Sometimes serendipity provides the most meaningful learning experiences; that is what happened this past week on a trip to Dubai that culminated with being in the Gulf during the ending of Ramadan. Three Fulbright teachers conducting research in Singapore planned the trip to the Gulf state to coincide with the school exam period in Singapore. Although we had some idea that Ramadan was scheduled to end during our visit to Dubai, we had no fixed date or time, only speculation. What transpired was an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the country’s culture and heritage and participate in a celebration unlike any in the United States.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and Muslims observe it all over the world as a period of fasting, from sunrise to sunset. During this sacrosanct period, contemplation, worship and self-improvement take place daily. Ramadan this year began on May 6th and was expected to finish on or around June 3rd, which just so happened to coincide with our visit to Dubai. The reason the ending date is not set is that it depends on the sighting of the new moon.
Being a visitor to Dubai during this holy period made this trip an extraordinary opportunity to learn cultural competence. I made a list of several Do’s and Don’ts observed during the visit that I would like to share:
The Do’s and Don’ts & Learning On the Fly
Do… Wear conservative clothing. Although the Gulf states are known to be conservative, during Ramadan it is especially important to dress with modesty. Signs at the local mall requested for both men and women to wear clothes that covered both their shoulders and knees.
Do…Be respectful and conscientious of those who are fasting. Drinking and eating out in public during daylight hours is considered distasteful. Look for designated areas that are screened off from public view.
Do…Participate in using festive greetings when interacting with locals during the Ramadan season such as Ramadan Kareem (generous Ramadan) and Ramadan Mubarak (congratulations, its Ramadan).
Do…Get up early before the sunrises and participate in Suhoor, a pre-dawn meal before the fast begins for the day. Look for a’ la carte meals in restaurants to try local dishes and feast on traditional food choices.
Don’t…Eat, drink, or chew gum in public spaces during daylight hours. Places include in taxis, on the street, the local mall or other places where you may be in the company or proximity of someone fasting. Not only is it considered rude, but breaking this law is legally punishable.
Don’t…Smoke in public places. This isn’t something that is healthy to do in the first place, but smoking during Ramadan should be avoided in public places or in outside spaces. Smoking should be done in discreet, designated areas only.
Don’t…Be loud or obnoxious as Ramadan is a period of quite religious devotion and self- reflection. Be mindful of disturbing others and refrain from flamboyant displays of activity and celebration.
Ramadan ended on Monday, June 3rd, called by the official moon-sighting committee in Saudi Arab. What followed in Dubai was a multi-day celebration which began with the breaking of the fast. Eid Al-Fitr ensued, a celebration lasting for three days. This period began with festivities, families gathering at hotels for meals, and visits to the mosque for prayer. We were caught up in the local celebration and viewed a spectacular display taking place at the tallest building in the world, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the night of June 3. There was a water show as well as a spectacular light presentation.
The Burj Khalifa tower was illuminated by LED lights programed with traditional symbols to include the crescent moon, eight-pointed star, the mosque, and the ruler of Dubai, the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Crowds, including families and young working men with time off swarmed the area in celebratory fashion to indulge in food and drink.
All in all, the trip was a wonderful success, enhanced by the chance opportunity of being in a country with a rich culture and the experience of being immersed in a period of religious observance followed by celebration. The travel dates were a well-timed to witness an incredible cultural practice. It was learning on the fly, and a wonderful part of the Fulbright experience that won’t soon be forgotten. So in the spirit of Eid al-Fitr, “May every year find you in good health,” or Kul ‘am wa enta bi-khair.