Ejo #20 – A Few Thoughts On Islam (And What It Means To Be Muslim)

“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I will complain against that person on the Day of Judgement.”  So said the Prophet Mohammed, preaching tolerance, kindness and understanding towards us heretics.  It isn’t the picture most people have in their minds of the Islamic faith – and that is, perhaps, unfortunate.  The reason could be related to the rising number of acts of aggression against the western world, ostensibly in the name of Islam.  But as many Muslims would be at great pains to point out, these acts of terrorism strike against the very kernel of what it is to be a member of the Islamic faith.


I’m not religious in the least but I have always been curious about the concept. When I moved to Dubai I was able to learn a little bit about Islam.  I could probably write 20 ejos on the subject, but I won’t.  What I’d like to do is shed some light on a belief system and way of life that is sometimes shrouded in mystery, and quite often veiled by misinterpretation.  If I can bust just one myth or clear up one misconception for anyone that’ll make me happy.  I’m hardly an expert though; what follows is just a few personal observations backed up with a bit of research.


Let us begin.  The reason Muslims call their deity Allah is to differentiate him from other gods – it is the personal name of Islam’s one true god.  Whereas the word “god” can be pluralised and genderised, the word Allah cannot.  Allah is merciful and compassionate, and really just a very nice god indeed.  For instance, if you intend to do a bad deed and then don’t actually go through with it, he won’t hold it against you (even though, of course, he is fully aware that you did think about it).  It is only when you act on the intention that it counts against you.  Furthermore, if you truly regret what you did, the slate automatically wipes clean.  The simple act of repentance leads to Allah’s forgiveness.


Some people wonder about the importance of the Prophet Mohammed in the faith.  He was just one of many thousands of prophets, but Mohammed is the greatest of them all because he was the last prophet, the one that completed all of Allah’s revelations and sealed them together to create the teachings of Islam as they have been known, unaltered, for the last 1400 years.  He is second only to Allah in importance.


The word Muslim means “to submit” and Islam is based on its believers living out the will of Allah, as far as humanly possible.  It is founded on five pillars.  They are:

1) testimony of faith, i.e. accepting that there is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.

2) praying five times a day;

3) Zakat, which is the giving back to the community of a certain amount of money, usually as a charitable donation;

4) fasting during Ramadan; and

5) pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once during a Muslim’s lifetime (for those who are physically and financially able).


The second pillar of Islam is prayer.  Muslims are required to pray five times a day– furthermore they must be “clean” when they do so.  A ritual ablution occurs before the prayer and this includes washing the face, arms and feet so as to be pure when presenting themselves to Allah.  To facilitate this in Dubai, every toilet (private and public) has a long hose and nozzle in it so that wherever they may find themselves at prayertime, a Muslim is able to wash in preparation.  It is also why, sometimes, when entering a bathroom after a Muslim you may find it absolutely soaking wet.  I guess in striving to become clean, it is sometimes necessary to create a mess.  You get used to it.


Zakat is the requirement to donate to charity or to give to those less fortunate. Muslims are obligated to give 2.5% of any income they’ve earned for the year which is surplus to their family’s requirements.  This is usually collected and distributed during Ramadan.


Ramadan is the month of the Islamic calendar during which Muslims must fast – refraining from eating, drinking, smoking, having impure thoughts or engaging in sexual activity during daylight hours.  These sacrifices transcend physical discipline and bring the faster closer to Allah.  This year Ramadan has fallen during August, which happens to be the hottest time of year. Fasters have been going without food and water for up to 15 long hours a day, which as you can imagine is super difficult.  Hunger and thirst remind fasters of others who are less fortunate and who go hungry and thirsty everyday.  It also serves as a trigger to commune with Allah, to give thanks, and also to atone for any sins committed during the year.  It is an extremely important time of year for all Muslims.  To read more about Ramadan check out Ejo #9 – Ramadan In Dubai (What It Means And What To Expect).


As with all religions, some things are considered right, and others wrong.  “Halal”encompasses everything which is good (and thus permitted in the eyes of God), whereas “haram” describes the opposite – all which is harmful (and thus forbidden).  The word halal actually refers to a wide spectrum of things, but is most commonly used to describe meat that has been prepared in an approved way. A lot of animals these days are killed by electrocution – but this method is deemed haram by Muslims.  The animal suffers and so it is forbidden to eat its meat.  To be considered humane, the knife that will kill the animal must not be sharpened in front of it.  Animals should be killed quickly, and as comfortably as possible, and one animal must never witness the slaughter of another as this would frighten it, making the meat haram.  The animal should be well fed and watered despite the fact that it shall soon be lunch.


