Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Ramadan in 1987: a world without mobile phones and we all 'Walked Like An Egyptian'

The last Ramadan in May also came amid war across the Middle East and tensions between the US and the Soviet Union

Sheikh Zayed attends a graduation ceremony for Air Academy students at Al Dhafra air base in 1987. That year, the UAE Founding Father marked 21 years as Ruler of Abu Dhabi and 15 years as the country’s President. Courtesy National Archives
Sheikh Zayed attends a graduation ceremony for Air Academy students at Al Dhafra air base in 1987. That year, the UAE Founding Father marked 21 years as Ruler of Abu Dhabi and 15 years as the country’s President. Courtesy National Archives

The Islamic calendar takes its starting point as the Hijri, or the journey of the Prophet Mohammed and his followers from Makkah to Madinah, and consists of 12 lunar months and a year of either 354 or 355 days.

As a result, it moves 11 days each cycle compared to the Gregorian calendar. To return to the same seasonal point of the Gregorian calendar takes 33 years.

Over the next four weeks, The National will look at the world as it was when Ramadan last fell during the month of May. In just four cycles, it is a journey that takes us back from the self-driving car to the horse and carriage, from the age of the internet to the age of empires.

We begin with Ramadan 1407, or 1987, which began on the night of April 29 and ended at sunset on May 28.

Many can still recall the year 1987 or know it from films and photographs and the stories of parents and grandparents.

Much of life then seems familiar, yet with many of the things that we now take for granted still to come.

The world leaders of that time have largely passed, but the problems and challenges they faced are still with us. It is a year to glimpse the future but also to look back into the past.

It would be two years before British scientist Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web. Communication was by post or by landlines. The first mobile phones existed, but were only for the few. They were expensive, heavy and usually ran out battery power after 30 minutes of use.

Entertainment was dictated by what was on TV that night or showing at the local cinema. Compact discs were just beginning to replace the LP and cassette.

On Fox TV, the new show presented by pop singer and comic Tracey Ullman introduced a series of four comedy shorts in April and May featuring an anarchic family called The Simpsons.

Apple would release its Macintosh SE with 1MB of RAM and an introductory price tag of $2,900 (Dh10,652) – twice the average monthly wage in America. Few could see the value of a home computer, let alone afford one. Windows 2 was launched.

The world's population was five billion, two billion less than today. The UAE's population was an estimated 1.5 million people compared to around 10 million today.

Ronald Reagan acknowledges the crowd after his speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, during which he urged the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, to 'tear down this wall!'
Ronald Reagan acknowledges the crowd after his speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, during which he urged the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, to 'tear down this wall!'

Global politics was dominated by the Cold War. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, facing down Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev. In June that year, in a speech in West Berlin near the barrier that then divided the city, President Reagan would memorably urge the Soviet leader to “tear down this wall”.

As the two sides faced each other, on May 28 a teenage German pilot called Mathias Rust managed to evade Soviet air defences and fly his single-engine light aircraft from Finland to land in Moscow’s Red Square.

He was released four months later as a gesture of goodwill when Russia and America signed a treaty to limit intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

The Middle East remained a place of trouble and warfare. The Lebanese Civil War was beginning its fourth and final phase.

The British Special Envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Terry Waite, flew to Beirut in January in an attempt to free several western hostages being held by Islamic Jihad, a Shiite militia, and was himself kidnapped. Long feared dead, he was finally released in late 1991.

German teenager Mathias Rust lands his Cessna aircraft in Moscow's Red Square on May 28, 1987. AP
German teenager Mathias Rust lands his Cessna aircraft in Moscow's Red Square on May 28, 1987. AP

The geopolitics of the region reached deep into the Oval Office of the White House. In an attempt to secure the release of seven American hostages held by Hezbollah, a weapons sale was agreed with Iran despite an arms embargo.

Some of the proceeds were used by US colonel, Oliver North, to fund right-wing Contra rebels thousands of kilometres away in Nicaragua. The resulting trial and conviction of North damaged President Reagan but failed to fully implicate him.

