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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Breaking the Fast -- Dubai Style

Hideki Nakayama

Jul. 16, 2015

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan ends on Thursday in most regions. It’s a time of fasting, when people are prohibited from drinking and eating in public from dawn to dusk. Muslims are instructed to pray to deepen their faith, while also thinking about the difficulties of others.

Hideki Nakayama

But once the sun sets, people are allowed to eat again. They get together to enjoy a special fast-breaking meal. In the United Arab Emirates, the bustling hub of Dubai shows off its unique diversity.

A heatwave has hit Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, with daytime highs topping 40 degrees Celsius. The sun rises around 5:30 AM. From dawn to dusk, restaurants and cafes are closed. Working hours are shortened. Construction laborers who work outside are given a 3-hour break from noon. Still, all Muslims are expected to refrain from drinking even water during the daytime.

Dinnertime comes right after sunset. People are encouraged to eat in large groups, so they can share the challenges of the fast. Many meals start with dates. Their sweetness and soft texture makes them gentle on an empty stomach.

This special dinner to break the daily Ramadan fast is called iftar. Appetizers or soup are followed by more filling dishes, often a combination of meat and rice. Every week, people take turns hosting relatives. They get to share each family’s different tastes and recipes.

Restaurants also get involved in serving special iftar meals. Once the sun goes down, it’s time for these establishments to get down to business. Many non-Muslims also eat out and get to enjoy iftar as well.

Iftar in Dubai is a special time for people who’ve moved here from abroad. Many nationalities seek out restaurants that serve food unique to their country. They eat there together and share memories of iftar back home.

“In this special month, you think about your country, your home country, and the food you eat,” said a young male diner at a restaurant. “Of course, you can have iftar and you feel that you’re back home -- although you’re not home.”

A restaurant that’s well known for serving authentic Yemeni food offers mandi -- the traditional dish of the Yemenis. It’s usually made from lamb or chicken, with a mixture of spices. Madfoon is a method in which meat with black pepper is cooked in aluminum foil. Another staple is harees -- a porridge made with cracked wheat mixed with meat. People enjoy it along with curry-flavored stew cooked with vegetables and chicken.

Tariq Al Maashi opened this restaurant four years ago. His dream was to make it the first restaurant of its kind in the region to serve real Yemeni food. He does his best to use ingredients and spices that can only be obtained in Yemen. But his country is entangled in a civil war, and importing food is not an option. So he’s careful with those spices he still has left and tries to find suitable alternatives.

“I’m sure that our customers would understand, you know,” he says. “And we try to make it very hard for them to tell that these ingredients are not available.”

About 900 thousand Yemeni people currently stay in the UAE. Many live alone with no family in the region to support them during Ramadan. So, the restaurant offers them a different kind of support. One customer said the familiar Ramadan dishes remind him of home.

It’s customers like this who make Tariq even more certain he can support his fellow Dubai-based Yemenis with some authentic home cooking. “They get some mental or psychological comfort, and I’ve contributed, or my restaurant did, that’s very rewarding for me, for us here.”

For Muslims far from home, iftar is not just about satisfying stomachs, but about lifting spirits and bringing back a sense of wellbeing.


NHK Dubai Bureau Chief, Hideki Nakayama joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu with more on Ramadan.

Beppu: Dubai is the most modern of cities, filled with people from many countries, but isn’t it the case, as during Ramadan, for example, that traditional values haven’t been forgotten?

Nakayama: During Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to both endure the hardship of fasting -- and to get a feeling for what it’s like to be underprivileged. During Ramadan, tents are put up near mosques or outside the houses of wealthy families. They’re used to distribute meals to the poor. On top of that, some people use online services to give help to others. They provide calculators showing how much one should pay from their earnings, which strikes me as quite creative. Ramadan may be evolving with the times, but the roots of Islam remain firmly planted in people’s hearts and minds.

Shibuya: So, how do people celebrate the end of Ramadan and what does it mean for Dubai?

Nakayama: The sun will set soon, which marks both the end of Ramadan and the start of a festival known as Eid. The duration of events differs depending on the year, but this time, public employees have four days off, starting today. Other gulf countries around the UAE are even more generous, with Saudi Arabia announcing a 12-day holiday for government workers and 6 days for the private sector. This provides a huge business opportunity for Dubai, which attracts many tourists from these countries. It’s expected that inbound tourists from Saudi Arabia will increase 10 percent over last year’s 1.3 million. During the period, shopping malls stay open late and the stores will be packed with eager shoppers, pouring millions of dollars into the Dubai economy. After the tough month of Ramadan, Dubai springs back into life as people enjoy the release and a festive mood returns.