Ramadan and Rosh Hashana in the New Middle East

By Lara Setrakian, ABC News Dubai

While Muslims around the world celebrated the holy month of Ramadan, Jews prepared for Rosh Hashanna. In one corner of Arabia, between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there was place for both.

I spent a Ramadan day with Ali Alsaloom, a young Emirati who represents both the modern and traditional in the fast-evolving Gulf Arab world. As a non-Muslim I was still welcomed into Ali’s holiday – hospitality and tolerance of others are especially emphasized during Ramadan. He explained that much about Ramadan hasn’t changed for 1,400 years. He fasts during daylight hours, no food or water from dawn to sunset. As he strives for his best spiritual self he prays, performs acts of charity, spends time with loved ones, and reconciles with anyone he’s fought with during the year past – all part of the spirit and tradition of Ramadan.

But, inevitably, with time comes change.

“Back in the day we wouldn’t know what time to break fast unless we heard a cannon boom or the call to prayer. Nowadays we get a text message,” Ali told me.

Modernity reigns. Local cell phone service providers offer SMS prayer alerts and sayings of the Prophet. Ramadan becomes prime time television season – ratings jump as families meet around the tube for seasonal soap operas. Ali’s favorite:  "Ayoun Alia," or “the Eyes of Alia,” is a Bedouin love story. Should he miss an episode he downloads the podcast. 

But, Ali insists, Abu Dhabi’s wealth and Dubai’s staggering growth haven’t messed with the fundamentals.

“It hasn’t changed us. We’re still the same people with the same values, practicing the holy month,” he said. “Whatever happens around, the decoration, is  OK . As long as we’re fasting from the morning to sunset.”

Just after seeing Ali’s Ramadan, not far from Ali.

Later that week, in Dubai, a Jewish expat celebrating Rosh Hashana, invited me to his holiday dinner, allowing me to write about it on condition that I change his name and identity. Adam has lived in Dubai for the past year. While he doesn’t advertise his identity, many of his Muslim friends know him to be a proud and practicing Jew.

“I think Dubai, because it’s so multicultural, is really comfortable,” he said. “I live here now.   It’s my home, and I want to celebrate my holiday with friends.”

Adam made Rosh Hashana an occasion to share his Jewish culture with Arab Muslim and Arab Christian friends. Striving for the authentic, he set a table with dishes of pomegranate, fish, apples and honey. An Arab friend helped recite a prayer in Hebrew. 

“I had a very special Rosh Hashana, one of the most special I’ve had,” he said.

“It was touching to have Arab and Muslim friends there. It gives me hope for this region.”

Adam and Ali are living out a different holiday than their parents ever imagined – more globalized, more digitized but equally devoted.

I often refer to the oil-rich Gulf states as the new Middle East, on account of their rapid construction and rising economic might. But Adam and Ali represent another vision of the new Middle East, made real by pockets of tolerance in a turbulent region.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

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