posted on Dec. 20: A letter from Sharjah to McMaster


It is now the (lunar) month of Ramadan in the year 1421. This is the number of years that have elapsed since Mohammed was forced to leave his home town of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia and make a 400 kilometre trek across the desert to Medina with his companions to establish his new religion.

Ramadan is the holy month for Muslims: no eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset, and a general increase in religious practice and awareness. In this country it is illegal for anyone, including foreigners, to eat, drink or smoke in a public place in the daylight hours, even in one's car.

The fasting gives a certain drama to the late afternoon, as the city holds its breath waiting for the magic moment. Many people are sleeping after a shortened day at work or school. Women are scarcely visible on the streets, presumably at home cooking elaborate Ramadan dishes. Men are doing last-minute food shopping, or hastening to get home before sunset. Children are often to be seen carrying the food their parents have prepared to share with their neighbours.

The daily breaking of the fast unites people in an ancient ritual. One of my colleagues, working late in the office, was invited to share iftar (the meal eaten after sunset) with the guards at the gate of the university campus, who had spread a large cloth covered with plates and glasses on the ground, like a ceremonial picnic.

After sunset feasting begins, the evening is spent in general relaxation and enjoyment – as well as prayers at the mosques – often extending into the wee small hours. Special fun-fairs have been set up in vacant lots around us. Directly in front of our apartment building there is a circuit marked out in the sand with piles of tires, around which people race in dune buggies. Buildings are festooned with chains of coloured lights. Tent cities of stalls and snack bars have sprung up. The crowded shops everywhere advertise Ramadan specials. At 10 each evening a spectacular fireworks display lights up the Sharjah lagoon.

For a westerner, the parallels with Christmas are particularly strong this year, since Ramadan will culminate in the feast of Eid Al Fitr at roughly the same time as Christmas. (The exact day will depend on the sighting of the moon somewhere in Saudi Arabia by the relevant religious authorities.) Similar to Christmas, also, are the occasional laments that the true significance of the season has been obscured by self-indulgence, materialism and commercialism.

From the example of my students I would guess that the effect of Ramadan on general productivity is significant. Classes are officially shortened so that the school day ends earlier. Attendance at class is way down, triggering automatic failure for students who hit the limit of 25 per cent of classes missed.

Even among those students actually attending class this week I saw several literally asleep at their desks: “Not wake him, teacher; he stay up all night in hostel playing.” But the prayer room along the hall has more pairs of sandals outside it than before, and most of the students in my mid-day class are late because they have been performing their dhuhur or noon prayers.

For a Canadian it is disconcerting at first to live in a country where one religion so completely permeates social and institutional lives, especially in an environment that in other respects resembles other modern cities. It comes as a jolt to hear the muzak at the huge Carrefour hypermarket pre-empted over the loudspeakers by the maghrib call to prayer. But it gives one an insight into what life was like in western cultures for centuries before the predominance of secularism in public life.

It seems to be generally agreed that teachers should steer well away from the dangerous waters of religion, sex and politics. But for obvious reasons, language teaching has a tendency to draw in any topics that are of interest to students. Certainly, when I encounter my students in the men's cafeteria and accept their invitations to sit down and eat with them, the conversation can go off at unpredictable angles.

We have had some lively if not balanced discussions about Palestine, which usually end in a heated debate between different students about, for instance, whether the Qur'an actually says that Israel will be destroyed 23 years from now.

The other day one of my lunch companions asked me whether western women who wore skimpy clothes were always willing to have sex. At least I think that's what he was asking – his English is poor. After dealing with this one as best I could, I asked him what he would look for in a girlfriend or wife, and whether it would matter if she had had a previous boyfriend. “Not just not touched by anyone else,” he replied. “Not even seen.”

Occasional glimpses like this continue to take me aback, even though one becomes accustomed to seeing women covering every inch of themselves except a narrow slit for the eyes. A colleague told me about adapting a popular English language textbook for use in boys-only schools in a neighbouring country and having to remake all the audiotapes to eliminate women's voices.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia have just warned that dialysis during Ramadan is a breach of the fast since, they claim, the blood is not just cleaned but has “nutritional elements” added to it.

It is easy, however, to seize on extreme views, and on the frequent stories of judicial floggings in the press, to create an unbalanced picture of daily life.

One of the McMaster team in the College of Health Sciences here at the university was asked by someone in her class of young women – who all seem to watch U.S. soap operas – whether any North Americans had happy marriages. After some thought, she countered: “Are all Arabs terrorists?”

Editor's note: David Palmer is an academic skills counsellor with the Centre for Student Development. He is currently on a one-year leave of absence from McMaster and is teaching at the University of Sharjah. His wife, Liz Rideout, a professor of nursing at McMaster, is also in Sharjah, where she has been seconded to serve as director of Sharjah's nursing program. This is Palmer's second letter to the McMaster community describing his experiences in the United Arab Emirates. In November, his first “letter home,” describing his teaching days at the University and the educational environment at Sharjah, was published in The McMaster Courier (Nov. 22).