Thursday, August 25, 2011

Goodbye Ramadan...

It's safe to say that this, my fourth Ramadan, has been my absolute favourite.  Despite the rocky start (trips to Qatar, trips to Abu Dhabi), it rapidly improved and encompassed charity, friends, weekends away and the ubiquitous food.  There's still a few days left, but as I'm flying off on holiday very shortly, I'll say goodbye to Ramadan now.

And with  the end of Ramadan, we see the Eid Al Fitr break and a few days off work - well-timed with my trip.  Last year the desert family all took our holidays at different times, meaning that whole months passed where the team was incomplete.  This year we've planned a bit better and we're all away at once, with trips to the UK, Thailand and India.  We've already got a fun-packed Dubai diary for our return. 

I hop you've all enjoyed Ramadan as much as I have....Eid Mubarak!  See you in September....

Why I Love Ramadan: Great Food with Great Friends

So beautiful!
Much has been written about the fabulous and grandiose iftars that take place all over the city during Ramadan. I haven't indulged in any of these this year: they're a bit like a giant brunch with heaps of food (only without the beer swilling contingent - and that's just the girls), which can be a bit overwhelming when you're not a giant scoffer.  But last night I was very kindly invited to one of the best by my dear friend JT.  The Asateer tent at the Atlantis Hotel is legendary in the city due to its beautiful decor, atmosphere and great food.

The tent is every bit as fabulous as you might imagine, beautiful drapes, stunning lights, soft furnishings to die for...and oh, the food! Utterly scrumptious.  After three plates of savouries and desserts (and I NEVER eat desserts) I was bit to burst.  And reminded why I so rarely brunch.  I was almost rolled out of the taxi when I reached Downtown.

Still, you can't beat a catch up with great friends over food - a sentiment which resonates throughout Ramadan and was certainly in evidence at Asateer last night.  Ramadan, I shall miss you.  My waistline shall not.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why I Love Ramadan: Opening Hearts, Opening Minds

The beautiful centre
Last night I fulfilled a long-held Ramadan ambition when I made it to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) for one of their wonderful educational and social iftars.  SMCCU has long been one of my favourite places in Dubai, and I'm sad when people say they haven't heard of it, or that they don't know what it's all about or where it is. It's a truly beautiful place which aims to bring down barriers and misconceptions about Islam and culture here in the UAE.

In my opinion it should  be in the diary of every expat's first month in Dubai, no excuses.  They have regular breakfasts and lunches where you get to sit and chat with locals and ask any questions you like. It was the highlight of my parents' last trip!

The iftar was just as relaxed and interesting as the breakfast.  We arrived at Maghreb prayers, were greeted by the lovely Nasif and his team, and settled down for food and chat. 

Emirati food is an interesting experience, and not easily found in Dubai - most restaurants serve Lebanese or Arabic food but not Emirati.  We tried Harees - wheat mixed to a paste and combined with meat, usually only cooked at weddings and during Ramadan.  There were also some rice based dishes which took their inspiration from India. 

We'd (obviously) prepared some questions beforehand and were joined by one of the many Emirati volunteers who was happy to chat about anything and everything under the sun.  Our lovely volunteer (Mohammed, aircraft engineer, works for Emirates) happily answered questions about residency for ex-pats, the development of Dubai, his views on tourists dressing like hookers (no, really!) and gave us some great insights into his life and views on the world.

Done with the first course, we headed to the nearby mosque.  Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, a walk through Bastakiya at night is a truly magical experience.  The alleyways and windtowers glow in the moonlight, the breeze (such as it was) wafted through the narrow streets, with call to prayers and sounds from the creek in the background.  Once inside the mosque, Nasif explained lots about Islam and prayer.  It was honestly one of the most moving experiences of my life and I could barely look at A for fear of blubbing!  Then back to the centre for dessert and more q and a's. 

There was a great mix of nationalities, ages, families, children and despite some of the really stupid questions (my favourite: "are you a local then" to a man wearing a kandoora) it was a great night.  And to be fair, it's getting the stupid questions asked and answered that changes the misperceptions that we encounter every day.  I always enjoy my visits to the centre and can't wait to go there again.  You may still have time to book into one of their iftars if you call them today!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why I Love Ramadan: Zakat (Charity)

The inspirational Saher Shaikh, Founder of Adopt A Camp
The pace of construction in Dubai means that wherever you look, there's a building site, and with it, teams of construction workers, usually from the sub-continent.  They work so very hard, often 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week.  There's one building  going up that I can see from the gym window (like how I threw in the fact that I AM GOING TO THE GYM?!) and they are toiling away throughout Ramadan, in sweltering 50 degree heat and 90% humidity.  Between 6 and 7 pm, which is often the end of the day shift, Downtown teems with men, tired but somehow still seemingly happy, as they leave their sites.  One man and I in particular have been exchanging hello's/how are you's for the last six months, god love him

There's an amazing charity here called 'Adopt A Camp' who work to make the lives of these men just a little buit easier.  So last Thursday night, we decided to get off our backsides and help these lovely men who work so tirelessly to build our offices, apartments, roads and hotels. The charity had basically organised huge supplies of everything from socks to caps to washing powder to soap...the list was long (24 items) and we joined hundreds of people who put them into boxes to be donated to workers.

