x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

All of Ras Al Khaimah comes together during Ramadan

Ramadan is a national party. It has become a favourite time of year for me, right up there with Christmas, National Day and the Awafi dune-race.

Ramadan. Bah humbug, I said.

As a child, I liked Ramadan for the shorter school hours. As an adult, I have disliked it because my favourite restaurants and cafes are closed for the month. Swank venues at hotels have permission to stay open, but the doors of cafes with a little more neon, tinsel and dirt stayed firmly shut for the month.

But make no mistake. Ramadan is always a national party.

Ras Al Khaimah achieves a prolonged state of youth in Ramadan, when residents celebrate at night and sleep until Asr prayers at 4pm.

At night-time gatherings, people talk endlessly about hope and charity and making the world a better place. They play volleyball in parking lots at 3am and picnic with their families at midnight on sand dunes beside motorways.

But in the day, the few people I see are pale and groggy from the night's indulgences and they do their best to be patient.

Last year, I had three men reprimand me for not fasting on the first day of Ramadan. "Actually, I'm not Muslim and the doctor says it's bad for my blood sugar," I quipped.

"My friends aren't Muslim and they're fasting," came the reply each time. As if that settled it. "You will fast. You will try."

I was still required to work a full day for my Abu Dhabi office and often would work throughout the night. Ramadan meant a month of 24-hour work, more or less 30 days without sleep.

I'd be called out to interviews in mountain villages at 10.30pm. At a 4am majlis meeting, I could never be sure if this interview belonged to the night or to the day ahead. Would there be sweets before bed or cheese for breakfast?

I admit, I came to despair as Ramadan loomed.

But somehow, Ramadan has snuck into my heart. It always does. It has become a favourite time of year for me, right up there with Christmas, National Day and the Awafi dune-race.

It started last year when an elderly woman invited me into her home when I knocked at her door. Seeing me dripping and wilted from the heat, she gave me a tall glass of iced water and some mango juice, insisting that I drink. She used a tone of firmness and kindness that only a mother can possess.

And then, there were the iftars - not the showy, pricey meals of five-star hotels, but concoctions of good home cooking by men and women who sweated in steamy kitchens for their friends, for relatives and even for strangers who might happen to be in the area.

Cooks - in mountains and the cities - leave kitchen doors and windows open to waft enticing smells out onto draughts of air. This year, no such breeze exists in the heat and humidity of August, and these same cooks get no relief from the heat coming off of sizzling onions or the steam of boiling rice. But it never stops these cooks from toiling for hours to ensure that iftar is not just a meal, it is a feast, and a feast to be shared.

During Ramadan, all are welcome. For Muslims, giving to those less fortunate is a duty, but the month is also about just being together. In Ramadan, and Ramadan alone, I see bankers share meals with lorry drivers. Mothers eat from one plate with their maids. In Ramadan, we remember that we are all equal.

But these meals invariably come with a proviso. In Ramadan, and Ramadan alone, I am reminded on an almost daily basis that I ought to convert to Islam.

"Maybe you should think about it, because I'd like to see you in heaven," said one woman last year. As if to say, I'm worried about you and also, I'd like to spend eternity with you. A prospect both disturbing and flattering in its sentiment. But mostly caring.

And that's what Ramadan means to me. In Ramadan, people want to be together and people make it happen.

Some weeks ago, I realised that this is why the men reprimanded me for not trying to fast. It wasn't because I was an outsider. It is because they wanted me to be included.