Campus, cooking and community: Ramadan at NYU Abu Dhabi

Ramadan celebrations enriched the experience of visiting students at NYU Abu Dhabi, shifting their perceptions of the holy month.

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Students celebrate Ramadan at NYU Abu Dhabi. (Image courtesy of NYUAD Office of Global Education)

Stefan Mitikj, Contributing Writer

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — The Islamic holy month of Ramadan began in the United Arab Emirates on April 2 and ended on May 1. During Ramadan, Muslims who are able to fast from dawn to dusk are required to do so, underscoring a month of piety, generosity and blessings, central aspects of Islamic culture. I spoke with both Muslim and non-Muslim visiting students at NYU Abu Dhabi to reflect on their experiences celebrating Ramadan on campus, learn more about their relationship with the holiday and, most importantly, dig into which aspects of the month they found most meaningful. Our conversations centered around three topics: campus events, food and cooking, and community and personal insights.

On NYUAD campus events

Suhoor and iftar are the two meals that mark the start and end of a day’s fast. Suhoor is eaten a few hours before dawn, after which eating and drinking are forbidden, while iftar is eaten in the evening to break the fast. Several students said that iftar is particularly well-liked as a medium of community building.

“One event that I really enjoyed was the community iftar event on campus,” Tandon sophomore Nikita Pola said. “The students, professors and staff all ate together under the palm trees with beautiful lighting and great biryani and tea.” 

She said that the event encapsulated the essence of iftar: togetherness and community.

CAS junior Sumaiya Faruque agreed, noting that her Arabic professor hosted her classmates for iftar, serving home-cooked meals and teaching about Ramadan in the UAE. 

“It was beautiful to enjoy my meal and have insightful conversations with fellow Muslims and non-Muslims,” Faruque said. “It showed me the true heart and soul of NYUAD.”

She added that she appreciates being able to have suhoor at later-than-normal dining hall hours, like 2 a.m.

Other noteworthy campus events were the nighttime activities: outdoor suhoor, midnight board games at Manarat Al Saadiyat, campus-hosted prayers, and extended dining hall and gym hours.

Gallatin junior Laganeh Fade said that meeting fellow Muslim sisters through the Muslim Student Association and attending campus-hosted prayers have been central to her experience celebrating Ramadan on campus. She added that, compared to the United States, Muslim celebrations in the UAE take place on a much greater scale, considering the UAE’s Muslim population and status as an officially Muslim state.

On food

Food is at the center of every Ramadan celebration. Dates are a unique symbol of Ramadan — the iftar meal begins with three dates. Across campus, visiting students enjoyed traditional dishes like luqaimat, karak tea and samosas.

Pola listed dates, pakora, kheer, luqaimat, fattoush, chicken kebabs, samosas, Vimto and Arabic coffee as the traditional Ramadan foods she’s had so far. Being Indian American, she finds the large Indian influence on Ramadan foods particularly interesting. 

“The best part of the similarity is calling my mom and dad and telling them about the slight variations on the foods we eat at home,” Pola said. “One of my all time favorites is luqaimat.”

Her slight karak obsession aside, Farque highlighted cultural differences between the United States and UAE in regard to fasting.

“An interesting difference I have noticed here was the dilemma of ‘should a non-fasting person hide their food and drink from fasting people,’ which is so funny to me because everyone is super concerned about this, but I am so used to simply being the only person fasting in the U.S. and still literally attend lunch periods and dinner tables with non-fasting people,” Farque said.

On community building, personal insights and key learnings

A discussion of Ramadan celebrations for visiting students would be incomplete without examining how their perceptions of the holiday shifted, how their outlook on celebrations changed and how they experienced it differently outside the United States.

For Pola, the holiday was completely different from how she’d experienced it growing up.

“Back home, I’ve had a few friends who celebrated Ramadan, but never really knew anything beyond the surface-level fact that they were fasting,” Pola said. “Continuing to see the utmost devotion and willpower day in and day out through Ramadan of so many people at NYUAD has been truly inspiring.”

Tandon sophomore Elena Hume also noted a difference between experiencing Ramadan at home and at NYU Abu Dhabi.

“Since coming to NYUAD, I’ve learned a lot about Ramadan and how it is practiced in the UAE,” Hume said. “I had some friends back home who participated in fasting during Ramadan, but this was my first time being in a place where fasting is the cultural expectation.”

Other than the substantive shift that is experiencing Ramadan in a setting where fasting is far more of a norm, nightly prayer and activity is encouraged and the overall presence of holiday celebrations expand dramatically from their hometowns.

NYUAD visiting students said they had developed a much stronger sense of community while participating in Ramadan-related activities.

“I was expecting a lot of great things about Ramadan here at NYUAD, and so many people talked about how it’s definitely a great experience, and they were not wrong,” Fade said. “I thoroughly enjoy being surrounded by remembrances of this month and not feeling like one of the very very few people who are fasting.”

Fade said that good food and good people constitute her Ramadan experience at NYUAD. For visiting students, the month is an unforgettable highlight of their semesters.

“Ramadan means community for me,” Faruque said. “I have always spent Ramadan with my family and friends back at home, and this is the first time I am spending it apart from them. I was scared I would feel lonely, but I left one community to be welcomed by another here at NYUAD.”

Correction, May 6: A previous version of this article misquoted Laganeh Fade. The article has been updated to reflect the correction. WSN regrets the error.

Contact Stefan Mitikj at [email protected]