For Western expats living in the Gulf, perhaps the most foreign time of the year is Ramadan – due to begin this month around August 11. This is especially true if you are new to the region. Regardless of your personal faith, though, it’s a great time to connect with those in your community, both Muslim and non-Muslim. ‘Ramadan is a celebration of the month during which the Prophet Mohammad received the revelations brought to him through the Angel Gabriel,’ says Amna Baltaji, a native of Northern California who converted to Islam 30 years ago and has lived in the Middle East for the last 20. ‘These revelations are considered to be the word of Allah, and they form the Muslim holy book called the Qur’an.’
The most noticeable element of Ramadan is fasting; those who fast will not allow anything – food, drink, gum, cigarettes – to pass between their lips from the hours of sunrise to sunset. Most restaurants won’t open until evening, but some hotel eateries still serve food during the day. But there are also restaurants offering Ramadan Iftar specials, which you may like to experience as a family.
This year, Ramadan falls during the summer holidays, but at other times children may find their school times affected, starting at 8.30am and finishing at 2pm. The start of a new school term can also be altered.
During Ramadan, schools would also tend to focus more on Islamic studies for their Muslim students, and non-Muslims may be taught Arabic social studies and language; part of the benefit of going to an international school is teaching kids about the community they live in. Failing to teach kids about Ramadan – whether they are Muslim or not – is doing them a disservice.
Parents and kids who are non-Muslim – Christian or Buddhist, for example – shouldn’t feel threatened, as schools are not in the business of trying to convert anyone, but rather are just trying to help their students understand the culture they’re living in. Part of understanding the culture of the region involves learning about the religious celebrations, because Islam is so closely tied to it.
In deference to the fast, some schools may rearrange sporting events to accommodate the needs of kids who may be feeling tired, hungry or dehydrated during the day. Also, schools will provide places for non-Muslim children to eat during the school day.
And what about ways in which non-Muslim children, both younger kids and teens, can show respect for Muslims during this special time? Just as adults do, older children should pay particular attention to dressing
more conservatively. But there are other ways too.
‘Showing appreciation and admiration for their efforts,’ continues resident Amna Baltaji, who has been studying and sharing her understanding of Islam since her days at university. ‘If you see your friend is tired or hungry, noticing and cheering them on is a great expression of peace and a step towards understanding. My son was so touched when a non-Muslim friend told him, “Good luck, I guess you’ll feel better at dinner!” and gave him a smile. You don’t have to be Muslim to be supportive and compassionate.’
All children should be encouraged to be more polite, generous and kind during Ramadan. Muslim children will be trying extra hard not to be naughty, deceitful or angry, and non-Muslim children should try not to lead them astray as a sure sign of respect.
Even better than encouraging words is your adherence to the rules of fasting, at least in public. Young children are not expected to observe the fast, but parents can do their part to keep their kids’ public eating and drinking to a minimum. Technically, local law requires that adults observe the fast in public during Ramadan; whether or not your teen is considered to be an adult is up for debate. The age a Muslim child will attempt to fast can vary from family to family. Though younger children are not required to fast, they may be allowed to go on ‘half fast’ (Asr/mid-afternoon to Maghreb/sunset) for practice, or to stop them from feeling left out. Most are fasting in line with their parents by about age 12.
If you were to flout the fasting law, you or your child probably wouldn’t go to jail, but the point of the law is more about respect. No matter what your personal views may be, if you’ve chosen to leave your home country and live in a predominately Muslim culture, it is only fair to show the proper respect, and the holy month of Ramadan is a prime example.
Baltaji suggests other ways to help educate children about the holy month. ‘Ask one of your Muslim friends if you can come to Iftar to break the fast with him or her one day. I always try to encourage my children to invite their non-Muslim friends over for Iftar. Ramadan is a month of sharing and of increased time for the community, and anybody of any age is welcome to ask questions about it.’
Ramadan is also a time of giving to charity and looking to the needs of those less fortunate than yourself. Go through your wardrobes and collect clothes, household goods or electronics you no longer need or use. Take these items to one of the city’s charities, or better yet, offer them to the watchman who looks after your apartment building or villa compound, or to your cleaner. Encourage your children to go through their toys or clothes and make an offering.
Go to www.kiddyhouse.com/ramadan for fun activities you can do with your kids to learn more about Ramadan.