, I think, salat. Everything was done in perfect unison, except for one or two worshippers who entered late and were out of sync as they tried to catch up.

After two rakas, Farook indicated that we should leave. ‘Everyone was staring at me,’ I said. ‘They think you Shia. Shia do not pray with us Sunni, they sit and pray after.’ Then Farook and I sat in his air-conditioned car, waiting. I wasn’t sure what for, but Farook had read that the service would be right after the noon prayers. ‘We wait for ambulance,’ he explained. Eventually, Abu Khalid came out of the mosque and joined us in the car. A few cars with three-digit plates began arriving, and more cars began coming into the cemetery through the other entrances, and we could see them in the distance. I wondered if we had missed the ambulance, but Farook, who has been to quite a few of these services, knew that the ambulance always enters through the main gate.

It was not long before the ambulance did arrive, lights flashing, and we followed it to the gravesite. It appeared that no one has yet been buried near the entrance. In the actual burial area, most graves were marked with tombstones shaped as in a typical western cemetery, but, of course, most were engraved in Arabic. Some, however, were bilingual with English, and, had I been alone in winter, I would have wandered about the cemetery reading them.

We got out of the car and I followed Farook and Abu Khalid as everyone crowded around the open grave, apparently dug with shovels rather than with a machine. One gravedigger was still standing inside the grave when we first arrived.

Several blue jars were arranged around the grave, but I didn’t know why. The body was removed from the ambulance by several men. In accordance with Islamic tradition, the body was wrapped in a simple white covering. Then the body disappeared into the crowd. I was in about the fourth row from the grave, but the three rows in front of me were tall enough that I couldn’t see over them. I barely saw the body placed into the grave, then I saw balls of dirt handed to the men nearest the grave. Someone yelled (in Arabic), 'La, la, la!' or ‘No, no no!,’ but I have no idea what it was about. ('La,' being about the limit of my Arabic.)

Eventually, all the men gathered around the grave began putting handfuls of sand into the grave, and, as the grave filled up, someone placed two markers at the head and feet. The gravediggers helped speed up the process with their shovels, and in a few minutes, the grave was filled. Then I heard Farook’s voice reciting the prayer for burial, and after each phrase, everyone responded with what sounded to me like ‘Amen,’ though when Farook repeated it to me in the car where I could hear better, it was more like ‘Ameen.’ Since the West imported ‘Amen’ from a Semitic language, the similarity was not altogether surprising.

And then it was all over. Those who had helped place sand in the grave used the jars, which I now saw were filled with water, and washed their hands and feet. Then everyone tried to leave, though a couple of SUVs seemed to be hopelessly stuck in the sand.

Since Farook had parked on pavement, we didn’t have that problem, so he dropped Abu Khalid off, and then dropped me off.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Many people are interested in investments, either in Dubai, or worldwide. Specifically, people are wondering if Dubai property is a good investment at current prices, or is a bubble. Which, of course, raises the question of, ‘What is a bubble?,’ the classic examples being the Tulip Craze and the South Sea Bubble.

In short, investors only invest in the hopes of making a profit. Secular investors therefore try to invest in whatever investments promise the greatest profit, while Islamic investors must invest in whatever halal investments promise the greatest profit.

The theory says that all investments carry some degree of risk (zero being a degree, in the case of government guaranteed investments), and that the return of investments of equal risk should be equal, since investors holding an investment with a low return should sell it, driving the price down and the return up, and buy investments with a higher return, driving the price up and the return down, until the returns on investments with identical risk are identical.

The return on an investment consists of the dividends paid plus the appreciation of the underlying investment. This appreciation might be from retained earnings, in which case the investment has additional assets, so the appreciation is clearly justified, or it might be from new investors realizing that the asset has a high return, so they are buying in and increasing the price, which also increases the overall return for the existing investors.

The definition of a bubble is when this increase in price from new investors purchasing the asset is the primary return on the asset. This is, of course, a vicious circle, with the increasing price justified by nothing except the increasing price.

