It’s the longest day of the year – the Summer Solstice. Here in the middle of the east – in the middle of the globe, really – it’s summer year-round, just varying degrees of summer. When I arrived here in February, it was a delicate summer. Upper 70s, lower 80’s during the day and dipping into the 60s and even 50s at night. But now, we are edging into the aggressive summer of the desert. Temperatures are now regularly above 100 degrees, and beginning to flirt with the 110+ range. 50-60 percent humidity.
I think that’s a very common misconception about this area – everyone assumes that because it’s the desert, it must have that “much more bearable dry heat,” a popular description that makes anyone who has lived in a dry heat climate eye roll. It’s not a “dry heat” here. It’s a wet, salty, miserable heat. We live on the Gulf of Arabia, and it’s humid as hell. Another strange thing about living out here is the abrupt sunrise-sunset situation. There is no slow climb in either direction – it’s just dark one moment and then suddenly brilliantly light out, or vice versa. I have to believe it’s due to the flatness. The sky is a giant bowl above the expanse of desert, and we sit right at sea level. The sun doesn’t peek above the horizon or linger orange in the evenings. It’s like turning a light on and off. Starting at 5am, it’s as brilliant as daylight outside and it lasts until 7:30ish in the evening when it lowers the glare to a sandy gray and then slips seamlessly into night. 14-some odd hours of daylight.
This is important to note because next week marks the start of Ramadan, when eating, drinking, and smoking in public are forbidden during daylight hours. Most Muslims will fast during these 14 hours of the day. Some – children, those who are ill, pregnant women, for example – are exempt. When the sun sets, there are elaborate feasts called iftars which generally begin with the eating of dates to break the fast of the day and then progress into multiple-course meals that can last long into the night. I’m told that the UAE becomes a predominantly nocturnal culture during Ramadan, which makes sense.
There are many resources available, such as forums like Expat Arrivals, to help expats navigate cultural respect during Ramadan, but the easiest way to get a feel for things is simply to ask around. Work places have their own rules and go-arounds so that non-Muslims have private spaces to eat and drink during the day. Grocery stores, and some cafes and restaurants remain open during the day if they put up curtains to shield those partaking of food and drink from fasting Muslims. A few general rules of conduct (from the prior mentioned forum):
- It is illegal to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours during Ramadan; this applies while in a mode of transportation like a car or bus
- All members of society are expected to dress conservatively, women making special efforts to limit the amount of make-up worn and cover arms, legs, and shoulders
- No music or dancing is allowed during Ramadan, turn your car stereo down and be mindful about playing tunes loudly even in the comfort of your own home
In general, the month of Ramadan is a holy month where all Muslims spend time in prayer and reflection. They strive to keep thoughts and actions peaceful and pure, and fasting is seen as a means of spiritual contemplation. It’s a time for family and friends. The month of Ramadan also means that special attention is given to charitable causes and helping the needy. For the rest of the population, it means reduced working hours (usually 8 or 9am to 2 or 3pm) and taking care to show respect to those who observe Ramadan.
For us as expats, it’s also a time of reflection. A quieter time of year where people are driven inside because of the intense heat. When I lived in Florida, I explained that it was similar to living on the east coast where there are about 3-4 months of the year where no one goes outside (albeit for very different reasons). It’s a winter of summer, a time of hibernation. And, possibly, the first time in my almost five months here that I’ll have a moment to catch my breath and think about things.
I’ve newly reconnected with my blogging buddy, Sir Topaz (whose philosophical and whimsical musings can be found here), and he commented that some of my future writings can be based on a Tale of Two Cities context. I spent the last almost-four years of my life working for an organization fighting poverty in inner city Baltimore. Really, really, really bad poverty. Not that there’s a good kind, but there are certainly varying degrees, and the poverty that exists in Baltimore city can be the sort of third world shit that most people think doesn’t exist in the US. It does. Coming from that to this country, one of the richest per capita in the world (6th richest, to be precise, or so Forbes tells me) was a neck-cracking one eighty that still leaves me in wonderment when I see one-of-a-kind Ferraris and ATMs that expel real gold. The culture shock on that level is something that I don’t foresee wearing off any time soon.
And so, on the longest day of the year, I turn my thoughts towards the next month of hibernation and reflection. Reading, writing, all of those things that bloggers love to do. Early stages of training for the marathon I’m planning to run in November. Preparing for our first home leave trip at the end of July. Not eating or drinking in public. Probably eating a lot of dates at night. I really love dates. On that note…
Much love for now and more later, Insh’Allah,
The New Glitterati