x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Ramadan reflection: fasting during the Holy Month in the UAE

Saeed Saeed speaks to four Muslims from different walks of life about what fasting means to them.

Basel Mounawar, a chef, relishes the Holy Month. Fatima Al Marzooqi/The National
Basel Mounawar, a chef, relishes the Holy Month. Fatima Al Marzooqi/The National

Ramadan is here.

With the crescent moon sighted in the region on Wednesday, Muslims across the world embark on a spiritual quest that will include fasting from dawn to dusk and engaging in nightly communal prayers during the Holy Month.

Ramadan is viewed as chance for worshippers to rekindle a spiritual side dulled by the demands of the modern world.

Fasting is one of Islam's most intimate acts of worship. Devoid of any ostentation, the fast is purely an individual exercise.

While outwardly appearing as abstaining from food and drink, the fast is meant to be a spiritual game changer for worshippers. The lack of sustenance is meant to foster empathy with the less fortunate, the resulting spiritual consciousness often the trigger needed to make some character adjustments.

Hence the many stories of Muslims using Ramadan to successfully kick the smoking habit, growing in patience and become more forgiving. It also explains the fresh set of personal goals each worshipper brings with a new Ramadan.

The Holy Month is as much a spiritual detox from the stresses of daily life as it is an intensive self-development course.

Mutah Beale has experienced such developments since converting to Islam in 2002.

Known by the moniker Napoleon, the American and now Saudi Arabian resident was a former big-selling rapper and part of Tupac Shakur's collective, the Outlawz. Selling more than a million albums, the group performed sold-out shows across the United States in addition to producing chart-topping albums.

The 1996 death of Shakur, the victim of a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, triggered years of anguish and soul-searching for Beale.

The end result was his conversion to Islam.

Recalling his first Ramadan, Beale says: "It wasn't exactly perfect."

Still part of the Outlawz at that time, he spent the Holy Month touring stateside.

"I was a new Muslim and I didn't have the appropriate knowledge about Ramadan at the time," he recalls.

"I would fast during the day and at night I would put wrong things in my body. I would smoke and drink because I didn't know any better. And then, after learning more, each Ramadan got better than the previous year."

The increase in knowledge led Beale to retire from the rap game in 2005 and eventually move to Riyadh, where he works as a motivational speaker.

Ironically, the latter gig resulted in more time on the road, with Beale delivering stirring addresses on life and faith across America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Beale's next presentation is on Saturday at The Juicy Steakhouse at Al Raha Mall.

The Dh150-per-head catered event, dubbed as an "iftar with Mutah Beale," will have him addressing fasting youth and families on how to get the best from the Holy Month.

Beale says that Ramadan is about more than simply abstaining from food and drink.

"If that is the case, you would get no real benefit from it," he says.

"It's also about stepping back and reflecting on who you are as a person. It's about asking hard questions of yourself. We have 11 months where we collect everything from this world. Now we have a month where we can give back spiritually."

As well as getting him in the habit of observing the five daily prayers, Beale credits his first Ramadan for triggering profound changes in his character.

Beale's violent childhood - including, as a three-year-old, witnessing his parents gunned down - saw him wrestle with aggressive tendencies throughout his youth. Beale credits the Holy Month for instilling him with a new-found sense of calmness.

"You know, for me, it was a challenge on whether I can do the fast," he says.

"I felt more focused. You remind yourself that you are leaving your food and drink and bad traits for the sake of Allah. I realised I didn't even have energy to get angry and I learnt to let a lot of stuff fly. A lot of people thought I should fast more often."

Beale hopes his address inspires youngsters to fully grasp the blessings of the month.

"Some scholars say this month, if we perform our duties correctly, is worth more than businessmen who own skyscrapers. There is really nothing that compares," he says.

"We have to understand that this could be our last Ramadan alive, so it could also be our last chance to better ourselves."

For chef de cuisine Basel Mounawar, the excellence required also extends to the plate.

