Islam

Ejo #67 – And Together We Keep On Giving

It’s Ramadan.  The days are long, and they are hot (often over 40C/140F).  A lot of impoverished blue-collar workers are toiling in these inhospitable conditions, and a lot of those men are fasting for the holy month of Ramadan.  Fasting during this period doesn’t just mean going without food during daylight hours.  It also means going without water.

If you’re in the mood for a fun experiment, try not drinking any water for the next 16-17 hours.  For real.  Give it a red-hot go and see how you manage.  I’m not ashamed to say I can’t do it.  I get seriously irritable, light-headed and I can’t concentrate on the simplest of tasks. But let’s say you did OK.  Let’s up the ante.  Next, try it whilst sitting outside in the searing sun with no shade for relief.  Still no problem?  OK, let’s throw some manual labour into the equation.  It starts getting a bit tricky here.  Now do it for a whole month.

One of the wonderful aspects of the Ramadan fasting tradition is Iftar – the breaking of the fast.  Every night, throughout the city, restaurants put on lavish buffet Iftars to reward the fasters for their discipline during the day.  Table upon mountainously laden table, literally groans under the weight of all the food on offer (what they do with the copious amounts of left-overs is the topic of another rant).  It’s a pity that the labourers and street workers of Dubai (and neighbouring emirates) could never even dream of participating in such feasts. Usually the best they can hope for to break their fast is some plain rice and maybe some lentils.  Their usual fare.

So, when we raised a pretty large sum of money in April we decided to keep a fair amount of it so that we could arrange some pretty yummy meals for 450 of these hardworking, unfortunate men to help break their difficult Ramadan fast.  With Roshni’s help and with the help of the amazing Green Palace Restaurant in Karama we put together 450 meals comprising delicious chicken biryani, some dates, a samosa, water, a tub of yoghurt and a nice dessert.  Truly a feast.

The wonderful Green Palace Restaurant.  It is here that they make the large numbers of food packages that we order for the handouts.  Fabulous service, fabulous food, fabulous guys.

The wonderful Green Palace Restaurant. It is here that they make the large numbers of food packages that we order for the handouts. Fabulous service, fabulous food, fabulous guys.

One of the two large vehicles that were packed full of the 450 food packages.  Thanks again to Roshni's regular volunteers for helping make this handout happen.

One of the two large vehicles that were packed full of the 450 food packages. Thanks again to Roshni’s regular volunteers for helping make this handout happen.

One of the enormous pans of chicken biryani.  Looks so good, and smelled SO delicious on the drive.

One of the enormous pans of chicken biryani. Looks so good, and smelled SO delicious on the drive.

One of the best things about this particular handout, and what makes it different to all the others we’ve done before, is that when we arrived at the restaurant the food packages weren’t ready (there had been a misunderstanding about the time we needed them).  We usually just turn up, load the cars and take off to where we distribute the meals.  This time we got stuck in, we got involved in the process.  For about half an hour we crammed into the pretty small restaurant and we rolled up our sleeves and we helped the restaurant staff put the packages together. And, boy oh boy, was it HOT!  At one point I was sweating so much, one of the men silently handed me a box of tissues (which I took with much gratitude).  We shared a moment and it was one of mutual respect.  I’m pretty sure they’ve never had a western chick in there packing biryanis into plastic bags before.  And whilst I’ve always respected this restaurant for helping us with our vision of feeding men who need it, I gained an even higher, newfound, respect for the staff for all the hard work that goes into the packaging.  It was eye-opening, adrenalising and exciting to actually not just GIVE, but to DO.

Another difference was that we went to a labour camp area about half an hour drive from Dubai.  A lot of people like to contribute to the same camps in Dubai, because it’s convenient. So the ones that are further afield tend to miss out.  We weren’t afraid to make the trek, to ensure that some neglected folks got to share some of the spoils of people’s generosity.

I hope you all enjoy checking out the photos below.  For those of you who didn’t contribute, perhaps you’ll be inspired to throw a few bucks in this direction next time we do a large collection.  And for those of you who did give money, once more, thank you.

Leaving behind the bright lights and big city of Dubai.

