We didn’t plan on breaking the law that day, it just kind of happened that way.
Not far from the dusty desert confines of our ersatz, dawn-pink villa, we hail an orange and white taxi as the sun rises on the first day of Ramadan, the month of fasting and spiritual renewal for Muslims everywhere.
The Islamic code of conduct it stipulates – no eating, drinking, smoking or fornicating from dawn till dusk – is now in full effect and in public places, is applicable to us infidel types as well.
The idea is to build Islamic unity and empathy through self-sacrifice. The consequences for breaking the Ramamdan code range from tongue ’tisking’ for Muslims and arrest for non-Muslims.
Nevertheless, in the excitement of scoring a cheap taxi-ride from Ibri to Al-Ain, a town on the other side of the Omani/Emirates border, thoughts of Ramadan take the backseat to the scenery whizzing by outside: white villages, undulating sand dunes, a herd of wild camels, the Western Hajar Mountains in the distance.
After traversing the 150 kilometers from our adopted-home of Ibri, Oman to Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates, all we can talk about is food.
With the previous two weeks limited to thermally-abused Chinese meat, no cheese (except for lubneh) and only two kinds of cereal at the ‘supermarket’ in Ibri, we’re salivating over the prospect of a ‘hypermarket’ fully-stocked with western goods in Al-Ain.
Maybe even bacon! Thoughts of Ramadan (and the consequences of breaking it) as fleeting as a desert mirage.
The tree-lined streets of Al-Ain turn out to be as empty as our stomachs. Only a handful of Indian merchants and Pakistani day-workers mill about the usually bustling fruit and vegetable souq.
Asking a lady in a sari where we can get breakfast, she bobbles her head and points across the super-highway. Grumbling across the flyover we find the place she bobbled about to be nowhere in sight. All the restaurants are closed.
Cursing our luck, we magically stumble upon a western style grocery store. All the products we had nearly forgotten we couldn’t live without are there: Havarti cheese, Dr. Pepper, fresh-ground beef and fifteen kinds of breakfast cereals!
My head is reeling. Without thinking, I order a danish from the bakery and cram it into my mouth in front of a young Muslim family. They nearly gasp.
Scene Of The Crime
Out the door with baguettes, smoked-turkey, Dijon mustard and Doritos, all we need now is a place to eat discretely. It is Ramadan, after all and we don’t want to be culturally insensitive, let alone end up in jail.
A breakfast-picnic in a secluded corner of the palm oasis behind the souq seems just perfect. Unfortunately when we get there it’s hotter than the blacktop. We’re melting faster than the cheese. Hungry, overheated and cranky, we grab a taxi and do like most Emiratis do when it gets too hot – we go to the mall.
The air-conditioning is breathtaking. Past the ice-rink and into the semi-private confines of the family-section of the mall’s food-court, we spread-out our picnic and eat like barbarians, hoping we won’t be spotted.
Just minutes into it, however, a mustachioed security guard approaches, informs us we’re in violation of Islamic law and instructs us to leave or face arrest.
We plead with him. We have no place to go. “Come with me,” he commands, furrow across his brow.
Gathering up the ‘evidence,’ we follow him into a backroom. Lumps form in our throats. He sits us down solemnly. The sign on the wall next to what looks like an interrogation table says ‘employee rest area’.
Then, with an unexpected smile he announces “You can eat here, no problem.”
We thank him profusely, grateful for our soon to be full-bellies and freedom on this most auspicious of days, the beginning of Ramadan.
Have you or are you planning on participating in Ramadan this year? Share your thoughts in the comments!