The girls and I were put onto quality control (the organisers knew Type A personalities when they saw them!) and we spent a happy few hours into the night checking items and taping boxes.

It was truly humbling evening, with all sorts of nationalities, ages coming together.  Even tiny children were helping.  You can get a feel for the event here.  Charity, despite bieng a pillar of Islam, is still a relatively new concept here, so it was truly inspiring to see so many people coming together to help a cause.

We left feeling geared up to give more back to our lovely city, so next month will see us volunteering animal sanctuary! Yes, we will be animal bothering at the weekends.  I've made it clear that I shall be steering clear of the monkeys and iguanas, but anything furry with four legs is fair game! Updates to follow....

Thursday, August 18, 2011

How Do You Do It?

Many years ago I read the amazing book: "I don't know how she does it" by Allison Pearson.  It's basically the story of a working mum, the ups, the downs, the joys and downright pain of bringing home the bacon whilst bringing up a  family.  It's laugh out loud funny and if you haven't read it, I really recommend that you do.  I've just discovered that it's been made into a film featuring none other than SJP...

Anyway, the reason for me telling you about this is....

I live in awe of my friends with children.  I've watched their battles with sleep deprivation, their years without holidays, struggles to re-claim their post-baby lives..and regularly thought: I don't know how they do it.  And yesterday I had another insight into what parents have to face when I accompanied one of my closest friends through a hospital visit and procedure: Parents have to deal with their children getting sick. 

Let's be clear, I wasn't the one having the op, so my darling friend was the brave one who had to deal with the stress, pain and trauma.  But the whole experience, from the initial check in, to sitting on the bed telling jokes to keep spirits up, to watching her get wheeled away on the trolley, was extremely tough.  The hour whilst I waited for her to come out of theatre was possibly the longest of my life. 

Parents: how the hell do you do it?

Postscript: Lovely friend is on the mend.  My nerves and heart strings are still frayed.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why I Love Ramadan: I'm not in the UK

What the world needs now..
I haven't written about the UK situation as I don't want to pollute my blog with such hideous news this month.  And as one of my favourite bloggers has so eloquently written about it here, I'll share her thoughts instead.  Her most poignant quote about her trip back to the UK:

"What has my daughter learned this week?  That shops close really early and that, when they do, they board up the windows? That, when kids in England want new trainers or phones, they just break into the shop and take them? And that she can’t go to the local park after supper “because those people might be running about throwing bricks and setting fire to things”?  Dubai may have its critics, but at least I feel safe on its streets."

Ironically, one of the questions I was asked, frequently, during my recent trip to Canada and the States was: "do you feel safe in Dubai?".

I think you know my answer to that...

Why I Love Ramadan: Re-Connecting with Old Friends

How good friends make you feel...
I had the pleasure of dinner with a much loved friend last night.  We used to work together and I don't see her nearly as much as I would like to or should.  She's one of these people that you're lucky to meet: you share an instant connection that sparks up as soon as you get back together, however long you leave between catch ups.  Despite different backgrounds, upbringings and life paths so far, we just click.  This girl is basically my twin sister, if my twin sister was a gorgeous Iraqi-American, with long dark tumbling hair.  Just like me she's funny (obv), smart (obv), successful (obv) and utterly charming (double obv).

And, just like me, she's very hard on herself, in terms of personal and professional life.  She pushes herself harder and longer, is plagued by a work ethic that sees her losing sleep, losing patience, losing her marbles....

What is it with women these days? Why can't we relax and appreciate that no, we're not perfect, but we are pretty wonderful most of the time?  Is this a female thing?  I don't have the answers, I'm just throwing it out there.

Anyway once we'd got past the initial frenzy of downloading about the pressures and stresses of work, we got down to the really important stuff: boys, fashion and make-up.  As we emerged from the restaurant into the thronging mall (malls are packed in the evenings during Ramadan) we vowed to see more of one another.  Ramadan allowed us the space to catch up (we both finished work early) but in future, we'll make the time...

Why I Love Ramadan: Food and Family

Much as I love Dubai, it's great to get away at the weekend and one of my favourite places for a retreat is the beautiful city of Al Ain.  I've blogged about this before: it's a wonderful place and if you haven't been, you really should. We try to go once a month.  It's always a great contrast to the hustle and bustle and grind of Dubai - life is slower, more authentic, more real, and never moreso than during Ramadan.

