The fast and the curious: Non-Muslim expats in UAE try Ramadan

Curious members of the United Arab Emirates’ large non-Muslim expat community have decided to join in on Ramadan

Paul Crompton
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As Muslims worldwide mark the holy month of Ramadan, refraining from eating, drinking and smoking during daylight, curious members of the United Arab Emirates’ large non-Muslim expat community have decided to join in.

Every morning Sonja Neuber, a German expat, wakes up early for suhoor (a pre-dawn meal), consisting of dates soaked in soy milk, juice with wheat grass, coffee and toast, rounded off with a glass of water. After a small nap before heading to work, she is ready to start the day.


Neuber, who works in online marketing, said she decided to fast after falling in love with Arabic and Islamic culture.

“I decided to fast in Ramadan last year and started practising at winter solstice [Dec. 21], the shortest day in the year. From then on, I slowly added Mondays, and then Mondays and Thursdays, whenever it was somehow possible. That was with normal working hours, with people eating and drinking around me,” she said.

“From that point of view, Ramadan is much easier, only that now fasting is every single day for an entire month.”

Dale, a British student in Dubai, said he was encouraged to join in because he found Ramadan a “noble” occasion.

“I feel that the ability to surrender one’s food and drink for the day, every day for a month in order to truly understand how privileged one is, is a fantastic thing to do, irrespective of religion or beliefs,” he said.


He also enjoys what he terms the “general attitude of togetherness” as people break their fast together at sunset, in a meal known as iftar.

However, with sweltering UAE summer temperatures, and during the last few years some of the longest daylight hours during Ramadan for three decades, some occasionally struggle.

“When I was practising how to fast before Ramadan, I had one terrible day with the most amazing headache I can remember, and now I always think if I could make it through that day, I can make it through any day,” said Neuber.

Drew, an American engineer based in Abu Dhabi, tried to fast last year but soon ran into difficulty.

“At the beginning of the second week I began to start feeling really weak and light headed,” he said. At one point, after passing out, he decided it was in his “best interest” to start eating regularly again.

Managing energy

On getting through the day, Neuber said: “You really have to manage your energy carefully, and you are very mindful of your actions and the words that come out of your mouth.”

Most report that other people’s reactions when hearing of their decision to fast ranged from support to curiosity.

“My Muslim friends are very touched and encouraging, and they make sure I never have to spend an iftar on my own,” said Neuber, adding that others “don't mind and don’t comment about it.”

Drew recalled that his Muslim friends had “hinted that I should at least try it out. I had no reason not to, so I joined them in fasting… Others were surprised by it, but ultimately supportive.”

Dale said: “Most people have just asked ‘why?’”

To Neuber, fasting has taken on a deep meaning. “Now, fasting means much more than getting through the day to me. It gets you very focused and grounded as you’re so conscious of your mind and body, and it that sense it has a very spiritual element.”

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