sarah walton

‘What I’ll Miss About Islam’: A Dubai Expat’s View

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I posted towards the end of last year regarding what expats might miss or not miss when they move to the UAE. There’s another post I need to do – what I would miss about the UAE were I to move back. One of the things I will miss most, when that day finally comes is Islam.

I’m not a Muslim. I doubt I ever will be. So why has it become a part of my life that I will miss?

Firstly there is the Adhan. A part of Islam we cannot see, but hear, if we are lucky, five times a day. At the right time of year, it both wakes me and sends me to sleep. It’s a fantasy call from the minaret of the nearest mosque, calling those who must to pray. The earliest is at first light, and eases me out of sleep before the shrill tone of my alarm does. I can hear two local Muezzins from my bed, both beautifully in tune, starting only seconds apart. I miss the daytime calls in the hubbub of day unless I am strolling around a sleepy mall where it echos through the marble corridors like a ghost retrieving the chosen. At night, I sway in my hammock, the children in bed, and wait for them to finish the day for me. An eerie serpentine song that reminds me every day that I live in the Middle East.

Secondly, it’s Ramadan. Some people hate it. All the cafes are closed during sunlight hours, and there are strict rules on eating in public, even for non-Muslims. But if you can put aside your own small sacrifice, you can watch an entire community of people committing to a task that is actually very, very hard. The dedication is remarkable, and although I have met those who are Muslim and yet also say “I’m not such a good Muslim”, most are vigilant.

Not only do they fast, but they donate like billionaire philanthropists. Waiters will receive a 100AED tip for a cup of coffee, people erect Iftar tents outside their homes and feed passing strangers at sundown, housewives have their drivers take them to labour camps to distribute food parcels. The town is adorned with coloured glass lamps, and although the days are quiet, the night explodes in vibrant hues and revellers. Random acts of kindness abound, and everyone joins in the Iftar feast, Muslim or not.

Thirdly, it’s the physical presence of the religion, and the beauty carried with it. How could you not love the architecture of a mosque? Each and every one is a fairytale. Yesterday I travelled to Abu Dhabi to photograph the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. I could list all its qualities, but you can read them for yourself on the links. Instead, just visit my gallery here, and see the beauty of the place.

It’s magical, regal, bold, delicate, brash, refined, symmetrical, contemporary and classic. It’s one of those places where a photographer will become rooted to the spot and use an entire memory card before taking a step and finding 100 more views to capture. Perhaps it does not have the whispers of history in its walls like Hagia Sophia, or the Alabaster Mosque, but it will, in time.

Islam can be a beautiful thing to observe, even if from the outside, particularly in a reasonably religiously tolerant place like Dubai. From the sounds of prayer to the design that is imprinted on UAE everyday life as well as its history, to the people – elegant, aloof, and yet giving and thoughtful. Like its artistic Arabesque, the religion flows through life with great finesse, decorating everything around it. And that, when I finally do leave, I will miss.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque can be found at the foot of the Maqtaa bridge, just out of downtown Abu Dhabi (map here). Signage is sparse, and you may have to drive around the entire block until you find the one open gate. There is plenty of free parking.

Admission is free, as is the loan of suitable dress for the mosque (abayas and headscarf are provided for women. Men are also asked to dress conservatively (no shorts or singlets). There is a little leeway with children.

You can join a tour at 10am, 11am or 5pm most days (not Friday mornings), and also 2pm and 8pm on the weekends (Fri/Sat), or you can simply stroll around on your own.


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