Leaving behind the bright lights and big city of Dubai.

Arriving at Sajaa, an industrial area of Sharjah where many labourers and workers are stationed.  It's a dusty, desolate place with no streetlights and unpaved roads.  A glaring contrast to the city.

Arriving at Sajaa, an industrial area of Sharjah where many labourers and workers are stationed. It’s a dusty, desolate place with no streetlights and unpaved roads. People live here – a glaring contrast to the city.

Here we go!

And so it begins!

Each of these faces tells a story that we'll never know.  It's one of the things that drives me to keep doing these handouts.

Each of these faces tells a story that we’ll never know. It’s one of the things that drives me to keep doing these handouts. Each person we hand a meal to is a whole person, with a textured, detailed history.  Each of them is important.  

I love this photo - taken by the very talented Roshni.

I love this photo – taken by the very talented Roshni.

Smiles.

Smiles.

David and I took it in turns handing the food to the guys.

David and I took it in turns handing the food to the guys.

More smiles.

More smiles.

Another great portrait from Roshni.

Another great portrait from Roshni.

This guy will take the cardboard boxes that were used to transport some of the meals and recycle it, for pittance.  For some of the men, this is the only form of income they have here.

This guy will take the cardboard boxes that were used to transport some of the meals and recycle it, for pittance. For some of the men, this is the only form of income they have here.

Happy customer.

Happy customer.  We all helped make this one day of Ramadan just a little bit better for him.  He thanked David and me, but he was thanking you too.

And just like that, it's over.  We got to leave, but for some people this is their life.  I'll never get used to the injustice of it.

And just like that, it’s over. We got to leave, but for some people this is their life and their home. I’ll never get used to the injustice of it.

Note: 450 is about the maximum number of meals that can be made at once so we actually still have 194 meals left over from the collection that Roshni will distribute over the course of Ramadan, as she’s doing handouts every single day.  She’s truly an amazing woman.  

Ejo #45 – Iftar Meal Handout

 

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an ejo asking for people who were interested to contribute some money towards buying some of the less fortunate residents of Dubai a nice, hot, tasty meal to break the Ramadan fast. As well as David and me, FIFTEEN others stepped up and sent me money. Every single cent of that money went towards the food. Here’s how it all went down:

 

It was somewhat fitting that the day of the Iftar dinner handout was particularly hot and humid. After all, should I really expect to feel comfortable whilst handing out food to impoverished people on the street? I don’t think so. Unfortunately for me, I was also feeling a little bit under the weather from a pretty bad head cold. And to top it off, I’d only had two hours sleep the night before. We arrived home from a trip to Switzerland at 1.30am and I had to wake up at 3.45am to get to work. I can hear you: Trip to Switzerland?? And you want us to feel SORRY for you?? I guess not, but c’mon, two hours sleep is still only two hours sleep. Anyway, to sum it up, I was feeling pretty crappy and I would much rather have been at home in bed sipping on chamomile tea than driving around the back streets of Satwa trying to find a parking spot to set up the handout. But I had made a commitment, and nothing was going to stop me from honouring it.

 

The amazing Green Palace Restaurant that packages the meals for handouts at a SUPER reasonable price.  Thank you so much to the guys that help out with organising the food!!

The amazing Green Palace Restaurant that packages the meals for handouts at a SUPER reasonable price. Thank you so much to the guys that help out with organising the food!!

 

416 meals at 12dhs each comes to 4992dhs.  Thank you to each and every person who gave money towards this cause.

416 meals at 12dhs each comes to 4992dhs. Thank you to each and every person who gave money towards this cause.

 

When Roshni finally found a place to park and set up, men were already beginning to form an orderly line. Thanks to the wonderful and generous people who parted with their hard-earned cash to share a meal with someone in need, we had 416 packages to give away. And we had 416 men with hungry bellies and grateful eyes lining up, ready to receive their gifts. Each package contained dates (traditionally eaten to break the Ramadan fast), a hot chicken biryani and samosas, a tub of yoghurt, fruit juice, a crisp apple and a small dessert.

