• The Ramadan season is over. So what now for Muslim brands?

    This article was published at FT.com

    You’ve spent a huge chunk of your annual budget reminding your Muslim consumers that your brand exists. You’ve persuaded them to buy your products during the month of Ramadan and secured sales over Eid. You’re not alone. Your branding peers have been out doing the same.

    But now Ramadan is over and Eid is already fading to a distant memory. What do you do keep up the momentum? Do you sit around moping till next year? Do you reminisce about the spike in sales during the month of daylight fasting and the celebrations that follow?

    In the UAE consumption shot up by 30 per cent on the eve of Ramadan. Some $2.2bn was spent on advertising in Ramadan in 2010. Some companies use as much as 78 per cent of their advertising budgets during this time. But once Ramadan and Eid have passed – then what? Is the Muslim consumer to be forgotten? This is where deep insight is crucial, but where many brands fall down.

    It’s not all over – quite the opposite. According to the Pan Arab Research Centre: “Post-Ramadan there is more economic activity. The month instills new energy into the system.”

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  • Ramadan nostalgia – the aromas and tastes of childhood memories

    This was my weekly newspaper column from a couple of weeks ago.

    The air, just as the time to break the Ramadan fast draws near, feels different. It’s not just the sweet softness of dusk that means that you can almost taste it in your mouth like melting caramel, or the golden haze of the sun diffracted through the kitchen window that makes its scent linger like the smell of cookies browning in the oven. It is that the air at the time of iftar carries the fragrance and memories of childhood.

    If as an adult you can never find food that is as tasty as your mother’s cooking, then the food she cooked for iftar is a hyperbolic form of nostalgia evoking heightened senses.

    For me, it is the smell of roti, Indian unleavened bread, that triggers the nostalgia.

    image courtesy of wholefamily.com

    They were hand-kneaded from wholemeal flour and water, a task that I took over once my child’s hands were large enough to grasp the sticky ball, and strong enough to pummel it into a stretchy dough.

    I would help my mother roll it into perfect circles and then let it cook in an iron griddle for a few seconds on each side, flipping it backwards and forwards until it was cooked all the way through and evenly toasted on both sides. I would then cover it with butter, place it with the other rotis, and close the lid firmly on the tin so they stayed moist and soft until the time for iftar.

    Ramadan is not just about memory, it is about tradition and culture. And so while the rotis of my Indian extraction still make my mouth water, my East African heritage evokes Ramadan’s sense of reconnection to my roots.

    My favourite of these is the most deliciously named, and delicious tasting Makati Mamina. It is an East African sweet made of ground rice, coconut and yeast, and then gently cooked in a large deep frying pan until the coconut rice has set into a gooey crumbly sweet. To give it a golden kiss it is then grilled until brown on top.

    For me, that is the taste of Ramadan.

    I was reminded of this dish when I was sent an email of traditional Ramadan recipes from a friend of a background similar to mine.

    It was circulated among those of us who had shared childhoods drooling over the same iftar foods.

    I read through the recipes not just with my taste buds on fire, but with my rose-tinted spectacles pushed firmly back on the bridge of my nose remembering a more innocent and pleasurable Ramadan.

    There was no work, no childcare duties, no worries about the world to interfere with the pure task of fasting.

    The reason those rotis and that makate still taste so good is not just because nostalgia makes food taste better.

    It is because it reminds me of a time when I was more innocent. And innocence doesn’t just heighten taste – it heightens gratitude for what you have, through the sheer pleasure of having it, through the simple accomplishment of the task of fasting.

    As an adult that gratitude comes from another source: the result of understanding that we are fortunate for what we have when so many round the world, like those many thousands of people suffering from famine in East Africa, have not just little, but nothing.

    As an adult that means the goal of the fast has been achieved: it reminds us not just of the pleasure of food but the pain of others.

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  • Ramadan Blog Post Day 1 (belated)

    (This is a belated posting which I ought to have written up yesterday…)

    Every year I mean to write a Ramadan series  – something posted every day to track my progress, and share my thoughts. It is one of those tasks that as a writer I want to do to help me make sense of the month for myself, and to reflect on my feelings, experiences and actions. It is less about sharing lessons or morals, it’s not about sermonising, but about unravelling some mysteries along the way. And if it resonates with others out there, then so much the better.