One easy way to spot a bubble is when everyone says ‘This is not a bubble.’ As long as most people are saying, ‘This asset is overpriced, and will soon go down,’ there cannot be a bubble.

There are theoretical ways to value stocks and property, to determine if the price is supported, or is just a bubble.

In the case of stocks, the theoretical price is determined by all future earnings of the underlying corporation. Sadly, prediction of anything is very difficult if one tries it with respect to the future.

Property is much easier: the price should be determined by rents. Even when most units are owned by the people living in them, these people are just renting from themselves, and the theoretical price is determined by the rents obtained by investors who buy to rent the properties. Simply, the investor should be expected to put down 25% of the value of the property, and should have a positive cash flow from the onset.

When property prices are rising so quickly that investors are willing to invest with negative cash flow, expecting that rising prices will soon enable them to sell at a profit, net of the losses during the time they held the property, there is a property bubble.

When lenders loan with initial payments that are less than the interest due, so there is an actual monthly deficit in spite of an apparent positive cash flow, there is a property bubble.

As of current date, none of this applies to Dubai property. There are no sub-prime loans available. And any investor putting down 25% will see a significant positive cash flow from the first month, given the current generous housing allowances being allotted to the most valued employees, of which there are more than enough to fill all the Emaar, Nakheel, and Dubai Holding properties. So, again as of current date, Dubai is not in the midst of a property bubble.

Of course, this could change, and the sign that it has changed is when everyone starts saying, ‘Dubai is not in the midst of a property bubble.’

Monday, August 04, 2008

Dubai Summer Surprise

Farook invited me to go to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce Summer Surprises series of lectures called ‘Mind’s Pleasures,’ or ‘watanabi.’ This is a strangely unadvertised and unattended Summer Surprise.

The speaker was someone who has studied multiculturalism in the UK and compared it with the US.

Back in school, the term we learned was acculturation. We learned that, in the US, everyone was acculturated. Of course, that was not altogether accurate, but that’s what we learned. It was a term the speaker never used.

In the US, all Europeans moved into neighbourhoods with their fellow countrymen, but their children had to attend schools with children from many different ethnic groups, schools in which English was the only lingua franca. Usually, the children intermarried children from different ethnic backgrounds.

The parents only spoke the language from their native country, and only read newspapers in the language of their native country. But, after 1921, the US banned most immigration, and the children could neither speak nor read the language of their parents, so the non-English newspapers all folded.

Now, in the US, people of Italian descent eat spaghetti on special occasions, Poles eat pirogues on special occasions, and Scandinavians eat lutefisk on special occasions, but most of the time they all eat hamburgers and hot dogs, and it’s hard to tell one from the other.

East Asians, Africans, and Hispanics were not acculturated in the US before World War II. East Asians could never become US citizens (in violation of the US Constitution, but violations of the US Constitution have a long history in the US), so they went to schools where they learned their own language. Africans were sent to pan-African schools where they learned Ebonics. And Hispanics had no tradition of schools, and were not allowed in US schools, so most remained illiterate Spanish speakers.

Now, East Asians and Hispanics who can prove that they are legal must attend regular schools, and most become fully acculturated, while US citizens of African descent may be able to attend Ebonics schools, or may be sent to acculturation centres.

The UK had a radically different experience. In the UK of the ‘70s, immigration was largely limited to people from Canada, the Antipodes, and (on a case by case basis) people from Southern Africa. Then the Brits felt guilty, let in anyone who had a Commonwealth Passport, and gave them a UK passport. Then membership in the EU meant that the UK had to admit people from Eastern Europe, and anyone with a European passport is free to enter the UK on a permanent basis.

The recent UK immigrants continue to follow their native practices, and continue to cheer for the sports teams from their grandparents’ countries.

So, the speaker asked, ‘Which is best, the US method or the UK method?’

It was a rhetorical question, so we didn’t get an answer.

And no one told him that the UAE, while certainly a multicultural society, has very little in common with the US or the UK.