Fitting in as a fifty-something in a country so diametrically different from one’s own is no easy thing. Apart from the obvious; you know, driving on the wrong side of the road, cars having no indicators (at least seemingly so), magnets fitted to front and rear bumpers ensuring high speed tail-gating, the laws making it compulsory to drive with an infant playing on the dashboard and a mobile phone to your ear, other more cultural differences become real points of focus at times such as Ramadan, the Holy Month, when fasting and adherence to prayer times test the hardiest of Muslims.
Our hosts bear this load with incredible patience and stoicism. In serious heat, with no food or water during the long hours of daylight and the night taken up with the feasts of Iftar and Suhoor, plus more prayers, these peaceful people still manage to attend the office and conduct business, albeit at a slower rate. My friend, Habib, makes sure he actually enjoys Ramadan because he sees it as a test of his faith, but one that he knows he will win. He travels extensively as well, eschewing the Emirates First Class goodies that those lucky enough to turn left guzzle like ravenous hyenas. His faith is such that he feels it is a personal relationship with the Prophet who he could never let down. No piety or virtue signaling, just a cheerful bearing of this annual challenge. Having said that, if you have ever attended a generous Iftar, with long tables groaning with camel, lamb, mezze and all things fattening, you don’t feel you can eat for a week, let alone a day. The leftovers, which are plentiful, are distributed amongst the poor and needy as part of the tradition of Ramadan. But it is a privilege to share this important family time with such generous people.
For us full time guests, Ramadan and the Summer months can be frustrating as things really do slow down, but they are also a time to take stock. Friendships with Emiratis are certainly strengthened over the Holy Month and we learn our own lessons of tolerance by respecting the rules of Ramadan and not eating or drinking in public or in the office. That is not to say that we live during this time in some sort of religious lock down. No, we Westerners are permitted to go into restaurants and cafes during the day, all of which are curtained off, and even some bars and pubs are open, which is surely a sign of the trade off between the need for the tills to ring and local custom.
But Summer in-country can be grueling. Temperatures hit 50 degrees Celsius and the humidity can be extreme. Muggy days mean jumping from air conditioned car to air conditioned office to air conditioned home, a quick trip to the bank for a loan to cover the electricity bill and then home again to stay sheltered from the microwave. Ingeniously, one of our number here has created a calendar called Home Alone for ex pat husbands whose wives and kids have departed for a couple of months back to the UK. Rather like an office diary, your availability is logged and cross referenced with those who are also here, with 6am golf or sundowners at someone’s house being beautifully coordinated. Sales of Bombay Sapphire and Fever Tree rise inexorably and local taxi drivers are worked to the bone. Box sets and replays of the 2003 rugby world cup and Botham’s Ashes are repeated and repeated. Of course, about 3 weeks before the re-entry of the families, the exercise regime has to begin in an attempt to shed the Summer stone. Imports of duty free booze are greeted with pretend glee as the vow of abstinence kicks in. The contents of the fridge now resemble a vegan’s, having ensured the shawarma wrappers, flat breads and pounds of hummus have been properly disposed of. Delivery menus are shredded immediately.