Intoxicants, such as alcohol, are considered haram – the reason being that alcohol decreases your ability to control your own mind and body.  There is an old Islamic fable: “A man was told to either rip up the Holy Quran, or murder a child, or bow in worship to an idol, or drink one cup of alcohol, or sleep with a woman.  He thought the least sinful thing to do was drink the cup, so he drank it.  Then he slept with the woman, killed the child, tore up the Quran and bowed in worship to the idol”.  Being a Muslim is all about controlling your impulses and you attain closeness to God when you restrain yourself from physical and mental urges.  Alcohol takes away all of that restraint, rendering one vulnerable to the temptations of the devil (and anyone who’s ever been drunk can surely attest to that – I know I can!).


The Quran clearly refers to men and women as being equal.  Oppression of women tends to be more culturally and nationalistically based, than theistically.  But often the culture fostering the oppression is so closely entwined in an Islamic identity it is difficult to separate the two.  Although women are thought of as being equal to men, the physical differences between them has been taken into account and because of this women have been granted the right of protection by (and from) men. One of the major components of Islam is modesty (for both sexes, albeit predominantly for women).  As such, men are required to not look upon women sexually and women are required to cover up in public.  Islam sees the covering up of a woman’s body as the opposite of female repression. Because it hides her womanliness they believe that it is really a form of female liberation, allowing her to be appreciated for her character and mind, and not just for her body.  Nowhere in the Quran or in the prophet’s messages does it state that women must cover their faces – to force a woman to do so (as the Taliban do in Afghanistan) goes against the very spirit of Islam.


Even with all this covering up though, occasionally a person might find themselves sexually aroused in a public place by a person who is not their spouse. Hey, it happens!  One of my favourite of prophet Mohammed’s recommendations is that, should this occur to you, you must immediately hurry home to your husband (or wife) and satisfy that sexual urge honourably.  Yipee!


While men and women are created equal, they most definitely have different roles to play in marriage and family life.  The husband is expected to provide for the family and the wife is expected to look after him and the household (including children when/if they have them).  This doesn’t mean a woman can’t go out and work if she wants to.  She can, but she must still fulfil her obligations at home too (what else is new, right?).  The role of housewife and mother is regarded as one of the most honourable occupations in Islam.  Staying home to raise a family garners the greatest respect from the community, because it is arguably one of the most difficult jobs to do.


Polygamy is permitted in Islam but not in the way most people imagine.  Men are allowed to marry up to only four women, and there are many restrictions.  For instance, a man can only marry another woman if he can afford to keep her in the same way he keeps his first wife; giving them the same amount of food, clothing, leisure, living space, time and compassion.  Plus, he actually needs the permission of his first wife in order to take another.  Theoretically, anyway.  Polygamy was sanctioned, initially, with the intention of providing security and a stable family life for the women left behind after the first Islamic war. Rather than leave the many widows and orphans to fend for themselves it was encouraged for families to give them a home – and since a woman and a man who are not married are forbidden from living under the same roof, marriage was the solution.  Today, however, women are able to support themselves.  This negates the requirement for a man to marry multiple women.  Governments look after those in need, providing welfare to ensure financial stability and security.  The burden of this responsibility has been removed from the man, however polygamy (of course) still occurs.


Well, that’s just a drop in the ocean.  If you have any questions about Islam please feel free to ask and I will try and get an informed answer from one of my Muslim colleagues.  Look out next month for another episode from The Misadventures Of Dangerous Doug.

Ejo #9 – Ramadan In Dubai (What It Means And What To Expect)

It’s been a while between drinks, hasn’t it?  Fear not, the ejo’s are not drying up, merely gathering steam in order to (hopefully) entertain and inform you.  For those of you new to the ejo, welcome and enjoy.


So, what have David and I been up to?  Well we’ve been quite busy, and allowed our itchy feet to take us where they will.  Since the last ejo we’ve been to Thailand and Jordan but what I’d really like to talk to you about in this email is our experience of Ramadan.  Now, before I packed up to move to a Muslim country, I’d certainly heard of Ramadan but I had no real concept of what it meant, or entailed.  Following is what I’ve learnt:


Ramadan is the name of the 9th month of the Islamic Calendar in the same way that September is the 9th month of our Gregorian Calendar.  Unlike our calendar though the Islamic one is based on lunar sightings and so is unfixed, changing from year to year (on average it starts 11 days earlier than the year before).  Ramadan is also the month during which the first verses of the Quran are said to have been revealed to the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).  This is kinda comparable to Moses bringing the ten commandments down the mountain but in fact much more important because it is considered the birth of Islam.  Exciting stuff huh?


