Saturday, 27 July 2013

Ramadan Kareem!

With Ramadan approaching, the dilemma for me as a non Muslim was to fast or not to fast?  To be honest, I didn't think about it for long and never had a doubt - of course I would fast.  Since moving to Doha, I've been determined to assimilate ..... as far as a western, non Muslim, non Arabic speaker can!   As regular readers will know, I prefer haggling in the Souq and dancing with the Yemeni boys to drinking with ex-pats in hotel bars and Ive also started learning Arabic.

There were a few reasons for committing to the fast - not just to continue my immersion into the local culture, but also because I wanted to share the experience with my Muslim colleagues at work.  Not only that, but I also wanted to test my own commitment, my self discipline and learn something about myself in the process.  Lets face it, for a large part of the fasting time, I would be alone - particularly on the weekend - no one but me would know if I was breaking my fast - so the commitment needed to be total - for myself.

As all good Muslims know, Ramadan, the most holy of months, is a sunrise to sunset fast - where nothing at all is to pass the lips, including water. It is not simply about food and drink though - Muslims also refrain from smoking, sexual relations, swearing and sinful thoughts - in fact colleagues at work also refrain from being critical of others and try to stay calm and use the time for quiet reflection and further prayer.  Ramadan lasts a month and is based on the sightings of the crescent moon.

In practical terms, in Doha, many venues close for the entire month - particularly those which offer alcohol and others only open after 7pm.  Even the shopping malls pretty much close down between 1pm and 7pm - but they make up for it by being open until 2am!.... and the atmosphere is wonderful then - with families all coming out to play after their evening Iftar (breakfast).  Working hours are also reduced - Al Jazeera move to a 6 hour working day and they have a Ramadan tent which offers employees Iftar at 6.30pm into the evening (see photo).

So on 10th July at 3am, I got up and had my first Suhoor, (the meal consumed before fajr (dawn)) - which for me is porridge with milk, bananas and chopped dates and a black lady grey tea!  There are no strict guidelines to when or what you should eat for Suhoor, as long as it takes place before the first prayer of the day (At the moment, this is around 3.30am) ....   Some colleagues of mine stay up til midnight or 1am and have their Suhoor then, and at 3am they drink alot of water.

I've been setting my Suhoor alarm every day for a couple of weeks now and I quite enjoy it.  I have my porridge, and then spend a few moments standing on the balcony listening to the call to prayer - which is magical at that time of the morning, and then spend the next 15 hours consuming nothing at all until around 6.30pm when I hear the call to prayer and prepare my Iftar.

I follow tradition in breaking my fast with three dates, as the prophet, Muhammad did.  I have mine with three spoons of yogurt.  Muslims will usually then go to pray before starting the next course, which for most people Ive spoken to is soup.  It is supposed to help the stomach open up and prepare it to receive more food.  This was also what I had with Raeda (a work colleague) and her family when I went there for what I can only describe as proper full on Iftar - absolutely amazing spread of food!!  Normally, at home, I would follow the dates with a small salad and then have something a little later such as rice and lentils or noodles.

Iftar with Raeda's family was so wonderful - but because we hadn't eaten for 15 hours, it was difficult to eat much of what they had prepared, despite the fact that it was all so delicious.  All the nations of the world were represented - Lasagna and Cannelloni, Cauliflower cheese, Arabic wheat based dishes with chicken, tomato and bean based dish, homous and flat bread, and something which Ive never had before - fresh dates!  They were gorgeous and so sweet!  Then later after much resting and looking at some family photos, they brought out some traditional arabic pastries then fruit salad - it really was like Christmas.....well in terms of the amount of food and the generosity and warmth.

Afterwards, Raeda and I went out to the local hypermarket and had some fun window shopping for dresses and jewellery and then did some food shopping - which is not so easy when you've eaten alot!!

Anyway, I'm sticking to it so far and actually find it pretty easy during the week when I'm busy with work, not quite so easy on the weekend - but I have remained true to myself and have not broken the fast at all - even when alone.  The hardest thing is the lack of water - I don't miss the food at all and you will know that I'm used to going without food with my intermittent fasting - in fact I think it is doing wonders for my skin - its never looked so good!! ....but not drinking water for 15 hours is tough - especially when I'm running around at work in air conditioning inside and 45 degrees outside..... But then Ramadan isn't about having an easy life, it is a test and one which I am relishing - despite my non Muslim credentials.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

It pays to linger longer in the Souq

The beauty and energy of Souq Waqif keeps me returning each week.....of course for the dancing, (see previous post!)..... but mainly because it has such an electric atmosphere - even during the week when there is no music.

The heat of the day lifts the aromas of coffee, spices and perfume and when the evening comes, the searing heat gives way to a soft warmth, mingling the aromas with the scent of the shisha.   People from every part of the globe come to eat, shop, chat, smoke and haggle of course!

I had my first experience of the haggle this week and what fun it turned out to be!  The shop keepers are friendly and not at all pushy - at least the ones I visited.  Now that I can speak a little Arabic, it helps.  I would go into a shop and say "as-salaamu alaykom" (Peace be with you) and would get "wa alaykom is salaam" in reply.  ......Yes I am conversing, this is great!!!!

 Generally speaking, they leave you to browse - the odd one or two would follow me around closely which I find a little irritating, but its all good natured, so its fine.  There is alot of tat in the shops, but some of it is actually really nice stuff and some of it is alot of fun too.  Anyway, I went in and out of a dozen shops, all selling pretty similar stuff and then I went into a really tiny shop, which again sold very similar stuff but this time, I lingered.

The shop keeper made me laugh by pulling the most apalling stuff off the shelves to show me - the worst being a turqouise and gold plastic Mosque alarm clock, which wakes you up with the Moazzim (call to prayer).  At this point I looked at him and said "that is awful, truly awful, in fact its horrible....... no Ill go even further, its nasty, really nasty!!!".  There was only one other customer in the shop - a Spanish guy, who then joined in and said "she's right, it really is terrible".... and we all fell about laughing!!

At this point, his colleague comes in from outside and he goes to fetch us all some tea.  So I sat for 30 minutes or so with the shop keeper and his Spanish customer, who it turned out was a Qatar Airways captain.  When I told him I worked for Al Jazeera, he said that he had been interviewed by them 21 years ago, during the first Gulf War (which actually would be a bit difficult as the Gulf War was 1991 and Al Jazeera wasnt born until 1996)...... perhaps he meant another Arabic Channel.  Anyway, he claimed to be the youngest pilot in the first Gulf War which is why he was interviewed.  

Not that anyone around here was particularly impressed, as you can imagine..... "why would he want to be involved with that?" was most people's reaction.  Of course we're so conditioned in the west to view these guys as heroes (has never been my personal view) without questioning the bigger picture....... anyway, that's something for another blog.... otherwise Ill be going all Ronnie Corbett on you!! (For anyone who doesnt know who that is, Im really sorry - youll have to look him up..... something to do with going off at tangents and taking a very long time to get to the punch line) !!

The punch line for me, was that after my tea, some delightful conversation, and choosing a few fun gifts to take home to my family, I charmed my way to an extremely good deal while making some new friends....... Doha and its amazing Souq truly are wonderful!!   It always pays to linger ;-)