Comment: Celebrating Ramadan during COVID-19
Monther Darwish talks about balancing safety and tradition during the holy month
As Muslims around the world mark the beginning of Ramadan, it is time for all the Arab world to rethink the Islamic tradition of hospitality and generosity.
Besides its spiritual obligations, Ramadan has always had a big social function. Muslims fast from dawn to sunset and always meet to break the bread together. Sharing iftar and being together is, of course, a tradition that nourishes every Muslim spiritually.
But it is time to talk safety over traditions. We are all learning new ways of doing things, as individuals, as businesses, as nations.
For the first time in our collective memory, this year’s Ramadan is different. Mosques are closed. Luxurious iftar buffets in 5-star hotels are not available. The big Ramadan tents will not be open. No big gathering is accepted anywhere, in a restaurant or the cosiness of a home. During this pandemic, the iftar is going to happen in home kitchens or two metres away from each other, in the few restaurants that are open.
Hotels and F&B outlets will see declines in patronage during this month. For us, business people in the hospitality industry in the Gulf, Ramadan was our last big stream of revenue before the debut of the summer season. We plan everything well in advance, we invest hours and hours in meetings to discuss the balance between costs and selling price, we adjust menus, we check on competitors, we reach out to corporate partners, we plan set-ups and go through plans and tens of excel sheets, we have entertainment auditions and revenue meetings to forecast numbers. It is an unmeasurable effort across all the teams to build something successful.
And we all felt a sudden wind of anxiety coming at the end of March. First, we were instructed to have hand sanitisers at all touchpoints within the restaurants. A safety distancing measure was put in place too. The next day, all buffets restaurants were closed and ended a few days later with no F&B outlet allowed to open. It is a lot to handle for a hospitality operator, especially when you have no idea when it will be over. To be ready to kick-off everything in record time, we kept on working. There is no “standby” mode in our business, we all have been aligned at the start line ever since, ready to welcome guests with all the safety measures in place. And we opened again on the first day of Ramadan, ready to embrace a new era of hospitality – the one that welcomes guests with masks and gloves. Underneath all these there are always the team’s smile and their warm shake of hand. And we were not surprised when our regular guests walked in for iftar. It is a sign that people started to believe things can go back to normal if we are all responsible.
Nevertheless, the hospitality business is still a muted affair, woken up a bit now – a month later - from its deep sleep with a more relaxed lockdown. No matter how different this Ramadan will be, this unprecedented situation will be another lesson of tolerance and acceptance. It is in our culture to be hospitable and generous, and these can be practised safely and responsibly too in times of COVID-19.
About the author
An Emirati entrepreneur, Monther Darwish, started his career early in 2000s. His portfolio of businesses spans over several sectors and industries, from hospitality to real estate, tourism, general trading and interior design. He has been associated with Palazzo Versace Dubai since 2013 and the managing director of the property since 2017. As vice-chairman of ENSHAA PSC, Darwish is responsible for expanding the company’s portfolio of businesses in the United Arab Emirates.