Sooooo, to honour this major event (and because Allah told them to), Muslims around the world undertake to fast.  This means no eating, drinking, smoking, chewing gum, singing, dancing, swearing, thinking impure thoughts, playing music or showing affection in public during daylight hours.  (Daylight is deemed to have commenced at the first moment the naked eye can discern a white thread from a black one.)  The purpose of all this restraint is to separate the person’s physical body with their spiritual self.  It’s a time of increased spirituality, more intense praying and an opportunity to commune with Allah.


For us non-Muslims, it’s an opportunity to experience enforced denial (at least in public) of things you wouldn’t even think twice about before doing.  Things like having a sip of water when you’re thirsty, of going out to grab a bite to eat for lunch, and during this time, even holding hands with your partner is frowned upon.  If you are caught, say drinking water in public, the police may just give you a warning, but it is completely within their rights to throw you in jail for the remainder of the festival (yes, it’s considered a festival, go figure!!).


It is a really difficult thing to do (especially refraining from drinking liquid all day long when the temperatures right now are getting up to 42C/107F) and I especially feel sorry for the Indian construction workers who are outdoors for 12 hours a day.  They’re not even Muslim but they still have to deny themselves a drink of water.  It doesn’t exactly seem fair, and I’m not sure what Allah would think of it. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  I do admire and respect the basic principle behind it.


The daily highlight of Ramadan is, of course, the breaking of the fast after sundown.  This is called ‘iftar’ and the custom is to just eat a couple of dates initially in order to get the digestive system ready for the feast ahead.  And what a feast it is!!  Traditionally, a small animal (goat, sheep) is slaughtered as sacrifice, and then roasted to tender, succulent perfection to reward all those who have fasted during the day.  Occasionally this still occurs.  While driving through Jordan, David saw them slit a lamb’s throat, right out there on the road, and drain the blood in a bucket (halal style).  But it is more common these days for several families to get together each night and for each family to bring several small dishes of food, resulting in a massive and delicious buffet meal.  Yum!  Unfortunately we haven’t been invited to iftar this year but I’ll be angling for an invite next year for sure – especially if there’s a goat or sheep involved.


During Ramadan, all the big 5 star hotels make up for not serving food during the day by erecting enormous, air-conditioned Iftar Tents and then put on a huge buffet feast, kind of trying to replicate the traditional family breaking of the feast.  The other big eating time of day (or night, rather) is called Suhoor, and it’s the big feast before sunrise (or before you can tell that white thread from the black).  So people get up at 4am to stuff their faces with what is usually a very heavy, rich meal (to stave off the future hunger for as long as possible), and drink litres of water before going back to bed.  I’m not convinced this is the healthiest thing in the world to do but then again, I’m not the one fasting, so I’ll just shut up.  I’m pretty sure I’d be eating non-stop from iftar to suhoor, so there you go.


Being a Muslim country, the city, very thoughtfully, makes it pretty easy for the fasters.  As I’ve said, eating, drinking and chewing in public are basically illegal.  To that effect most cafes, restaurants, bars etc are closed during the day, and those that are open (to cater to non-Muslims) must conceal their dining areas behind screens or by blacking out the windows (alcohol is not permitted to be served anywhere in the city until after sundown).  I’ll tell you what, it’s a strange experience to walk through a mall foodcourt, usually buzzing with hundreds of people munching and slurping away, and to see it completely empty, tumbleweeds blowing past (well, not really but it conjures an image, no?).


Of course Islam seems to be a very reasonable religion, so the elderly, physically and mentally ill, children, pregnant and menstruating women are exempt from fasting.  Depending on the reason, a person will either be required to make up the missed fasting days at a later stage, or they must pay enough to feed one poor person for every day that they miss.  How much more reasonable can you get?


Anyway, Ramadan segues beautifully into my next ejo (coming out soon) which is about our trip to Jordan.  Funny story actually.  David had some leave from work and we thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to get out of Dubai during Ramadan?”.  So we looked up the special fares that Emirates Airlines (our preferred airline of course) was offering during the period and we booked an AMAZING deal to Jordan.  About five minutes after we’d booked and paid for the tickets, we looked at each other and one of us (I can’t remember who) said, “Do they follow Ramadan in Jordan?”.  To which the answer turned out to be: DO THEY EVER!!