    But of course (as life tends to be), I missed the boat. I wondered: should I not embark on the endeavour? It seemed already like a life lesson to be learnt. In previous years if I’ve missed the beginning, I wouldn’t have bothered.  This year, I’m trying a new tack: something better than nothing, better late than never.  It’s a day lost – but still (up to) 29 to go.

    So here are my first thoughts, and structure for the rest of the month.

    Qur’an count: first half juz.

    Ramadan thought for the day: ooh, I like Ramadan!

    Ramadan activities for today: try to call relatives to wish “Ramadan Mubarak.”

    I thought I’d also share this quote from Rumi: There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness. We are lutes. When the soundbox is filled, no music can come forth. When the brain and the belly burn from fasting, every moment a new song rises out of the fire. The mists clear, and a new vitality makes you spring up the steps before you. Be empty and cry as a reed instrument. Be empty and write secrets with a reed pen. When satiated by food and drink, an unsightly metal statue is seated where your spirit should be. When fasting, good habits gather like helpful friends. Fasting is Solomon’s ring. Don’t give in to illusion and lose your power. But even when will and control have been lost, they will return when you fast, like soldiers appearing out of the ground, or pennants flying in the breeze.

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  • The pious text message

    This was my weekly column published last week in The National, when Ramadan was ten days away…

    Ramadan is less than 10 days away, and it’s time to get in the mood.

    One of my favourite modern Ramadan traditions is the pious text message. Somebody somewhere (sometimes you don’t even know who) really wants to help you in your religious devotion. And will spend money on messages to ensure you do.

    I think the pious text message is fabulous – a bite-size treat of religiosity designed to perk up the believer.

    Are you in a boring work meeting? An unsolicited message will ping up to advise you never to despair of God’s mercy. At the cinema? A quick SMS from an unrecognised number will remind you of the latest fund-raising dinner. Just managed to fall asleep after a hard day? You’ll be glad you didn’t turn your phone to silent, otherwise you would have missed the fifth message that night reminding you how to distribute your zakat payments.

    This is a one-to-many activity. The rule of pious text message is that if the message you receive looks devout, it must be immediately forwarded to every Mulsim in your phone book. There’s no need to check the content for accuracy – it’s a pious text message!

    The first Ramadan messages start arriving now to let you know, should you need reminding, that Ramadan is soon upon us.

    Next up is the “has the moon been sighted?” frenzy. Messages go backwards and forwards, mostly contradicting each other about where, when, how and by whom the crescent moon that marks the start of Ramadan has or has not been seen.

    Your devotion is then encouraged with verses of the Quran, reminders of what to say when breaking the fast, tips on where to go in the evenings; mosques, of course, not restaurants. And the frenzy peaks as the final 10 nights of Ramadan approach when your phone turns into a vibrating gremlin with “Remember us in your prayers” messages.

    Finally, we reach the controversy on what day Eid should be celebrated and subsequent best wishes.

    Luckily, the pious text message is not just for Ramadan. Special religious occasions will induce a flurry of prayers. Catastrophes trigger messages requesting donations. And of course Friday, the day of “jum’a” has its own round of “Jum’a Mubarak” wishes coupled with sayings of the Prophet.

    What could be more wonderful than piety delivered direct to your phone?

    Well, it seems some are ruffled by the “jum’a mubarak” text message turning into a weekly activity by the faithful, akin to a religious duty. It’s unlikely in my view, as text messaging isn’t mentioned in the Quran or hadith, but nonetheless they’ve posed their question to scholars, some of whom are of the view that this could be an “innovation” and therefore not permitted by Islam. Their scholarly response to the Friday Pious Text Message is to ensure messages are sent on other days also.

    I do wonder who starts off the chains of messages. I’ve never created an original one, have you? But if you’d like to start a fresh line of distribution there are plenty of websites to give you ideas.

    Remember, your messages are not just for the greater good of the faithful. They help keep the telecoms companies in business, too.

