It is said that Ramadan requires Muslims to fast during the day, but this is a simplification: fasting is from 'dawn' until a few minutes after sunset, and 'dawn' is not a precisely defined term. In the UAE, 'dawn' begins exactly 90 minutes before sunrise, and a cannon sounds to tell people to start fasting. The azan, or call to prayer, then comes exactly ten minutes later.
One or two minutes after sunset, the cannon and the azan sound together, calling people to prayer and telling them to stop fasting.
From the time the 'dawn' cannon sounds until the sunset cannon and azan, all Muslim men must fast, meaning nothing by mouth. Not just no food, but also no water and no smoking. The not eating isn't really that hard, but the lack of water (not to mention coffee and tea) is difficult.
Here in the UAE, I have met many Muslims who say, as does the local newspaper, that the fast must be ended as soon as one first hears the azan or the cannon, that it is dangerous to extend the fast any longer, so the advice is to keep some dates and a bottle of water handy, and to eat a few dates and drink a little water as the azan begins. Some Muslims, having eaten their dates and taken a few sips of water, proceed to the mosque for the sunset prayer, and this is what the newspaper recommends: break the fast with a few dates and water, but then wait before dining 'in moderation.'
However, I've seen many Muslims who go to sunset buffets and who continue eating for half an hour or so after the azan sounds. Typically, the sunset buffet will have nothing left half an hour after the azan sounds, so then it's time to waddle over to the mosque.
Breaking the fast is called iftar, whether it's just a few dates and a few sips of water, or an immense banquet. During the Bush, Jr. administration, to show that the US was not against Islam, but only against Islamic terrorists, Condoleeza Rice invited the Muslim diplomats in Washington to an iftar consisting of a few pieces of candy (she couldn't find any dates) and a small bottle of water. They returned the favour, in typical Arab fashion, by inviting her to a magnificent banquet the following Ramadan, far more lavish than the iftar buffets served in Dubai.
I knew several Muslim men before coming to the UAE, but none ever excused himself from lunch saying, 'I'm sorry, but it's Ramadan.' Apparently, all used the dispensation that travellers are not required to fast until they return home, when they must make up the missed fast. So the first I ever heard about Ramadan was upon my arrival in the UAE. I was warned that it would be a novel experience. The warnings proved correct.
Beginning about an hour before Ramadan, everyone rushes to get home. Most people are already home by then, but those still out feel they must get home before the azan. My first few years in the UAE, during the hour before sunset, taxis drove more than 120 kph to ensure that their passengers, as well as the drivers, would be somewhere to enjoy iftar.
That first Ramadan in the UAE, I signed up for a lecture explaining what it was all about. I paid about £3 for a huge iftar and lecture, held in a tent. I arrived at the tent, and saw the other guests filling their plates, then sitting down but not eating, so I did the same. Finally, the azan sounded, and everyone took a few dates, some water, and then started on the soups, salads, and main dishes. Then a man got up on the podium, and I waited for the lecture:
'Thank you for coming to our presentation about Ramadan. Our speaker just informed me that Ramadan is about family, so he will be having iftar with his family and will not be able to join us.'
So we continued eating until all the food was gone, which took about 30 minutes, then we all waddled out and went home.
Ms. Rice hadn't read much about Ramadan (nor had I before I came to the UAE, but I wasn't a Secretary of State), or she would have known that British travel writers who had visited the region sometimes called it the 'Feast of Ramadan,' rather than the fast of Ramadan.
I met a woman with both a Saudi and an American passport, so she knew about both Thanksgiving and Ramadan. Every day, for the month of Ramadan, Muslim housewives must prepare the feast to be eaten that night, not unlike American or Canadian Thanksgiving. The meat dishes for Ramadan are goat and chicken rather than turkey, and the vegetable side dishes are different from what the typical American family serves, but the meals are similar in size, complexity, and the effort expected of the housewives.
If the first big meal is at sunset, it is called iftar; if iftar only consists of a few dates and a few sips of water, I'm not sure what the first big meal is called. But it is indeed a large feast, enough to make up for the day's fast. The local newspaper here always says it should not be a heavy meal, but a light meal, since fasting means eating and drinking in moderation between sunset and 'dawn.' This is an admonition more honoured in the breach than the observance.
During Ramadan, there will be many iftar buffets in Dubai. The commercial ones will be lavish banquets. Once, these were sold at very low prices for Ramadan, but those days are past, and now prices of more than $100 are not uncommon. But there will also be free iftars provided for the poor by mosques and other charitable organisations, generally consisting of a few dates, a sizeable dish of rice and either mutton or chicken, a bottle of water, a cup of juice, and a piece of fruit.
Many restaurants will be open all night during Ramadan (when it's not Ramadan, they close at various times between 10 pm and midnight).
There will also be some tents that serve a free meal at midnight, but if this meal has a name, I don't know it.
Around two or two and a half hours before sunrise, most Muslims will have their last meal before fasting starts, called sohour.
And then the cannon will sound. People will put away the remains of sohour, cigarette smokers will stub out their cigarettes, and the waiters in the shisha parlours will come by and take away the hookahs.
Then Muslims will fast until the cannon sounds for iftar.