An Iraqi waiter serves customers breaking their fast with the traditional Iftar meal at a restaurant during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. (Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Ramadan Trends Blend Extravagance and Tradition

In Beirut, you can sign up for a celebrity cruse to celebrate the feast

Its mid-summer, but its Christmas in the Muslim world, with streamers and bright lights adorning every structure from Jerusalem’s ancient Damascus Gate to the world-class sky-scraper hotels of Beirut.

The trend this year is a conundrum: as lavish as can be, but healthy.

What was once a month of disciplined days of fasting and prayer followed by late-night family meals—the iftar– has become a public festival with varying degrees of strict observance.

Take the United Arab Emirates hub of Dubai.

The website exuberantly offers you no less than “89 Dubai iftars to work your way through this Ramadan.” That is quite a challenge for a 30-day festival during which, at most, you are permitted two light meals a night.

Even more interesting, the city-state has broken new ground with a decision to loosen rules prohibiting day-time alcohol sales during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Alcohol is prohibited for observant Muslims, but in more secular Arab states alcohol is served at bars and high-end establishments and in Egypt, where beer was invented, it can be found at almost every roadside stand. But during Ramadan even eateries that usually serve alcohol most commonly desist.

The Dubai decision reveals how much is leaders value the revenue both tourists and its hefty alcohol tax bring into the emirate.

Until this year, anyone desiring a beer or a glass of cool white wine had to wait until sundown, when Muslims break the daylong Ramadan fast with their first sips of water and a date. Dubaian bars in this city of bankers and international businesspeople played quiet music and concealed those imbibing drinks heavy curtains or tinted glass.

Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing told journalists that “ensuring a superlative visitor experience consistently is at the center of our destination proposition and remains in line with Dubai’s significance as a world-class tourism destination.”

In Beirut, the most European city in the Arab world, the website offers you a “Cruise with the stars for Ramadan,” leaving the names and identities of the actual celebs to your imagination.

“Sail with celebrity across Lebanon for 4 hours,” it offers, while enjoying “a Special Buffet for Iftar and a Thousand & One Night Atmosphere,” including Ramadan shows, dabkeh dancers, lute players, a photo booth, a henna artist, live Oriental music and “themed accessories.”

Available every evening at 7 pm, you can enjoy these diverse pleasures for a paltry $220 per cruise participant.

In Istanbul, it has become a Ramadan must to see and be seen. To that end, for example, the Ciragan Sarayi, an opulent 19th-century Ottoman palace now serving as a luxury hotel run by the Kempinski chain, turns its high-society wedding hall into an Ramadan-themed event space where corporations can host clients for the traditional post sun-down meal
One evening this month, over 700 guests of a discount supermarket chain sat at romantically candlelit tables as a band played traditional Turkish music and schools of waiters in crimson-colored tuxedo jackets transported trays of roast lamb.

“For a company to have iftar here is a kind of statement,” an Istanbuli businessman, who asked not to be named, told The Media Line. “People ask ‘where did you have your event?’ and they want it to be the best.”

In Cairo, go Lebanese. Yes, even proud Cairenes recognize that the best cuisine of the Levant is Lebanese. The top-notch chain of Ayadina Lebanese restaurants, that have four locales around the Egyptian capital, including some in which the food services is merely is a distraction form the nightclub, offer “all-inclusive Lebanese open buffet experience and mouth-watering sohour” (the pre-dawn meal) throughout the Holy Month. The cost is not Lebanese: you can enjoy a glittering all-you-can-eat middle of the night meal for only $28.

Ayadina’s oriental-modern themed restaurants were “designed to make our customers feel like they have stepped straight into Lebanon,” a hostess who picked up the phone and spoke with the Media Line reported.

“We’ve got the best Lebanese in town,” she said, all fresh, all very traditional, but you can get raw food or gluten-free if you want it.”

In Qatar, the trend leads you a little further away than Beirut. In fact, how about imagining yourself as far away as Ramadan-in-Mexico, where you can enjoy an Ifarrito?

Back by popular acclaim for a second year, the Qatari restaurant California Tortilla, which specializes in tex-mex cuisine, offers you an ‘Ifarrito’ exclusively available for Ramadan.

“The Iftarrito concept proved to be incredibly popular last year, with customers enjoying the delicious savory meals featuring California Tortilla’s signature Mexican meals throughout the month” the restaurant’s website announces. The Ifarito buffet includes a 12” tortilla and your choice of fillings including mesquite chicken, grilled steak, blackened fish, veggie mix, sour cream, shredded cheese, salsa, cooked rice, cooked beans, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, lemon slice, and topped with either olive oil vinaigrette, Caribbean mango or BBQ sauce.

This extravagance can be had for only $15.

In case you do not enjoy burritos, “you can also put the food on the plate and eat it with a spoon. The way you eat it is entirely up to you, Ramy Kabel, California Tortilla’s Business Development Coordinator told The Gulf Times. Also: “If you are an expert at creating a burrito yourself, fine. Otherwise, we have our staff always ready at hand. They can assist you in making your own burrito — all you need to do is to just ask them.”

Mo Tahhan, a Jerusalem restauranteur whose Sarwa Café is known for excellent vegetarian and vegan fare alongside succulent hamburgers, fine Palestinian brews and even finer French wines does not serve alcohol during the Holy Month.

In fact, he shuts down the establishment as sun sets during Ramadan. But he has good advice for his gourmet clientele hoping to keep healthy during a month that is, in fact, a parade of heavy meals. “It’s not hard,” he told The Media Line. “If you want to eat healthy, eat one date and one glass of water and drink soup and a glass of yoghurt. This is how it goes in Ramadan. If you eat the heavy foods, meat, chicken with fat, sauces– this is not healthy. The healthy Ramadan iftar is what I told you: one date, water, yogurt and soup. Eat very, very lightly.”

Does he know anyone able to keep to this discipline? “No,” he acknowledges,” actually, nobody.”


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