 

Getting in line.  Throughout the handout some cheeky men tried to cut in line but we sent them right to the back!  The whole thing ran like a very well oiled machine!

Getting in line. Throughout the handout some cheeky men tried to cut in line but we sent them right to the back! The whole thing ran like a very well oiled machine!

 

I started handing out the meals to the men, the sun beating down on all of us. Before long my jeans were sticking to my legs, sweat ran down my back and trickled down my face. But I didn’t care. I was just so happy to be doing what I was doing at that very moment. And the men were hot too, some of them soaked with perspiration. For me it was a temporary discomfort, for them it was probably something that they have to live with all day, every single day. I kept handing out packages. I tried to look each man in the eye as I handed him the bag containing his food. Not all of them looked back at me. Some just wanted to grab the meal and go. And that’s OK. I absolutely understand that. The ones that did make eye contact though, the ones that looked me in the eye and said “thank you” and allowed me to say “you’re welcome”, the ones that connected with me, brought me such an intense shot of sheer joy that I felt like I was going to burst with happiness. I was grinning from ear to ear.

 

Trying to balance all the boxes in the car with Mridul's help.

Trying to balance all the boxes in the car with Mridul’s help.

 

If you look closely you can see that the guy in the foreground has two different shoes on.  He probably just found them on the street.  That's the level of destitution of some of these men.  And it's heartbreaking.  Particularly in this supposedly RICH city.

If you look closely you can see that the guy in the foreground has two different shoes on. He probably just found them on the street. That’s the level of destitution of some of these men. And it’s heartbreaking. Particularly in this supposedly RICH city.

 

Look at that beautiful, happy face.

Look at that beautiful, happy face.

 

Sweaty, but happy!

Sweaty, but happy!

 

More happy customers.

More happy customers.

 

Smiles all round.  The good feelings were palpable!

Smiles all round. The good feelings were palpable!

 

Bon appetite!

Bon appetite!

 

Some of you might be aware (maybe because I keep going on about it????) that I’m not really loving living in Dubai right now. I don’t feel like I’m at home here. I haven’t found my “people” so I don’t feel like I belong. And this puts me in a perpetual state of lassitude. If I’m not sad, I’m feeling disconnected, switched off and isolated. Naturally, this is not a very nice way to live and I am hoping it’s just a temporary phase. But until it’s over, I’ve found that (short of actually getting on an aeroplane and getting the hell out of the country) not much alleviates this melancholia. But you know what does make things better? Getting involved in this kind of charity work, alongside one of the most generous, giving, empathetic, compassionate and hard working people I know – Roshni Raimalwala. I drove home from the handout absolutely floating on air. In fact, I was so emotional, so overwhelmed with how good I felt about what we’d done, that I actually had a little cry in the car on the way home. But it was a good cry. Tears of joy.

 

To give money to charity is wonderful. But to actually hand a person something that they need is something else altogether. To touch that person’s hand, and see the gratitude in their eyes and be able to elicit a smile from them is a mountain of a reward. It’s the pinnacle. It’s Everest! I wish that all of you who gave money for this handout could experience the same amazing feeling. I hope that by writing about it, it puts you there in my shoes for just a moment so that you can feel it for yourselves. Because you deserve to feel this good. You haven’t just handed over money, you’ve dipped into your humanity. You’ve reached out and changed someone’s life, even if just a tiny little bit.

 

So thank you. From me, from Roshni, Mrinal and Mridul, and from the 416 people that we helped to feed on the last day of Ramadan 2013.

 

Ejo #44 – Ramadan: It’s A Time For Giving

And so this is Ramadan. The time of year that our Muslim friends abstain from eating, drinking, chewing gum, smoking, having sex, dancing, singing and having bad thoughts during daylight hours. Wow man, it all sounds rather difficult. If you don’t think so, perhaps give it a go. Say, starting tomorrow. For a month!!!! Yeah, I thought so.

