By Christine Agostosa
Ice, then Fire. The month of April was all about the Arctic Circle and its numbing cold. May, on the contrary, was all about the Arabian Desert and its scorching heat. Like my trip to Iceland a couple months ago, my visit to Dubai this past month marked the first time I had ever been to the Middle East, specifically the United Arab Emirates. In the five days I was there, I came face-to-face with a side of cultural respect and religious tradition that I had only read about in books or seen on television. This trip was not only a chance to see my family for a little bit, but a lesson in coexistence and tolerance as well.
Before flying out to the Emirates, my older brother who lives there with his family told me that I would be visiting during Ramadan, the Islamic season of prayer and fasting. I understood why it is practiced, and I assumed that only Muslim citizens would follow the fasting aspect of it, abstaining from food and drink from 4 o’clock in the morning to 7 o’clock in the evening, every day, for nearly a month. I thought that I would be able to enjoy food and beverages like normal during my trip, since I am not of the Islamic faith. However, when I arrived in Dubai, I quickly realized that everyone, Muslim or not, adheres to the rules of Ramadan, whether out of religious devotion or cultural regard. With silent nods, I made sure to follow suit and plan my eating game accordingly.
As on most family trips, we went sightseeing and did a little shopping, all while maintaining a conscious effort to avoid reaching for our snacks or taking sips from our water bottles in public, lest we be scolded or fined by law enforcement officials. It seemed near forbidden to eat or drink anywhere outside, where people could see, and the 90-plus-degree arid weather made this even more challenging. The entire time in my head, I questioned, “How do these people do this for a month? What about those who NEED to eat and drink every few hours?” I then learned that in December of last year, the sheikh (ruler) of Dubai declared 2019 as the Year of Tolerance. Slowly, I began to see how certain aspects of Ramadan and Islam were “bent” in order to accommodate citizens and foreigners who subscribe to another faith or to none at all.
The elderly, the sick, pregnant women, and infants were granted exceptions with fasting for obvious health and nutrition reasons. Food courts at shopping malls put up curtains or screens to allow for non-Muslims to partake of their meals without being seen by everyone else who waited until sunset to eat. I am thankful my family and I were able to walk around in our normal clothes, rather than be required to wear traditional Emirati attire in the heat. These things were little gems to have, particularly in a part of the world known for its strict religious discipline that is fed into its societal norms and culture. Coming from America, this was definitely different and eye opening. I could not just do what I wanted or say what I felt, more out of respect and a little out of fear. I had never been so conscious of my behavior in my life, trying to never offend anybody I came across.
It was inspiring to witness how deeply rooted Islamic tradition goes in one of the nations that follow it, without a sense of unwillingness or force. I observed how Emiratis just knew what was expected of them, behaved as such, and it was simple. On the other hand, it made me appreciate even more the freedoms we continue to enjoy here in America, where tolerance, although still far from ideal, is much more widespread and ingrained in our culture. This coming 4th of July, we are once again reminded of our many American liberties, which are oftentimes overlooked and taken for granted. I appreciate how my visit to Dubai served me another such reminder – that here in our country, I have the simple freedom to enjoy an ice cream cone or a cup of coffee whenever I want, in front of whomever is around, without having to think twice. That, and of course, everything else.