From five storeys above the ground, I grip my laptop and watch an unfamiliar, sand-dusted city that has turned into a midmorning mirage. The shimmer of the desert has blended with the shimmer of the Arabian Sea in the distance. The traffic appears liquid, the palm trees sappy. A couple of poorly-dressed South Asian construction workers wade through steaming asphalt on oozy legs. On the other side of the road is a mosque with a flat dome and jagged minarets. I illogically lean forward in my air-conditioned soundproof office and listen for the call of the muezzin, hoping that piety will cure me of the overwhelming and untimely desire I feel. But all I hear are international office sounds. Tap-tap, ring-ring, clickety-click.
I stare woefully at my laptop screen and find it dissolving, succumbing to the mirage. Not good. It’s not only my first day in Sharjah, but also my first day in a prestigious project for a new client. I already know that the deadline is tight as curds. To get into the rhythm, I must have coffee. I recall the words of a veteran immigrant to the Emirates:
‘Have coffee, have a feast, by all means. Just don’t let an Emirati see you having it.’
So be it. I rise, button up my blazer and hunt for the pantry. I find it deserted, although the mess tells me that this world, too, is full of sinners like me. No time to waste. I rummage through the drawers for a cup and come up empty-handed. The animal in me considers making a cup out of my palm. Fortunately, a voice behind me says:
‘You’re probably looking for this.’ I turn and stare at a youngish man holding an array of Styrofoam cups and stirrers like it was a prize trophy. He shuts the door behind him and continues: ‘Cups are difficult to find. Especially during Ramadan.’
‘Yeah-yeah,’ I say, almost snatching a cup from his hands. In the next ten minutes, I slurp through a gallon of hot coffee. Having done that, I pop a mint into my mouth and exit the pantry. My face exudes serenity. My jaws don’t move – the mint must take care of itself.
Later in the evening, hours after the Moslems have left to break their fast, I leave the office and am greeted by a different Sharjah. The sand has settled. The heat has gone to bed. And the roads are packed with traffic and people – South Asian, Filipino, Caucasian and also the occasional kandoura-wearing Emirati. The air is singed with the aroma of fresh food. I head for the nearest shawarma stall and buy one from the Pakistani man running it.
‘Ramadan Kareem,’ we tell each other.
Underneath the open sky, in the reflected glare of blinding-white neon lights, I chomp hard into my shawarma and feel like a new person. Because if you’re in the Emirates during Ramadan, you will celebrate the breaking of the fast, no matter what your faith is.