Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ramadan tents and zakat

During Ramadan, the UAE has many Ramadan tents where anyone can eat for free, no questions asked. Naturally, I wondered who provided the free food. And yesterday, Saturday, I found out.

My friend invited me to join him as we went to the souk mawashi. Dubai translates this as the 'Cattle Market' in the English on the sign, but, in addition to (a few) cattle, there are (mostly) goats and sheep and a few camels. So Livestock Market would be a better translation. But Dubai never asked me, so 'Cattle Market' is the official English name.

At the souk, my friend asked, 'How much?' and, when they told him, he said the price was more than double what it was last year. And, more to the point, more than the supermarkets are charging.

So we went to a supermarket, where the goats were much cheaper than at the souk, and bought two goats.

My friend observed, 'This now Ramadan. Before, every Ramadan, souk mawashi full, but now empty. Crisis big problem for Dubai. Africa, souk mawashi all full during Ramadan.'

(Of course, I have no idea how he knows what's really happening in the African souk mawashi, but I would have said, 'Maybe it's the fact that the supermarkets are much cheaper;' however, I wasn't asked.)

Then we took the two goats to the Public Kitchen, something I first heard of in "A Christmas Carol", where the rich had mansions with large kitchens and servants, but the poor had no kitchen, so they had to take their food to a public kitchen.

For Ramadan, many Muslims buy a goat or two, 20 kilos or so of meat, and take it to a public kitchen. As in A Christmas Carol, even if they have a small kitchen, it's cheaper to use the public kitchen. After the goat is cooked, they donate it to feed the poor.

Every Muslim who can must give zakat to help the poor, and so they provide the goat and rice that the Ramadan tents serve to anyone who comes by.

My friend gave me a big package of chicken and rice to take home and eat tonight between sunset and 3 am, and Sunday, he, along with all the other Muslims who have enough money to buy food to feed the poor during Ramadan, will take meat and rice to one of the institutions that distribute the food to all the free Dubai Ramadan tents.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ramadan Tents

Today is the 20th of Ramadan, 1432. I once thought of myself as 'well read,' but when I arrived in the UAE, I had never heard of Ramadan. I checked Gutenberg, and didn't find many English language books that mentioned Ramadan (I think Byron's Childe Harold has a brief mention, but I've only read excerpts, and not the bit with Ramadan). Of course, there is the transliteration problem, where 19th century British writers might have transliterated Ramadan in any number of ways, but, if it were ever a major theme in any of the classics, I couldn't find it.

Shortly after I arrived in the UAE, my colleagues warned me that Ramadan would be strange to a Westerner. And they were right.

Ramadan is redolent of several Western traditions, but is also different. First, from 90 minutes before sunrise until a few minutes after sunset, eating, drinking, and smoking are prohibited.

But, during the day, all day long, most Muslim women cook, so that, from sunset until 90 minutes before sunrise, their husbands can eat, drink non-alcoholic beverages, and smoke shisha. The women must cook special foods for Ramadan, so in a way, it's like a month of Christmas dinners, with the attendant duties imposed on the women. Not unlike the West, but for a month, not for a day.

Ramadan is a time for charity, called zakat. All over the UAE there are Ramadan tents where poor men can break their fast after sunset for free. There are also tents which serve a meal three hours before sunrise, also for free. Some of these tents serve people with no questions asked. Others are provided by mosques, so they expect you to pray, which is difficult for infidels, since one must know the ritual and the Arabic responses. But every poor Muslim can eat for free all during Ramdan, with no questions asked. And, if one knows where to go, even infidels can eat for free all during Ramadan.

Early this morning I had the last meal of the night, three hours before sunrise, at a free Ramadan tent. They serve goat (of course), prepared six different ways. I tried to ask my friend (not from the Gulf) about what we were eating, and was told, 'We do not talk while eating.'

I finally found out the real translation of his statement, 'We do not talk while eating': All the dishes are Gulf dishes, and he is not a Gulf Arab, so he has no idea what we're eating, he just comes to eat for free.

I can relate. I had an uncle who loved food, and always asked, 'What is in this? How did you make it?' My father found his brother's curiosity about food disgusting. 'Why does he want to know that?' my father asked. 'Just eat it. If it's tasty, that's all that matters.'

But I fear I'm more like my uncle than my father: I like to know what I'm eating.

But my friend does not like to say, 'I don't know,' so he says, 'We do not talk when eating.'

So I know I had goat, but I have no idea what any of the side dishes were, or if there are names for the six different ways the goat was prepared.

Still, as my father said and my friend says, 'It was tasty, and that's all that matters. No need to know the name.'

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Good Service

The New York Times on Sunday, 7 August 2011, had an article about where travellers can expect to find the best service. Japan was rated as the best, followed by Thailand, Canada and New Zealand.

The UAE came in 5th in the entire world of tourist destinations!

(For those who plan to visit, the article says one should tip 10% throughout the UAE. I have no idea where or how they came up with that 10%.)