20th July marked the start of Ramadan for 2012 and also my exit from Abu Dhabi, back to the lush ole Ireland for my summer respite. Ramadan, the period of 30 days when the Muslim community refrains from food, drink and sexual relations from dawn until dusk, makes for a very restrictive life for expats in the Middle East. Restaurants, cafes and food courts across the Middle East remain closed from dawn to dusk and although expats are not obliged to fast, we are obliged to respect our Muslim counterparts fast by refraining from drinking, eating and having sex in public. Bummer.
Fortunately for me I have long since broken the habit of drinking in public, there was a time when this law would seriously impinge on my night out, literally, with a bottle of Buckfast but age had honed my social skills and my refined my tastes in liquor. Not being a stranger to the ritual of fasting I look fondly back on my own period of self-denial and fast when I remember the 24hour Concern Fast in which I took part back in 1998. I recall the grueling hours of hunger and reflection I endured, broken only by sweet coffee and hot buttery toast, before finally breaking down on hour 21 and having a cheeseburger and garlic and cheese fries. Just three hours shy of complete mindfulness, I can appreciate the sacrifice involved and for that reason I decided to flee Abu Dhabi and head back to the country that enjoys the traditions and pomp associated with fasting but broadly ignores any actual practice. Lent, Advent, No Alcohol for the Holy Souls Month of November, No Meat on Fridays all preached from the pulpit but not enforced in everyday society and certainly not forced upon the thousands of non-nationals living around Ireland. Just the way I like my traditions, loose. There was one curveball, initially,I hadn’t envisaged the rule about not being allowed to have sex in public posing a problem but suddenly I found myself looking longingly at public parks and dreamily at supermarket car parks, and decided that extricating myself from Ramadan and the power of suggestion was perhaps the safest option.
The days leading up to the beginning of Ramadan’s tends to evoke an uneasy excitement. A great built up to a quiet frenzy. Unlike the rituals, traditions or religious habits in Ireland, Ramadan in the Middle East affects everybody, albeit to varying degrees. Since my defection to Middle East my experience of Ramadan to date it is patently obvious where the hardship of Ramadan weighs heaviest and it is not on the shoulders of devout Emirates who rise at midday and enjoy their after dark hours, breaking their feasting in style. Nor is it on the shoulders of expat wives who must refrain from sipping Pellegrino at the wheel and instead must wait until they’re behind closed doors and so parched that they decide to turn water to wine and have a cheeky glass of vino on the private veranda to escape the pressure. The hardship lies mostly on the thousands of Muslim workers in Abu Dhabi who spend their working days during Ramadan, driving to work at 6.30p.m. without even a coffee to take the edge off before spending the following twelve hours at their desk without lunch or water, before driving home in traffic hungry, thirsty and frustrated. Road rage during rush hour traffic is a significant side-effect, weary drivers eager to get home to eat and catch up on extra prayers. The atmosphere everywhere is thick with frustration and all against a backdrop of intense temperatures and stifling humidity.
So packed up and ready to go on the first day of Ramadan, I stroke my boarding card with quiet satisfaction as I look forward to the summer in Ireland. Long walks in the cool evenings, the wet grass of early morning, the feeling of a fresh summers day when the temperature reaches the dizzying heights of twenty two or three degrees and most of all a real pork breakfast roll from Centra to be eaten in broad daylight if so wished, a glass of wine in a trendy outdoor beer garden but note to self, stay away from public parks and supermarket car parks.