The Syrian leads a 24-man team at Emirates Palace, serving mouth watering iftars to hundreds of fellow Muslims, in addition to room service treats to non-Muslim tourists during the day.

He explains that the Holy Month is one of the busiest times for the mega-hotel; Mounawar clocks on at 10am and often finishes his shift as late as midnight.

For a Ramadan chef, Mounawar explains, timing is of the essence.

"The clock is the most important thing," he says.

"You have to be more organised and everything has to be ready by the exact iftar time. All the dishes have to be fresh, hot and well presented. The buffet needs to be ready and well stocked and, once that is done, you are working on the suhour meals and the a la carte options."

Mounawar states the intensity of the workload ultimately dulls any hunger pains experienced on a shift.

"Being a chef in Ramadan is ultimately rewarding in many ways," he says.

"When I am preparing a dish I am often thinking about the person who is going to eat it. I visualise the person and think that they are probably tired from fasting and spending a long day in the heat. For them, my meal is the first thing they tasted all day. That gives me extra drive and gives my job a sense of honour. I feel privileged to be serving the person iftar."

Mounawar brings the same awareness in his leadership role in the hotel.

"The kitchen can be a very high-stress environment and it is important to keep your patience," he says.

"I work with people from all cultures and some are not Muslims, so I feel a responsibility as a Muslim and hotel staff to put on the best example possible. This is especially important in Emirates Palace, where there are many tourists. For many, this could be the first time they have been to a Muslim country, so the impression you make is very important."

Hala Badri knows all about impressions.

As executive vice president for brand and communications for du, the Emirati balances expectations both as a business leader and mother of three.

The Dubai resident says that Ramadan offers her the chance to please the most important stakeholders: her family.

"My mother is always complaining that they and my family don't get to see me" she says.

"Of course I see my family but, in a normal week, I dedicate a Saturday to my parents. But in Ramadan, I dedicate three days a week for them and the same for my in-laws. The beauty of Ramadan for me is that gathering around the iftar table and connecting with everyone."

As for the meetings in the boardroom, Badri credits Ramadan for producing more effective business practices.

"For one thing, the meetings are faster," she says.

"All of us are fasting and the work day is shorter. So a one-hour meeting is cut down to half an hour and we find that we get a lot of things done because we have that focus and are conscious of the time."

As well as the moments of prayer and reflection, Badri says Ramadan also offers the chance to make lifestyle changes.

She credits a prior Ramadan for launching a daily fitness regime that she continues to maintain.

"It was a few years ago and I really thought why not? I started jogging every day and did some exercises and I loved it," she says.

"A lot of people say: 'it's Ramadan and I don't have any time because everything is busy.' But I find that you do have your time and it is an opportunity to make those changes. This is why I love the month, because it gives me a bit of everything. Better health, more family time and better focus at work."

Abu Baker Iqbal needs as much focus as possible.

Hailing from Kerela, Iqbal has been driving Abu Dhabi taxis for more than three years. He says Ramadan delivers its own share of stresses on the road.

If it's not handling some of the "crazy driving" that an impending iftar time presents, it's disregarding the comments of some impatient customers.

With the fast also including refraining from ill speech, Iqbal says the Holy Month has taught him to hold his tongue.

"Sometimes passengers are angry and they can become difficult," he states.

"But you don't pay mind and not let it make you angry. You can't be fasting and then swear at people. I just keep quiet and continue my driving."

With business slow during the afternoon, Iqbal spends the Holy Month on the night shift.

He states the afternoons are spent dedicated to worship.

"It is very good for me because I have time to go to the mosque," he says.

"I go there and do my prayer and read the Quran and that makes me feel very good. Then when I go in the car I don't have no problem, I feel ready and calm."

Iqbal says Ramadan also takes the edge off the pressure of meeting monthly profit targets.

He says he is more concerned with meeting other goals.

"Ramadan is very busy with people doing shopping and visiting their family and friends," he says.

"Yes, when I am driving I am also making a profit. But I am thinking of the real profit that comes from God. If I do my job as a Muslim then I will get the real reward and this is the most important thing to me."


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