Marketwatch: The commercialization of Ramadan

Sept. 11, 2009, 12:01 a.m. EDT

The commercialization of Ramadan

Commentary: Life after dark in the U.A.E. malls

By Raymond Beauchemin,

ABU DHABI (MarketWatch) — The guys who work at the falafel
joint down the street from the newspaper office don’t know my name, but they
know my face. They always seem happy to see me. And when I introduced my wife
and daughter to Mr. Samir and some of the workers, it’s like we all got adopted
or something.

I visit the restaurant, which is no bigger than a small bedroom, about once a
week for a “falafel normal” — two falafels crushed into an open pita, topped
with chopped cucumber, tomato and lettuce, and tahini. It costs me less than a
U.S. dollar.

One evening late last week, I waited until the call to prayer that announced
the end of the daily fast for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. There was no point
in going over before that. The restaurant would be closed or not ready to serve.
I got there at about five minutes to 7. Salah, the manager, in his mid-40s with
streaks of white in his Omar Sharif-black hair, was sitting at one of two small
round tables he had brought together. He had a spread of rice, chicken, grilled
vegetables and a salad in front of him. I hadn’t seen him for three weeks
because I’d been on vacation. He greeted me like the long-lost customer that I
was and asked me to sit down.

This is normal. I sit. I order my sandwich. While he’s making it, he offers
me a falafel fresh from the fryer. The warm oil soaks into the tissue he’s
wrapped it in. That night, however, and over my polite remonstrations, he gave
me a spoon, went behind the counter and came back with a heaping plate of rice
and chicken. He called out to his co-worker, Ahmad, who brought out a chicken
thigh and leg and a salad. I declined his offer of a Pepsi. I dug in, even
though I hadn’t wanted such a meal and didn’t think I had room for it, even
though I myself had gone without eating most of the day.

Then Salah was gone. And Ahmad was gone. And I was alone eating this generous
iftar meal. And I hadn’t even placed my order.

When I found Ahmad, having a cigarette (which he had to have been craving,
since smoking is not allowed during the fast, either), I asked him for a couple
of falafel sandwiches. I explained that I had to be getting back to work. He
scooped up my plate of rice, the chicken and the salad, and he took them to the
kitchen area, where he heaped more rice and more salad onto a plastic plate and
wrapped the whole thing up along with my leftovers with some aluminum foil.

Salah came in as I was leaving and said, “My wife.”

To which I nodded and asked, “Yes?”

He made a motion with his hand and arm as to signify flying. “Canada?”

“Oh! My wife! Yes. She’s in Canada. She comes back Sept. 5. School starts
Sept. 8.” I realized I was off by a day on the return, but having displayed an
elaborate five fingers and then eight fingers in the air-sign-language routine,
I wasn’t about to correct myself.

I asked, “How much?” as I fingered the dirhams in my wallet. I was ready to
tip well, considering he and Ahmad had just given me this meal.

He looked at the table where the bags were. “Twenty-seven.”

Oh, I guess I’m paying for my iftar meal after all. Two falafels alone would be 7 or 8 dirhams (the price fluctuates daily according to whim).

I couldn’t very well argue that I shouldn’t be paying for a meal that I had
not asked for. But, then, I didn’t want to embarrass the guy, either. And
besides, I could use the leftovers for lunch the next day. I gave him 30 dirhams
(a bit over $8). He tried to give me back my change. I insisted. ” Shokran ,” I said. “Thank you.”

What I forgot to say was, ” Ramadan kareem .” A blessed Ramadan.

Ramadan is the Muslim holy month. Practitioners of the faith fast from just
before dawn, about 4:15 in the morning, until about 6:45 in the evening, with
the last call to prayer (during this month, there’s yet another, final call, but
the important one is the one just after sundown). At this point, Muslims are
free to eat and drink; smoke; and have, talk about or imagine sex. It sounds
rather overwhelming, like a child’s list of “don’t do’s.” But it is supposed to
be a time of clearing one’s body and mind from all worldly things and
concentrating on the things that matter: namely, God.
People tend to stay up rather late, breaking their fast with the iftar meal with family, friends and, more and more,
business contacts. They sometimes stay awake until suhor
, the pre-fast meal. Then they go home and crash for a few hours. Work
hours change. Many shops do not open until late in the day, and then close for a
few hours in the evening before reopening.

Last year, I remember the Marina Mall, the largest in Abu Dhabi, not opening
until 7 p.m. My wife and daughter arrived from Montreal on the first day of
Ramadan, and they spent a good part of that month waiting until nightfall to
rush over to Ikea to pick up things for the apartment. The mall was packed. The
posted opening hours for some stores stretched until 1:30 a.m. The major grocery
stores open at their normal hours but stay open until after midnight.

Ramadan, then, has a flipside. As much as it is supposed to be a holy time of
year, there is no escaping its crass commercial side. In that sense, it’s a bit
like the month before Christmas back home. At the end of Ramadan, there is the
Eid al Fitr holiday, a three-day festival to mark the end of the fasting month.
That is a bit like the trifecta of Christmas Eve, Christmas and Boxing Day.

There is supposed to be a spirit of charity, as well. So at the entrance to
some stores, you see men collecting for the Red Crescent Society and other
Muslim or Arab charities. During Eid, food is collected for the poor. Several
mosques and palaces open their doors during Ramadan to people who can’t
otherwise afford a decent iftar meal.

The daily fast is typically broken with juice and dates. We face no shortage
of dates in the United Arab Emirates, where about 50 different types are grown.
Afterward, the meal is festive, featuring whatever you might normally eat but
more of it: chicken, lamb, rice, fattoush, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, olives,
soups, tagines.

Although the cost of some foodstuffs has risen in the past month, Muslims
marking Ramadan in the United Arab Emirates this year are blessed with lower
food prices than last year. The Ministry of Economy said prices have fallen
between 20% and 30% — mostly because oil prices have dropped since a year ago.

Granted, food prices had fallen on their own quite a bit when, in July, the
whole world was nervous about the rising costs of foodstuffs, prompting several
emergency international meetings and the toppling of the government in Haiti.
Inflation here is down as well. Last year, we posted a rate of 12.9%. For the
first half of 2009, the U.A.E. inflation rate was 3.4%.

That said, the U.A.E. claims it was its own planning that kept the cost of
food down. Perhaps. The ministry signed deals with 62 supermarkets in the
country to cut the costs of meat, fish and vegetables by as much as 40%, and
with suppliers as well.

The costs are down; I suppose how and by whose order or by which economic
factor doesn’t much matter to the consumer. Should they go up in October,
however, then I guess we will know Ramadan kareem has a bit of the deus ex machina element to  it.

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