Etiquette workshop at Eton Institute helps expatriates understand the intricacies of the Holy Month.
Free course offers non-Muslims insight on Ramadan
I am cramped into an undersized chair copying down foreign language phrases that are being scribbled on a whiteboard by our class tutor.
On the face of it, this could be any language class in any school across the world.
Yet it is appropriate conduct rather than linguistic expertise that the 20 or so mainly western attendees are here to be schooled in.
This is a Ramadan etiquette workshop, staged by Eton Institute, a business training company, at its recently opened Abu Dhabi office in the Park Rotana business complex. The aim of the two-hour, free-to-attend class is to educate non-Muslim expats about the social, historical and religious significance of the festival and to talk about accepted codes of conduct and public behaviour during the Holy Month.
Kariman Al Assil, a motherly Syrian who has worked as a language tutor in the capital for more than 25 years, is leading the class.
Some would argue that, as guests in this land, expats should familiarise themselves with Islamic customs before arrival. Al Assil strongly disagrees.
"Many of the students who attend my classes have just arrived, so how would they know?" she asks. "Unless you read about it before you come here, there is no way you can understand everything about Ramadan. I don't think the media in Europe or America really covers what it is about.
"So they come here and all they know is that Muslims are exhausted, hungry and thirsty during the month. So I see it as my job to supply the answer to why we do this."
Those attending the class confirmed that they felt bemused by what to expect during the month-long religious festival.
Stefan Herget, a 38-year-old from Germany, had only landed in the country 10 days previously to start work for an engineering firm.
"I guess our biggest fear is that we don't want to offend [anyone]," he says before the class began. "So I really came along to see if I could understand more.
"All I knew about [Ramadan] was that it's about fasting and intensive prayer, but that was about it. I was curious to know how a westerner who isn't a Muslim fits in with this and what it's like to be here."
British teacher Marie Lottin, 48, said apprehension was also her motivation for attending.
"I have only been here since last November and so I missed the last [Ramadan]," she explains. "Some of my friends have said to me 'you can't do this, you can't do that', so it was all a bit scary. I saw this class advertised and felt I should really come along to find out if it was true or not."
So, during her lesson, Al Assil attempted to elucidate these issues and dispel misconceptions.
"For those who aren't fasting, the most important thing is to respect those who are fasting around you. That means no eating, no drinking or smoking in front of them," she advises her class.
"Some people don't mind if you do this, but some do, so you should always respect those who do mind. Personally, I don't care. But some do find consuming food in front of them disrespectful. So that is why you should avoid it."
Despite Al Assil's relatively relaxed attitude, it is important to remember there are laws in place that forbid eating, drinking and smoking in public places (or your car) during the hours of daylight, and anyone caught doing so could face being fined or, worse still, being imprisoned.
There are other more charming codes of conduct that non-Muslims should also follow.
"If you are invited to share an iftar meal, go ahead and never hesitate. This is one of the most appreciated acts in the Holy Month," Al Assil imparts.
"[Your hosts] will appreciate you going and be so happy if you come along. If you are invited, they want you to go, so go out of your way to try to attend."
Keeping a cool temper is also a must.
"People should avoid getting into heated debates or arguments during Ramadan," she tells the class. "You will hear people say: 'Allahumma inni saa'em', which means 'Oh God I am fasting'. So I will not answer back what you say, even if you hurt me. If you say bad words then your fast will be broken, so they say this instead."
And because religious rather than worldly pursuits are the name of the game, expect the hasty pace of life in the UAE to ease off somewhat.
"You must remember that business activities tend to slow down during Ramadan. There will probably be delays with any commercial or bureaucratic activities," she warns.
Al Assil interspersed her guidance with charming anecdotes from her own childhood in Syria.
Talking about the Ramadan cannon, which some towns still fire to mark the time to break fast (there are four deployed in Dubai - two in Deira, one in Safa Park and one in Karama), she reminisces: "I remember when I was a little girl, I used to go to the roof of our building just to watch the cannon firing.
"Though it took time to go downstairs to start eating and break the fast, it was more cheerful for me to see the cannon firing. If possible, you should go and see this yourself."
Once this advice has been imparted, Al Assil moves on to the true purpose of Muslims giving up food and drink during daylight hours.
"[Ramadan] is kind of like a shower and clean-up for your soul and body," she contends. "It is not just about going hungry and thirsty for a few hours each day. It is an exercise in self-control, patience, endurance and staying away from bad habits.
"To what extent can you control your needs? To what extent can you control your life? To what extent can you control what you want immediately."
"It is a time of refreshing the human being," she asserts. "You will learn again how to deal with this life and being a straightforward person.
"It is kind of like a course in how to lead a better life. We need the course because after the month we forget about it and go back to our bad habits," she jokes.
As the class comes to its conclusion, the attendees are gifted some dates and Arabic coffee before wandering off to ponder over the knowledge conveyed to them.
So had the lesson allayed their previous concerns? Herget believed it had: "I have learnt a respect for their religion.
"It is tough to fast during this heat, especially the water part of it. Many of my colleagues are Muslims and Arabs, so now I feel I can chat to them about their religion and Ramadan.
"I don't feel I have to fast myself but ... should at least try to learn some respect for them."
Lottin agreed: "I've kind of realised that as long as you're sensible and respectful ... then there's nothing to worry about."
Eton Institute's Ramadan etiquette workshops take place throughout Ramadan in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Visit www.eton.ae or call 800 3866 for more information.
Hugo Berger is a features writer at The National.