Dubai: When British expat Alexander Gabriel, who has embraced Islam, found out he couldn’t fast, the news came as “a major blow” to him. The 32-year-old Dubai school teacher has epilepsy. He had a seizure, triggered by dehydration, when he first tried to fast in Ramadan as a new Muslim in 2014, when he was teaching in Egypt.
“During my first Ramadan, I discovered that I could not take part in the fasting due to my having epilepsy; I had a seizure part-way through and was told that dehydration was one of my triggers. This was a major blow to me as a convert — to not take part in one of the five pillars of Islam,” said Gabriel, who teaches Year 4 students at GEMS Wellington Academy — Silicon Oasis, Dubai.
But Gabriel saw his predicament as an opportunity to turn his focus on the various spiritual aspects of Ramadan — such as kindness to others. “Luckily, my shaikh [Islamic scholar] at the time explained to me that Ramadan is not simply about fasting; there is a much greater depth that should be brought to the surface.”
‘Amplify the other pillars’
For Gabriel and his family here — wife Hannah, daughter Luna and son Roman — Ramadan is “a constantly developing event” in the household. “Due to my epilepsy, I am unable to fast, so it is important that we observe this wonderful month in more depth. We try to amplify the other pillars where possible and teach our two children the values of being good people,” he said.
Giving to others
Luna has just turned four years old and her parents are planning to reinforce what they have always taught her — the importance of charity and how to care for others. “Since she was two, Luna has always helped us with charity. We try to do what we can for the local community, regardless of where we are living, and at such a young age, Luna understands the importance of what she is doing. She helped us to give food to the taxi drivers in Bangkok, to construction workers in Doha and to security guards here in Dubai,” added Gabriel, who is from Southend-On-Sea, Essex, which is in the south of England. He pointed out that she cannot do this directly herself this year because of social distancing requirements currently in place.
But Luna also has a Ramadan Calendar, which Gabriel created together with his wife. Each day, he explained, there is a different message or request to try and further strengthen the meaning of the month. They may be small steps, such as being kind to her younger brother, or larger activities, such as helping to create food packages that the family can give to others. “When our son, Roman, is old enough, we will be encouraging him to take part too and we hope that Luna will already have enough knowledge to support him.”
‘I’m incredibly grateful’
Gabriel said living with epilepsy has given him a spiritual outlook towards life. “In a way, even though epilepsy isn’t the greatest mental illness to have, I am incredibly grateful for the life view and desire for religious understanding that it has given me, which I hope our children will adopt as they grow,” he added.
Time for reflection
This is his second Ramadan in Dubai — combining his favourite time of the year with his favourite place to live with his family. “You will never find a greater sense of calm than a predominately Muslim country during Ramadan — that is a huge love of mine. The general mentality is one of reflection and peace. It is obvious that people are thinking about who they are, what they have and what their place is within the world. Kindness is amplified — it is like we set a subconscious target for the year ahead of us,” Gabriel said.
“The appreciation of community and family goes through the roof too. People will gather for iftar [the meal to end the fast] with their friends and family — even strangers get together! Of course, with the current social distancing requirements, this cannot be the case this year, but my love of these aspects is still there. The popularity of Zoom and its ability to connect us to others is something that I am very grateful for.”
Window into faith
Gabriel said Ramadan is also a chance for people of other faiths to dwell deeper into the aims of the holy month. “If you are not Muslim, I would encourage you to learn more about the month of Ramadan and all the good that it brings. The fasting is incredibly important, but that is just one layer to something that is much deeper, with the possibility to really make a positive impact to the world around us,” he said.
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Gabriel is “a huge fan” of American Football and had played for years back in the United Kingdom on the Essex Spartans and London Olympians teams. He also has a strong passion for Judo, Muay Thai and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). “Once COVID subsides, I am hoping to practise and compete in all of these again. Outside of sports, I love art and music, which are two things that I try to incorporate into my teaching at WSO. When my children are older, I can’t wait to teach them some drawing techniques, like my late mother taught me.”
Did you know?
According to UAE’s General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, if someone cannot fast during Ramadan, they can pay ‘fidya’ or ‘compensation’ of each missed fast, which can be paid the same day or can wait till the last day of Ramadan to pay altogether for all the missed days of fasting. However, if a person is unable to fast due to medical reasons, he or she is not obliged to pay fidya. The fidya is a donation of around Dh10 per day of missed fasting to feed someone who is underprivileged.