We weren’t going to let a little thing like that stop us enjoying our twelve days in Jordan though (being the bold travellers that we are).  And this is where I’ll leave you.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my little lesson about Ramadan (I do like to share everything that I learn here and I hope I’m not stuffing it down your throats). 


Kisses to all


PS David says hi

Ejo #5 – Alcohol Restrictions (and Loopholes) in Dubai

Quite a few people have asked how David and I are coping in an Islamic country without alcohol.  Fear not dear friends for there is a plentiful supply to be had, you just have to be in the know about how and where to get it.  Of course there are restaurants, hotels and bars that serve outrageously marked up drinks at all hours of the day and night.  Usually the mark up is in the order of x6 and that includes tax.  Alcohol in fact is about the only thing in the UAE to be subject to tax (that’s such a dirty word to me now – not that it wasn’t before).  30% tax.  Blech!!!!  But if you want to buy alcohol to drink at home there are only two “official” suppliers in Dubai – MMI (Maritime & Mercantile International) and A&E (African & Eastern).  They sound like fun, right??!!

Actually we are very lucky in Dubai.  Some of the emirates, like Sharjah, are dry emirates where drinking or even posession of alcohol is illegal.  The rulers of Dubai probably realised that in order to attract people here (at least the big drinking Brits and Aussies) they had to be a little more lax, and thus alcohol IS sold in Dubai.  But (of course there’s a but), in order to buy it you need to get a liquor permit.  In order to be eligible for a liquor permit you have to earn a certain amount per month and go through quite a lot of red tape to apply.  You need to provide them with a letter from your employer stating your monthly salary and that you are contracted to work for a certain period of time, AND that they have no objection to you buying alcohol.  Then you have to give them copies of your passport and copies of your residency visa.  Good lord!!  And then on top of that you are only allowed to buy a certain amount of alcohol per month.  They impose a booze quota!!  This amount is dependent on how much you earn (as obviously the more money you make, the more you deserve to drink it away)!!.  And the cherry on top is that 30% tax they lug you with.

Let’s just say that the whole process is so drawn out and convoluted that we are yet to complete it.  We have actually submitted the application but because of Xmas, Eid, New Year, Chinese New Year etc, it might be another four weeks before we have our permit.  So where are we getting our booze????  I’m glad you asked.  We get it from a place called Barracuda.  Ooooh, that sounds ferocious!!  But it isn’t.  Barracuda is a little seaside resort two emirates away in Umm Al Quwain (about 55 minutes drive from our place).  It is also home to what is known as a “hole in the wall”, a hidden and quite illegal trove of liquid treasures (don’t tell anyone I told you).  A funny little fact about Barracuda is that it even exists at all in an Islamic emirate where alcohol is considered haram (bad, evil).  This question was answered recently when someone told me that the Sheikh of Umm Al Quwain actually owns it.  SHOCK AND HORROR!!!!  A Muslim making money from alcohol goes against the Quran’s teachings, but I’m not going to be complaining to anyone.  More of it, I say!!  And anyway, as far as I’m concerned that could just be a rumour.  But it’s a juicy one.

We’d been told about Barracuda and were quite keen to go as our duty-free stash was running out fast.  But David had also heard stories about “bandits” laying in wait for all the expats driving out of Barracuda and then involving them in minor car accidents.  Then, while the police are being called (because in the UAE if you have even the most minor bingle, the cops are required to attend in order to apportion blame) they would proceed to blackmail you: Give us money or we’ll tell the cops about your illegal stash.  These horror stories put us off for a little while but when our reserves were getting dangerously low we built up the courage and made a plan to head out!!

The day of the Booze Run dawned bright and clear.  What am I talking about?  I have no idea how the day of the Booze Run dawned.  I was asleep.  But at 9.30am when I did get up, it was bright and clear.  By the time we’d set out an hour later though, a big sand storm was blowing in from across the Gulf (damn Iran and all it’s infernal sand!!).  But we resolved to continue (after all, we’d had our last G&T the night before – we were out of options).  Unfortunately, the further we got out of Dubai, the worse it got.  Visibility was reduced, the car was being buffeted by strong winds and tumbleweeds were drifting across the freeway – with the attendant manic swerving of all the cars trying to avoid them (yes, avoid the tumbleweed, smash into the Yaris – sound decision).  It was almost as if Allah was trying to tell us something, trying to warn us to give it up. 