Whereas in Dubai you can gaily continue to eat and drink within hotels and on their beaches, in Al Ain, hotel pool bars are closed.  There's no music blaring out, just a stillness in the air punctuated by childrens' laughter and the low chatter of the lone person on another sunbed by the pool. Bliss.

In the spirit of adhering to the customs of the Holy Month, two different things happened last weekend: one, not a drop of alcohol passed my lips during the break and two, we went out to Iftar at the most wonderful place you've ever seen.

The Heritage Village is hidden away inside one of the oases and contains amongst other things a charming cavernous restaurant, with tables as far as the eye can see.  Forget your Atmosphere in Burj Khalifa with glittering chrome and glass, this is wood panelled, with a rustic feel - amazing framed photos of falcons all over the place - no, really.  We'd been there for lunch before, and suspected that they'd be doing something special for Ramadan.  (A rather fruitless phone call hadn't really confirmed anything, which made it all more of an adventure.)!  We set out through the dark streets of Al Ain (a treat in itself to explore at night!) and made our way there.

And what a  magical sight it's tradition to light up houses and buildings during Ramadan and the twinkling gorgeousness of the village really can't be explained - I wish I'd had a camera.Once inside the restaurant we were immediately fully immersed into local culture - we were the only Westerners in there (another reason why I love Al Ain) with groups of families, children and friends all meeting to share Shisha and food.  It was a truly fabulous evening and I can't wait to go back.  Ok, I'm never going to turn my back on the swish eateries of Dubai (hello, Ivy!) but this place has a very special place in my heart.  I'll say it once last time: if you haven't been to Al Ain: GO!

Why I Love Ramadan: Palm Trees and Dates

What dates look like before they ripen! (Thanks to
You may have gathered that I'm a big fan of the Middle East, giddily embracing customs and traditions and trying to find out as much as possible about my home.  But over the last three years, there's something that I just can't get to grip with: dates.  Not the kind involving men and wine (that's a whole different topic!) but the foodstuff.

Dates may sound like a stereotype, but they are embedded into the culture here.  Back in the days when the glittering cities were just sand, the bedouins relied on the date palm for food, shelter, fuel and much more. I've never been a huge fan - memories of slimy boxes of inedible mush being passed around when I was a child at Christmas - but I have to say, this Ramadan, they've started to grow on me.

Dates are very popular during the Holy Month as they are used to break the fast at Iftar.  Their natural sugar helps to ease the headaches that can be brought on my hunger and dehydration and are a great way to ease your body into eating a full meal when you've been fasting for over 12 hours.  They're also packed with nutrients inclining potassium and a good source of fibre.  There's over 800 different types - who knew!

Whilst I can't claim to have been fasting this month, I have been eating less, especially when out of the office and travelling.  So dates have actually been quite handy for a slow release sugar fix before the gym, or whilst waiting patiently for dinner later in the evening.  I'm not rushing to buy them by the cartload, but I've started to appreciate them a bit more.  And after my recent weekend in Al Ain, where we picked fresh, fat, juicy dates straight from the beautiful palm trees, I'm just a little bit more of a convert....

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Why I Love Ramadan: Tradition

I'm a modern girl.  I live next to the world's tallest, most-futuristic building. I adore my I-pad.  I embrace all sorts of new technologies.  But I also love culture and tradition, and the desert family has strived to create some rituals in the three years that we've lived in the Middle East. 

We always attend the first polo event of the season, we throw ourselves into Ramadan events, we have Christmas Eve drinks at 360, we lunch on the Ritz's lawn on Christmas Day, and we watch Muppet Christmas Carol in the first week of December.  (Ok, I usually watch this alone as no-one else will join me, but you get the point.)

This week I discovered that there are many, many traditions during Ramadan that people take and adapt and call their own. 

My Egyptian friend spoke lovingly of a candle-lit lamp that her parents would bring out and light on the first night, of special cakes that they would bake together at Eid.  Without them, she says, Ramadan just doesn't feel like Ramadan. 

Which made me think: without the tree, without the lights, without the carols, without the turkey: would it still feel like Christmas? Well that, of course, is where your adopted family comes in.  They're the most important tradition of all.

Why I Love Ramadan: Patience and Prayer

Waiting Patiently
Travelling, anywhere, during Ramadan, is challenging.  It's not always easy to find places to eat, and you can't do the usual waterdrinking and snack-scoffing when on long car journeys, unless you're under a coat.

