Ramadan

Ejo #149 – A Tale Of Two Cities

Dubai really is like no other city in the world.  Check out this post-covid promotional video if you don’t believe me. 

See, I told you!  Looks amazing, right?  Well, it actually is an amazing city, made even more remarkable by virtue of the fact that it has grown and developed out of nothing, in one of the least hospitable places on earth.  That the country even exists at all is testament to the vision of Sheikh Zayed, beloved father of the UAE.  And the city of Dubai, the shining star of all seven emirates, is evidence of the determination of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to transform the emirate that he rules over into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. 

In fact, Sheikh Mohammed has many ambitions.  His most recent philanthropic campaign is a drive to provide one billion meals to needy people in 50 countries around the world.  The Ramadan initiative, called “One Billion Meals”, aims to develop “long-term solutions to improve lives across the world, without any discrimination” by collecting donations from the public until enough money has been raised to provide the aforementioned billion meals to “women, children, refugees, displaced people and victims of disasters and crises”.  A noble cause indeed.  Unfortunately, the initiative does not include people living in the UAE, with the website explaining, “Charitable institutions and humanitarian associations within the country already engage in community campaigns and continuous projects that meet the needs of impoverished individuals and families in the UAE”.  Wonderful. 

Remember that video I showed you earlier?  Every single building you see in that clip, every swimming pool, every harbour, fountain, iconic building, highway, resort, metro, island, amusement park, aquarium, hotel and mall was built by the hands of immigrant labourers, predominantly from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.  It is through their blood, sweat and tears that this sparkly, shiny city was created and yet, for some reason, their faces are never represented in any marketing videos.  They get no kudos, they receive no recognition and they are shunted out of the way to live in hot, dusty, squalid labour camps, several men cramped together in a single room, the overpowering smell of garbage inescapable.  And that just really sucks because, despite being out of sight and out of mind, they are still here.  They are real people.  And they deserve a little bit of time and attention and kindness and respect, just like everybody else. 

So I want to show you their faces here. 

Dudes!

These are the men that the Sheikh doesn’t want to feed as part of his fancy One Billion Meals crusade because their needs are apparently already being met.  Charity, it would appear, doesn’t necessarily begin at home.  Or maybe feeding your own workers and providing them with better living conditions isn’t as strong a virtue signal to the world as a catchy slogan is (though in my humble opinion, it really would be).  So this Ramadan, as we have done for the last nine years, David and I and some of our wonderful, generous friends set out to provide these unseen men with a delicious, filling Iftar meal to break their Ramadan fast. 

Chaos.

I always get a kick out of being at these food handouts, witnessing the gratitude on the faces of the men, feeling the love that comes from giving to someone in need.  And this year did not disappoint.  This time though, there was a feeling in the air that was different.  Normally we hand out the meals from the back of a van on the street, but this time the meals, packed up in boxes, had been placed inside one of the dormitories.  That made it feel more intimate, and more personal.  We were in their world now.  It was also more chaotic than usual because guys from neighbouring labour camps had caught wind of the handout and swarmed the joint.  It always feels really bad that we can’t feed every single person who needs a meal, but that’s life I guess.  We were there to give food to the guys living in that particular dorm, and that was made a little tricky by the interlopers.  Eventually we figured out a system in which a representative from each room would approach and tell us how many men he was cohabiting with (usually between six and nine) and he would then be given the correct number of bags, each containing some dates, a piece of fruit, a bottle of water, some laban and a hot, tasty biryani.  That system seemed to work out OK. 

David and I stuck around after the food was gone because I wanted to take some more photos.  With the other volunteers no longer with us, we felt a little out of place, like we didn’t belong.  But I was never afraid.  On our way out, a few of the guys approached us and asked David and me if they could take selfies with us.  Of course we agreed, and before long we were surrounded by a throng of young men, taking photos, as if we were movie stars.  This was the first time we’ve ever personally interacted with the men we’ve given the Iftar meals to, and it was wonderful.  I hope to do it again next time, as it really made my day.

Our campaign to feed 2000 men was a drop in the ocean compared to the billion meals that the Sheikh wants to donate in his name, but for me what made this year so special were the fleeting human connections I made with those men.  I had the opportunity to chat to a few of the guys, and I made an effort to look as many of them as I could in the eye.  I got the chance to see them.  As people.  I smiled at a lot of them, and received many smiles in return.  And it was these beautiful smiles that truly uplifted me on that day.  The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has been quoted as saying “Even a smile is charity.”  And if that is the case, then it was I who was enriched by the experience.  Because I walked out of that camp absolutely elated and exhilarated, walking on air.  I wonder if Sheikh Mohammed knows the feeling. 

My beautiful husband.
Six men live in this tiny room. They were kind enough to let me in to take a photo.
At the end of a hot, sunny day, the stench gets pretty bad.
This young man should be out having fun with his friends, dating, dancing, living his life. Instead he is essentially an indentured servant, working 12-14 hour days to send money to his family.
This guy is my favourite. There is a fragility to him, but at the same time a steely eyed dignity. I wish him well.

Ejo #113 – And So, This Is Ramadan

Most of my readers will already have some idea of what Ramadan is (they’d better – I write about it often enough!!!).  For those who don’t know, Ramadan is the most important month of the Islamic lunar year – a thirty day period of spiritual growth and introspection, during which Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex during the hours of daylight in order to commune with their god. One of the traditions of Ramadan is, of course, the celebrated breaking of the fast – and in Dubai this tends to be a pretty lavish affair. Five star hotel restaurants put on huge spreads every single night, tables groaning under the weight of platters of Arabic and international cuisine. It’s truly a sight to behold. Though not necessarily a good sight. At least not if you are aware of the monstrous amount of food that is wasted each and every day during Ramadan.