But we courageously persisted and as we drove past Sharjah and into Ras Al Khaimah, the storm abated and the blue skies once again shone upon us.  The aftermath of the sandstorm though was pretty spectacular to behold.  The roads where covered in drifting sand.  We were pretty well out in the desert by now so it was like the dunes were reclaiming the roads.  We took the exit to Barracuda and eventually made our way to the resort.  Now, when something is described to me as a “hole in the wall” I tend to process the image rather literally and so I imagined that it would be a little hut, hidden behind some palm fronds where you’d have to do a secret knock on the door to gain access to a dusty little shop full of crates of old bottles of Mateusz and kegs of home made moonshine.  Oh glory days, how wrong I was!!!!


The first clue that made me realise that this place was a serious operation was the full car park – spaces for more than a hundred cars.  The second sign was the supermarket sized shopping trolleys.  And the final sign was seeing it all with my own eyes.  This place is booze heaven.  For those of you from Australia, think Dan Murphy’s but with a bigger selection of vodka.  There is Australian beer cheaper than in Australia, and beer and wines from all over the world.  They had everything.  French champagne, even Grange Hermitage (under lock and key).  To say that David and I were like kids in a candy store would be incorrect.  We were like alcoholics in a liquor wonderland.  My eyes were popping out of my head – it was just the complete opposite of what I’d imagined.  It was magnificent.


And so we filled up a trolley, and with our car laden with clinking bottles, we took off for home.  Now, neither of us said anything but I know that I, for one, was a bit nervous about these so-called ‘bandits’ that were supposed to ambush us in a fender-bender.  Every car that approached us was full of malicious intent.  Every car that we overtook was skulkily suspicous.  I was so nervous that I (yes, I was driving!!) missed a turn at a roundabout and only realised it ten minutes later when we passed a rather large statue that we had definitely not seen on the way in.  We were lost!!!!  With 30 litres of illegal alcohol in the boot.  Oh well, I thought, it’s the beginning of yet another Arabian adventure. 


We followed some signs pointing to Dubai that disappeared once we entered an industrial zone, to be replaced by signs proclaiming that we were in fact in Sharjah!!  And we got stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for over an hour.  Every time we moved an inch forward, and someone changed lanes behind or in front of us, I was horrified that the car would get clipped and the police would have to be called.  Because to get caught with illegal alcohol in Umm Al Quwain is one thing.  To get caught with it in a place where alcohol itself is illegal is entirely another thing.  An undesirable thing.  But somehow we managed to avoid an international scandal the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the ‘sex on the beach’ incident and managed to return home during an agonisingly slow 2.5 hour drive.  And thus ended our first Booze Run. 


But a few days before the end of 2008 David put a bottle of white wine in the fridge and said the ugly words, ‘That’s the last one”.  Plus New Year’s Eve was approaching.  Say no more!!  And so another journey was undertaken.  This time it went without a hitch.  We’re old pros by now!!  We bought some champagne (amongst several other things!!) as we had a grand plan all laid out for New Year’s Eve.  I was going to pick David up from work at 9pm and we’d go home to where I’d prepared a special dinner.  We’d kick back and relax, drink some French champagne (thank you Barracuda) and watch the amazing fireworks display from our 32nd floor balcony.  Perfect!!


Alas alack, does anything ever go according to plan??  Would it be as much fun if it did??  Two forces conspired to foil our perfect evening.  The first force was our beloved Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.  At noon on the 31st December, he decreed that all NYE celebrations were off.  Cancelled.  No bands, no concerts, no public parties, no public countdown and no fireworks.  It was an act of support for the Palestinians who are under attack from Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip.  A noble act.


But as powerful as the Sheikh is, the second force to toy with us was more powerful still – and even if the fireworks had gone ahead we would not have been able to see them anyway, for the entire city was blanketed in a thick, and rather spooky layer of fog.  Let’s just say that from our balcony we couldn’t see a single other building, or even a light (below is a photo of the night in question, and another taken on a regular evening).  And so, the evening was spent eating delicious food (if I do say so myself), drinking delectable bubbles and gazing onto a soupy whiteout.  And we still managed to have fun!!


Normal View from Living Room

NYE 2008

PS The Sheikh of Umm Al Quwain died in early January (RIP), so I wonder what will happen to Barracuda.  Perhaps we should do another run sometime soon!!??