x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A tale of two feast days

Those in the UAE whose cultures straddle both Eid al Adha festivities and Thanksgiving celebrations have to make the best of both holidays.

Charlotte Cryan, an American expat, centre, prepares a Thanksgiving turkey dinner with her children Matt Ginsburg, 23, and Sara Ginsburg, 25, at her home in in Dubai.
Charlotte Cryan, an American expat, centre, prepares a Thanksgiving turkey dinner with her children Matt Ginsburg, 23, and Sara Ginsburg, 25, at her home in in Dubai.

For people across the nation the Eid al Adha festivities are under way as others are celebrating Thanksgiving. Meanwhile a third group is straddling two cultures and trying to make the best of both holidays. "It's a story that not too many people know, but it's the reason why we celebrate Eid al Adha," Hala Yazbak, 25, says as she reflects on the festival of sacrifice.

She places the baked pastries she has been cooking since last night on the living room table, arranges the plates and sits down to think about the meaning of Eid. She sighs. "Ultimately it's about family but nowadays life is so hectic. It's this one day when the routine of life stops and we focus on the people we love," Hala says. Yesterday, the first day of Eid, saw families across the country preparing for one of the biggest feasts of the year, to be celebrated today. At the same time, by a coincidence of timing, the finishing touches were being made to the Thanksgiving Day meals enjoyed by American families in the UAE last night.

For those who would celebrate both, it was a tale of two feasts. Sitting next to her sister, Hana, the women are self-professed images of a modern Arab family who have been exposed to the western norms of holidays. Born and raised in the UAE to a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother, Hala and Hana lived for more than four years in Canada, where they saw how Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas.

There were the Christmas trees, the gifts, the lights and the shopping. "Every holiday has its theme," Hana says. "For Eid al Adha we dress in our finest clothes, bake many pastries and we still get gifts from our parents." "It is not just Eid, but many of the religious holidays have been commercialised. I feel like this stuff distracts people from the real reason," Hala says. Amid the family traditions, the two will go with their parents and other Muslims this morning to the mosque to perform the Eid prayer.

"This is different from the normal prayer that Muslims pray five times a day," Hana says. The Eid prayer, as it is known, involves the repetition of the Takbir God is Great seven times. Other traditions of the Eid prayer are led by the imam, where the congregation follows. When the family returns home, the doorbell rings and a sheep that was slaughtered the night before is served as the main course. "Then it's a feast," Hala says, laughing.

The story of Eid is not in the gatherings or even in the food. It is a story that dates back thousands of years, and is recognised in the Bible, Quran and Torah. "Our prophet Ibrahim was asked by God to sacrifice his only son," Hala says, and is then interrupted by her sister. "Can you imagine what that would be like?" Hana asks. Hala continues: "Ibrahim was obedient and put Ishmael on the altar to sacrifice him and just before he was about to kill him, God interfered in the last second. He was testing his obedience. A sheep was slaughtered instead."

Ishmael, who was born of Hagar, according to Islamic and Christian tradition, is considered the ancestor and prophet from whom Islam would be born. Eid al Adha is a celebration to mark the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The previous day, the pilgrims climb the 70-metre-high Mount Arafat in Medina to mark the Prophet Mohammed's final sermon. "Because not all Muslims go to the pilgrimage, we fast the day before to join with them," Hala explains.

"It's the story of obedience and sacrifice. That's the message that I want to pass on to my children someday. Sadly, unless someone asks you these questions, you rarely think about them," Hala says. At the same time that Hala and Hana were removing the pastries from the oven, Charlotte Cryan was preparing her turkey, although the Thanksgiving feast lacked a few of the traditional accoutrements; the stuffing mix she may ordinarily have been able to buy back home was nowhere to be found in Dubai.

That is not all that's different in Mrs Cryan's family this year. Yesterday, the 56-year-old mother of two spent her first Thanksgiving in almost two decades away from her sister's 20-person table in Toledo, Ohio. She moved to Dubai to join her husband in July and is only now getting settled. The spice rack is still bare and the good china and crystal that would come out on special occasions are still at home.

"Some people call being here like adult camping. Whatever you have, it's okay," she says. Just as for Hana and Hala, the holiday is a time for the family to unite. Her son and daughter, who are 23 and 25, are spending 10 days with their parents. Her son's girlfriend and two colleagues of her husband, Bob, 68, the associate provost of academic and international affairs at Zayed University, were also on hand as the turkey was carved after several hours of slow cooking.

However, this would be the last time she would see her children for the rest of the holidays. "We will not be seeing them for Christmas or New Year, so we put up a tree," she says. Still unfinished, the two-metre tree came pre-lit with yellow lights. Their first foreign Thanksgiving was unfamiliar in other ways, too. Toledo suffered through chilly 4°C weather yesterday; Dubai basked at a comfortable 29°C.

The men of the family missed the traditional televised American football games, too Ohio celebrated its Thanksgiving nine hours behind Dubai. For some people, however, yesterday represented a meeting of two cultures one feast being served with another on the horizon. Sana Bagersh is a Yemeni-born, Ethiopian-raised, naturalised American citizen now living in Abu Dhabi. Her world view is as diverse as the countries she has lived in.

At the age of 18 Mrs Bagersh, now the chief executive of a marketing firm, Brandmoxie, moved to the US where as a Muslim she flourished in the multiculturalism of her surroundings and absorbed some of the American celebrations. Traditionally, Muslims fast on the day leading up to Eid al Adha. For Mrs Bagersh and her family, the challenge was how to observe both events. To celebrate Thanksgiving, the family broke the fast yesterday with turkey sandwiches and today they will visit friends and family for the Eid al Adha festival. "In the States we would go to our Ethiopian friends' homes and celebrate with them," she says. "There was a strong emphasis on Thanksgiving. Here, Eid takes precedence."

Mrs Bagersh strives to find the common ground. "This Eid in particular is fascinating because it falls on the same weekend as Thanksgiving," she says. Thanksgiving is rooted in the celebration of the harvest in the United States. "Both of the holidays give that sense of spirituality and community. No matter what you call it, both of the events are about thanking God," Mrs Bagersh said. "I don't know if too many people will think of the significance of this day as they sit around the dinner tables, Mrs Bagersh said.

"Things haven't been very easy for many people in the United States and even for some people here with the financial crisis but there is still that spirit of resilience that crosses the cultural boundaries." @Email:myoussef@thenational.ae jgerson@thenational.ae