There are a lot of confusing things you deal with as a foreigner living in your newly adopted place. Some of them are detached, soulless functions – like waiting in long lines for people to stamp insignia on papers you don’t fully understand. Others are living traditions that may not directly involve you, but definitely capture your interest and stick in your brain like a splinter. For me, the holy month of Ramadan is one of those things. It’s something I have never thought about, and never really felt affected by, until now. But now I find myself living in a part of the world where a range of observances are held, and people directly involved in my life are expressing a part of themselves that makes me wildly curious, somewhat bemused, and questioning what I thought I knew. Things that can often appear strange and dissociative tend to change when they become personified in front of you.
Living and working in Dubai, I think myself rather fortunate to be surrounded by such a mix of people on a daily basis. At work, there is no shortage of amazing smells coming out of the kitchen. Sandwiches for lunch? Madness. If I sit down with a pathetic sandwich in front of me, one of my lovely Indian co-workers at the table will pull up a plate for me, and pile on a much more impressive meal.
And she will not take no for an answer.
It’s hard to resist something homemade when the only other thing I’ve managed to bring to work for lunch is a sandwich that’s probably been sitting in the fridge for a day or two. Then, there’s the mix of languages flying around the office that further highlights this blended environment. The other day, I wandered into the middle of a conversation between some co-workers speaking in Arabic to each other. I had no idea what they were talking about, but it sounded more like a song than a conversation. They were all from different countries, so maybe that added to the music of the conversation, given the range of dialects and accents that were happening. It was mesmerizing and terribly enjoyable, particularly when they all collapsed into laughter every couple of sentences.
Today when I sat down for an afternoon tea with some British co-workers, one of them mentioned something about my being Canadian – and then another co-worker asked me in French if I was from Quebec. The gears in my brain ground around until I eventually dug up enough vocabulary and grammar to formulate a response, but it caught me off guard for a moment or two. Some days I work late and I feel too tired to notice the blend of culture, language, and ways of life that surround me. It’s wonderful to live in a city that is so multi-cultural, and in its own unique way, too.
So, given the mix of people I work with, the students I teach, and the pals I’ve become friends with, I’m experiencing Ramadan in an entirely different way this year. If you’ll allow me to backtrack a little, I should like to lay a bit of groundwork. I always thought that Ramadan was something quite foreign and bizarre, and I honestly knew nothing about it other than the fact that people fasted at some point for some amount of time. It wasn’t until I spent time a few years back working with refugees in Canada that I started to learn a little more about the traditions involved. Some of the immigrants I worked with in Canada were the first few people I felt I could ask questions to without feeling annoying (or just really naïve). But honestly, living in a country like Canada, where you are free to observe Ramadan if you wish, versus living in a country where measures are taken to ensure observances, is quite different. It’s only been a little over a week, and I still keep forgetting that many restaurants won’t be serving meals until Iftar (the meal which breaks the day’s fast). I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been on my way home from work, thinking about which restaurant I’ll pop into… and then the light bulb finally flickers on and I think, “Ohhhh yeah, better have something delivered.” So, clearly I am not as used to these changes as I will be in due time. My co-workers and I had one Iftar together and it really captured some of the important reflections for this time of the year. It was really nice to just be together for a meal, with plenty of plate-passing, sharing, and appreciating the time together that we sometimes forget to do during the regular hustle of daily life.
Of course there are many more observances and layers of significance that will take me much longer to figure out, but I’ve already learned quite a bit considering my previous knowledge was next to nothing. And honestly, that is one of the things that keeps me moving around the world. When it’s all said and done, it is a bit ridiculous that I move to a new country every few years and start over. However, each time I do it I feel differently about it. My mad dash to the other side of the globe in my mid-twenties was quite different from my well-planned decision to come here. This time, lists were made, everyone was consulted, and pros and cons were agonized over for ages. But the draw of living somewhere new, of constantly learning and adding to a body of knowledge in the best hands-on way I can think of – that still does it for me.
Currently, living in the face-melting heat of this city during a time when it’s forbidden to drink in public during daylight hours is admittedly a challenge. But experience is never as simple as one thing. It’s as complex and layered as any tradition, and the people who observe them.