Last week I had the dubious pleasure of flying to Doha, with a lovely Muslim colleague who was fasting.   The airport operates pretty much business as usual, so there were hordes of people eating and drinking all around us.  They also serve food as normal on the flight.  Which is pretty tough when you haven't eaten for almost 14 hours.  I managed a bottle of water and a Snickers bar, and still found it hard to keep my rumbling tummy in check.  Yet my lovely colleague did not complain once, despite the 50 degree heat, getting lost in a taxi and presenting a full pitch to complete strangers.  It was a lesson in patience, right in front of me.

After checking the prayer times online we ascertained that Maghreb fell just as we were boarding the plane.  As we scooted towards the gate (always a bit of hysteria when leaving Doha) we saw an amazing sight: groups of people, sat on the floor, sat on chairs, spread out wherever they could find space, breaking their fast together.  A really wonderful sight of togetherness.

On arrival in Dubai, the amazing sights continued.  This time we'd landed just as Asha prayers began, and so we saw groups of people, deep in prayer, all over the airport.  My favourite spot was at the top of the escalators, on a patch of carpet in front of some seats.  Just like that, an extremely testing and long day was completely redeemed.  Wonderful to see. 

Why I Love Ramadan: Taxi Drivers

I've waxed lyrical on many occasions about my love for Ramadan.  This is my fourth, and at 7 days in, I've already accumulated a plethora of wonderful and touching experiences.  So I thought I'd chronicle them, as they happen.  My first 'Ramadan Tale' is about taxi drivers.

These guys have it tough during Ramadan.  If they're fasting, they have to cope with hunger and thirst throughout their 12 hour shift.  If they're not, they have to cope with increasingly erratic driving from those who are fasting, as the day progresses.  If you need a taxi at 6.30, which I often do, as I'm socialising at Iftars, it can be hard to get a taxi and when you do, you could be interrupting a hungry driver who is just about to break his fast. 

A friend was leaving work last week, and just as she opened the taxi door to get in, the call to prayer rang out.  The driver offered to continue, but A insisted that they waited for him to break his fast and eat and drink something.  As of course, you would hope anyone would.

The lovely taxi driver was so overcome with emotion at this act that after he'd finished eating and dropped her home, he began to rifle through his bag of snacks.  Despite A's protestations, he refused to let her exit the taxi until he had given her a slice of melon to take with her, as a thank-you for her patience.

Yesterday I jumped in  cab to head to the home of a lovely Egyptian friend of mine.  It was 6.35, and just 30 minutes to Iftar.  I was obviously extremely apologetic and hoped I hadn't interrupted the driver's Iftar.  He wouldn't hear a word of it and went on to explain that he was fasting for God, and God would not mind if he was late.  Never mind the fact the poor man hasn't eaten for 12 hours.  We then had a lovely chat about his favourite mosques, and which were the best to head to for 'free' iftars (the Government provides free juice, water, milk and snacks during Ramadan.)

Both stories warmed my heart. Taxi drivers are literally the backbone of the city.  They work extremely hard for little pay and little thanks.  They're a constant source of stories and interesting tales.  If you don't chat to them during your journey, I really suggest that you do.  Especially during Ramadan...

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Heaven on Earth

The Holy Month of Ramadan is wonderful for many spiritual reasons explained in my previous post.  But just to confirm that I am still the girl you know and love, it's also fabulous due to all manner of amazing hotels coming up with great deals to entice you to stay there.  Hence this weekend I'll be packing the bacofoil bikini and over-sized sunhat and heading to the beautiful Jumeirah Zabeel Saray.

It's a relatively new addition to the luxury hotel scene here, situated on the Palm.  And it's an absolute steal to stay there during Ramadan.  My itinerary mainly involves tanning, celeb trash, more tanning, bottles of fizz and a session in their ultra-luxurious spa.  After my last hotel experience in new York where I could almost touch all four walls from my bed (gotta love those NYC floorplans!) this shall be a very welcome break.  Full report, as always, to follow.

My Fourth Dubai Ramadan

My favourite time of year..
I'm back!  Fresh from a whirl of Toronto, Montreal and New York. Much, much more to follow on that trip and all the interesting experiences I had.  Let's just say childbirth sprung to mind at one point: excruciatingly painful but utterly amazing at the same time.  And once the pain has faded, you'd happily do it all again.  Anyway!

I've returned and been flung right into my favourite time of year: Ramadan.  I've blogged about this many times before: here , here and here.  It's the holiest month of the Muslim calendar and I adore its spirit of kindness, reflection and generosity.  Yes the international media focus on the fact you can't eat and drink during daylight hours, but it's so much more than that.  It's a time to take stock, be thankful for everything you have and be grateful for it.  As this very much reflects on my day to day attitude towards life, you can perhaps understand why I, and my lovely desert family, are giddy as goats about this month.

My diary is jam-packed with cultural iftars, qu'uran seminars, sunrise mosque visits and dinners with friends.  Ramadan Kareem, dear friends...