Those US weapons would find their way to the front line of the Iran-Iraq War, then in its final year. This was the phase of the tanker war, as Iran attacked ships in the Arabian Gulf. On May 27, an Iraqi aircraft fired missiles at the frigate USS Stark, badly damaging the ship and killing 31 American sailors. Baghdad later claimed its pilot had mistaken the Stark for an Iranian tanker.

Many of the damaged tankers were repaired at Dubai Dry Docks in Port Rashid, justifying the decision of the emirate’s ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, to build an enlarged complex.

The tanker attacks and US military response unsettled oil prices and were a contributing factor to Black Monday, a worldwide stock market crash that began in Hong Kong on October 28, and spread around the world, causing the Dow Jones in New York to lose nearly a quarter of its value.

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange work frantically on 'Black Monday' - October 19, 1987 - as the Dow Jones Industrial average plunged more than 500 points for a loss of 22.62 per cent. Peter Morgan / AP
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange work frantically on 'Black Monday' - October 19, 1987 - as the Dow Jones Industrial average plunged more than 500 points for a loss of 22.62 per cent. Peter Morgan / AP

At the same time, the prosperity of the UAE was further confirmed by an announcement in October that the country’s oil reserves of 200 billion barrels were the second largest in the world. Sheikh Zayed marked 21 years as Ruler of Abu Dhabi and 15 years as the UAE’s President.

At Hajj that July, Iranian demonstrators clashed with members of the Saudi security forces. Four hundred people died.

Terrorist attacks took the lives of nearly 500 people, including two attacks in Sri Lanka carried out by the Tamil Tigers that left 240 dead. An IRA bomb in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland killed 12 and injured 64.

It was a year of disasters. In October, the Great Storm of 1987 swept across southern England and France, felling 15 million trees and killing 22 people. BBC weather forecaster Michael Fish was widely derided for telling viewers: "Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't!".

Fallen trees across a suburban street after the Great Storm in southern England, October 17, 1987. John Downing / Getty 
Fallen trees across a suburban street after the Great Storm in southern England, October 17, 1987. John Downing / Getty 

In November, a fire at King's Cross station on the London Underground killed 31 people. Eight months earlier, the car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, killing 193 passengers and crew.

In December, the overcrowded passenger ferry Doña Paz caught fire after a collision with an oil tanker in the Philippines and in shark-infested waters. The death toll was later estimated at 4,386 – the worst peacetime disaster in maritime history, with just 24 survivors.

The year ended with Palestinian protests against the Israeli occupation that would become the First Intifada.

Palestinian youths throw stones outside a Gaza hospital during demonstrations against the Israeli occupation in 1987. Esaias Baitel / AFP
Palestinian youths throw stones outside a Gaza hospital during demonstrations against the Israeli occupation in 1987. Esaias Baitel / AFP

But not all was doom and gloom. In July, Syria's Muhammed Faris became the second Arab astronaut, flying to the Mir space station on a Russian Soyuz vessel. The first contracts were awarded for what would eventually become the International Space Station.

In March, Disney and the French government signed a contract to build a new theme park outside Paris. In the world of fashion, it was an era of acid-washed jeans, big shoulders and bigger hair. Style icons included Britain's Princess Diana and the singer George Michael.

On TV, the most watched programmes included The Cosby Show, Cheers and LA Law. At the Oscars, Platoon and Oliver Stone took the awards for Best Picture and Director. Madonna’s Who’s That Girl was a box office flop. The best-selling single was Walk Like An Egyptian by The Bangles, while Bon Jovi topped the album charts.

In Seattle, a local chain of coffee shops known as Starbucks decided to open its first branches overseas while China was introduced to the delights of Kentucky Fried Chicken with the first branch in Beijing. A new drink called Red Bull was launched in Australia.

Among those passing in 1987 were the artist Andy Warhol, the flamboyant pianist Liberace and the Hollywood greats Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth.

And in the maternity ward, a trio of babies whose names are now known around the world drew their first breath – the footballers Luis Suarez, Gerard Piqué, and Lionel Messi.

Updated: May 21, 2019 01:24 PM

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