August 8, 2013
Ramadan unites. On the streets of old Dubai there are still many different ways and places for worshippers to experience the holy month. Some choose to break their fasts in the brightly lit five-star hotels and lavish Ramadan tents, while others prefer to immerse themselves in the busy streets and markets of Deira and Bur Dubai. The different paces of the month cannot be captured in a single photo. This collection of images photographed by Staff Photographer Sarah Dea shows the unique moments of Ramadan, be it the pause before sunset, the bustle of the vegetable market or a popular sweet stall selling freshly-made baklava.Photo Editor RJ Mickelson edited the Ramadan: New and Old series and then interviewed Sarah about the assignment and her overall experience.
How did the assignment materialize? Was this something you pitched?
The initial direction of the project was quite broad. I was assigned a few designated areas in Dubai to document and then it later transformed, with deputy photo editor Mark Asquith’s guidance, into a series that contrasted the old and the new in Dubai during the Holy Month. Trying to find different facets showcasing Ramadan in Dubai forced me to reacquaint myself with the city.
Were there any universal old-and-new Ramadan themes that you were able identify during the project?
I think the most prevalent theme I witnessed during my wanderings was a palpable feeling of togetherness and solidarity. Ramadan brings all manner of people together through a shared experience of fasting and celebrating faith.
With the UAE being a rather young country (41 years), was it a challenge to find things which looked antiquated or gave off a sense of cultural/religious history?
Surprisingly, finding historical-feeling locations wasn’t difficult once I wandered into certain parts of Dubai like Deira. As the sun would set each night, I felt swept into another time and place. It was fascinating hearing the call to prayer echo through the narrow alleyways and then witnessing the subsequent silence while thousands of men broke fast simultaneously.
Some of the scenes may get repetitive – was there anything you tried to do differently to mix up the edit?
I think as each day progressed, I gained more courage to approach and delve further into the people I was photographing. Sitting and chatting with the people I was photographing really helped them to open up and allowed me to show a different, more intimate side of their experience. In order to keep the scenes fresh, I really tried to brainstorm as many different aspects of Ramadan that I could think of: the preparation, the prayers, the fast breaking, shopping, decorations, togetherness, etc.
You seemed to be shooting a number of men during the project. Was it a challenge as a woman when approaching and shooting men in the UAE do during the Holy month of Ramadan?
It was difficult and uncomfortable at first to immerse myself in environments where I was the only woman. But I realized that the longer I spent at each location, the more I let myself be acknowledged by everyone around me, that their curious stares began to wane and they eventually returned to their natural states where I didn’t even exist anymore. I think the Holy Month made people more accepting and welcoming. For example, when I first started chatting with a group of fish mongers at the Deira Fish Market, they immediately invited me to sit and break fast with them. They gestured to the food laid out on the plastic tarp beneath them and said, matter-of-factly, “all men, same-same.” It was then that I felt the true spirit of Ramadan.
Was there anything that surprised you about the assignment?
I was surprised that the aforementioned group of fish mongers would offer to share everything they had with me even though they had been fasting and waiting all day. It was such a touching and memorable experience to be able to sit with them and join their small community for a few moments. It was also remarkable how alive the city became after dark. It was as though everyone would emerge from the woodwork once the sun would set. I remember leaving my first Suhoor around midnight and realizing that the dining room had filled to capacity. The room had transformed from a cavernous tent from the time I arrived, to a bustling, frenetic space, heavy with sweet shisha smoke and the languid, syrupy tones from a live instrumental Arabic band.
Did you fast? Were you able to participate in a traditional iftar?
I didn’t intentionally fast during Ramadan. However, it would sometimes happen inadvertently if I had a long day of shooting and couldn’t eat or drink due to being out in public for a number of consecutive hours. I definitely admire those who do it for the entire month of Ramadan.
Anything else you’d like to add about the experience?
This is only my second Ramadan spent in the UAE. Coming from Canada, I feel very privileged to be able to visually unearth the subtleties and nuances of the holy season each year.