 

The reasons for fasting are numerous. It’s supposed to give you a greater understanding and appreciation of what less fortunate people experience every day of their lives. People for whom hunger and thirst are a constant struggle. So it fosters compassion. It is also a time for gratitude, for the blessings that have been bestowed upon you. Ramadan is all about showing restraint and self-control. Not just in fasting, but also in the way that you think about, and treat, other people. It’s a time to show good manners, compassion, patience and engage in a feeling of community. Ultimately though, Ramadan is meant to remove the distraction of the trappings of everyday life (sustenance, food, entertainment) in order to allow the faster to focus on communing with God. Ramadan is when a Muslim’s devotion to their faith is at its most concentrated and pure.

 

It is a really special time in a Muslim’s year, and even though it is something that must be very difficult to do, I have never heard a Muslim complain about having to fast. Everybody seems to do it with great grace.

 

An aspect of Ramadan that I’d like to talk about a little more is goodwill and charity. The prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) once said, “A man’s wealth is never diminished by charity.” One of the five pillars of Islam is Zakat, the requirement to donate 2.5% of whatever you have earned that year to aid those in need. Zakat can be done at any time of the year, however it seems that most people tend to give during Ramadan. And I’d like to join in.

 

Let me tell you something. Living here is hard for me, for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is the major disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. The divide is enormous. I think because we’ve lived in a veritable construction site for the last four and a half years, constantly exposed to the daily grind of labourers, it’s something that we can’t simply ignore. A lot of other people can. It’s not in their face, so they don’t worry about it. I do worry about it. I’ve written often in the past about how the plight of these guys cuts me to the bone. I’ve written about how I’ve tried, in my own very tiny way, to humanise them. To hand them a bottle of juice or some fruit once in a while. To wave hello and goodbye. To smile. It hasn’t been enough, but it’s something. Unfortunately, with the way the construction is constantly changing the landscape around our apartment building, we are no longer in constant contact with any particular labourers, so we are no longer able to develop any kind of bond or friendship or acquaintance. It’s more difficult to make a connection when you don’t see someone every day. Which is why it’s all the more important for me to try to do something special to help ease their lives, even briefly. Even if it’s just for one meal.

 

My friend Roshni, who used to work with Karama Kanteen is my biggest inspiration. She has devoted her life in Dubai to helping those that need it the most. The men that even the government has shamefully turned their backs on. Whenever I have some spare money, I call Roshni and we organise a hand out. She tells me what food and drinks to buy, and she uses her contacts at the labour camps to rally the men together.

 

Some of you might remember my Christmas Ejo of 2011, where I organised a collection from friends all around the world. Well, I think that Ramadan 2013 is a fantastic time to do it all over again. A lot of these unfortunate men are Muslim, and they must fast during the hottest time of year. And let me tell you, it has been HOT!

 

This is the hottest I've ever seen my car register.  Let's just say it was a VERY uncomfortable day - and I was outside for a total of about ten minutes.

This is the hottest I’ve ever seen my car register. Let’s just say it was a VERY uncomfortable day – and I was outside for a total of about ten minutes.

 

Try to imagine not eating or (even worse) not drinking water for 15 hours a day. Now imagine doing that while you have to work outside in these temperatures. And then, when the time came to break your fast with the Iftar meal (the all-important reward for sacrifices made during the day), all you could afford was a cup of rice and some water. It’s this that I want you to imagine, when I ask you to dig deep and find your compassion, empathy and generosity. My friend Roshni and I will organise a handout to give these guys something to look forward to for one Iftar. A nice cooked meal, some nutritious fruit, laban (yoghurt drink) or juice to wash it down with and maybe even a tasty sweet for dessert.

 

Last time 14 of us got together and raised 4500dhs and fed close to 450 men. I can’t begin to tell you how amazing it is to be a part of something like this, and I’m sure those of you who donated last time can attest to that. Let’s see if we can get even more people to donate this time. I am not asking for huge donations. If you can spare five bucks, that’s enough to feed someone. If you can spare more, fantastic! As before, every single cent goes towards the men – there are no “hidden costs” to this campaign, everything is done by volunteers. If you are interested, then please email me and we can organise a way for you to transfer the money. I know I have left it late, but please let me know in the next week or so if you would like to donate. And we can collectively bring a little bit of Iftar joy to a group of deserving men.