Iftar buffets produce 500,000kgs of food waste every Ramadan in Dubai.

Apparently, in the UAE, about 500 tonnes of uneaten Iftar food gets thrown into landfill during Ramadan. That doesn’t even come close to the 400 tonnes a day wasted in neighbouring Bahrain during the holy month, but it’s still a shitload of food that gets chucked away. Which is a disgrace when there are half a million impoverished labourers in Dubai. A lot of these workers are Muslim, which means that during this year’s Ramadan they are going without food and water for fourteen hours a day, while toiling in the harsh sun.  These are the guys that should be enjoying five star buffets laden with extravagant food every night.  But they’re not.  They’re breaking their fast with whatever scraps they can afford – which is not much.  It’s enough to make you want to organise a food handout!!

Indeed it is!  So, on Friday 24th May, just before sunset, David and I joined our wonderful friend Roshni and her amazing team of volunteers at a labour camp in Sharjah to help distribute hot Iftar meals to some of these men.  Remarkably, we were able to give out 1000 meal packages consisting of dates (traditionally eaten to break the fast), water (to quench the thirst of many hours of dehydration), a delicious and nutritious chicken biryani (packed full of flavour, energy and protein), and a piece of fruit for a simple dessert.  Nothing fancy but definitely fancier than nothing.

As always I have taken lots of photos of the guys as they receive their dinner package.  The reason I do this is because sadly, the labourers of the UAE are an often unacknowledged demographic. I want to humanise them, because despite being treated like slaves, they are real people, like you and me. I want to show their dignity and uniqueness.  I want you to look into their eyes and recognise that they may have dreams and hopes and aspirations.  That they may experience irritation and depression. Joy and laughter and gratitude. That being poor in worldly possessions doesn’t make their lives any less valuable.  I hope that by looking at these pictures you can find just one face that you can connect with – because ultimately we’re all the same.  Some people are just luckier than others.

P1000027

The sun beat down hard – at 6pm it was still 37°C.

P1000028

The men lined up in an orderly fashion.  Unruliness was dealt with firmly.

P1000035.P1000053.P1000066.P1000073.P1000085.P1000087.P1000113.P1000138.P1000141.P1000157.P1000158.P1000172.P1000175.P1000189.P1000191.P1000206.P1000208.P1000225.P1000231.P1000233.P1000236.P1000244.P1000251.P1000254.P1000258.P1000264.P1000267.P1000278.P1000245

I’d like to say a very special thank you to everyone who contributed to this year’s Ramadan handout.  You are wonderful.

 

 

Ejo #102 – One Iftar At A Time

David and I have just lived through our 10th Ramadan in Dubai – though it is a bit cheeky to say that we’ve “lived” through it. I don’t believe in any gods, so I have never regularly prayed, let alone five times a day. I’ve never fasted. And you can bet your bottom dollar that my thoughts and actions are as impure during the holy month of Ramadan as they are during the rest of the year.

But Ramadan still does have an impact on me. Personally Ramadan means not eating, drinking or chewing gum in public, and particularly in front of my Muslim colleagues during daylight hours. It means trying to remember not to play loud music, or sing and dance while I’m driving. It means toning down my swearing (which, believe it or not, is already pretty curtailed anyway). And it definitely means avoiding the roads just before sunset. Why? To clear the roads for thousands of exhausted, thirsty, hungry people who haven’t eaten or drunk anything for 14 hours, all driving with the sole purpose of getting home to break their fast. On the other hand, the city is deserted in the hour following sunset.  Because everyone is at home, or at the mosque, eating their Iftar meal.

And that’s actually the biggest part of Ramadan for me. The fact that Dubai’s population also consists of a lot of blue-collar workers who aren’t so well off. That so many hard-working men who contribute so much to the city live in labor accommodations and are not able to eat a very nutritious, or extravagant, meal to break their Ramadan fast. Which is why it’s become an annual tradition to get involved with the amazing work that my friend Roshni does

For those of you who don’t know, Roshni is Project Manager and Co–Founder of Care2Share, a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative run by Medulla under permit from the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department – Dubai, in partnership with the Emirates Red Crescent Society. Basically Care2Share exists to identify and support the needy in the UAE. I feel lucky to have met, and honoured to know, Roshni. She does incredible work all year round for the blue-collar workers in the country, particularly ramping up her efforts during Ramadan.

This year, David and I and several of our wonderful friends got involved and bought hearty, tasty and nutritious meals for 667 blue collar workers. I took a few pictures so that those who purchased an Iftar meal might see the gratitude of a worker and feel a connection to someone that they helped through their generosity. The world feels like a shitty place lately, but kindness and goodness do still exist. If you don’t believe me, just check out the pictures below.

IMG_5826
.

IMG_5823
.

IMG_5750
.

IMG_5767
.

IMG_5771
.

IMG_5781
.

IMG_5783
.

IMG_5785
.

IMG_5787
.

IMG_5793
.

IMG_5831
.

IMG_5845
.

IMG_5876
.

IMG_5879
.

IMG_5903
.

IMG_5917
.

IMG_5952
.

IMG_5967