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  • My Ramadan

    [Somewhat belatedly] Here is an article I wrote for The National’s magazine about ‘My Ramadan‘. It is part of a series of interviews with Muslims from 14 different parts of the world. It’s definitely worth having a look at for it’s breadth, and also some of the glorious pictures – from as diverse places as Pakistan, Rio de Janeiro, LA, East Jerusalem and the UAE amongst others.

    image courtesy masiowa.org

    My first memories of Ramadan are as a child during the long days of late summer in England. The fasts stretched from just after 2am, when the first light of dawn began to peep through the night sky, till 9pm when it finally set. This Ramadan will be the same.

    I was too young to fast then but old enough to know that something magical was happening in these 30 days. ‘Normal life’ came to a stop, and everyone was swept up in the excitement and focused on praying, reading the Quran and of course, food.

    Barely five years old, I’d be packed off to bed at eight in the evening so I’d be fresh for school the next day, and as a result I missed out on participating in the family ritual of iftar when it got dark. Then the family would break their fasts with dates.

    There was a prayer that they always recited as they bit into their first morsel: “Oh my Lord, it is for You that I fasted, and it is with your sustenance that I break my fast.” It was a reminder that whether eating or not eating, everything was from God and for God.

    The weekends were a different matter. We went to the mosque to break our fast with other families. Plates of dates and kettles of tea and coffee were served and then the congregation would rise together for the ritual evening prayer, Maghreb, before sharing a meal. It is this community spirit that is one of the great highlights of Ramadan. People fast together, pray together and eat together.

    By the time I was old enough to fast, Ramadan fell earlier in the summer, since the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar year which is 10 or 11 days shorter than the solar year. By now it was June, the longest and probably hottest days of the UK calendar. But I thought nothing of it. I went to school and took part in athletics classes in the midday sun, running in the heat without water.

    The rules for fasting in Ramadan are laid out in the Quran. I often reflect that, with today’s body-obsessed society, spending 30 days focusing on the inner rather than the outer doesn’t seem such a bad idea. It’s my morning coffee I miss most but if Ramadan proves anything it’s that addictions can be broken. I find the first few days difficult as the body adjusts. I start to realise how many hours of the day are dedicated to preparing, consuming and tidying up after meals. I also realise how much of my day is filled with frivolities. I feel liberated, as life becomes unexpectedly more productive, resulting in more time for contemplation, spiritual reflection, and even the odd nap. In fact, each breath of the person who fasts is considered worship, awake or asleep.

    One of the great cultural traditions of Ramadan is the big evening feast, with special foods. But I feel it is better to stick closely to the usual meal patterns, with just the odd treat here or there. After all, one of the philosophies of Ramadan includes empathising with those who have less than us. That’s just not possible if you are eating more than usual, with special treats. Strangely, some people put on weight during Ramadan.

    The hardest part of fasting, is “fasting of the tongue”. No more harsh words, anger, gossip. It’s easier said than done, especially when you haven’t eaten all day. I write the words “Be Nice” on my hand to remind me.

    The first day after Ramadan is the festival of Eid. Even though I am filled with excitement and achievement there is a tinge of sadness as the month of Ramadan is over.

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  • Has Ramadan become just another brand to be exploited?

    This article was published yesterday in The National in the UAE.

    This weekend, like many millions of Muslims around the world, I will be making my preparations for the Islamic month of Ramadan. The month’s ethos is one of spirituality, centring around 30 days of fasting from dawn to dusk, during which time eating and drinking is prohibited.

    Food does, however, remain important throughout the month, and iftar, the meal that breaks the fast at the end of the day, is a time for thankfulness, togetherness and sharing.

    The natural result is that preparations include shopping for food to stock up cupboards in anticipation of delicious meals shared with friends and family.

    And so it is evident that even while trying to navigate the frugality of Ramadan, that Muslims, too, are consumers – people who hand over money in exchange for goods that meet their needs.

    I’m an advocate of the needs of Muslim shoppers being given as much attention and care as any other consumer. After all, Muslims need to buy products – including food. And their specific needs and aspirations are just as important as those of any other consumer. And the money of Muslim shoppers is just as good as any other money.

    When it comes specifically to Ramadan, the commercial world has been quick to make money out of a seemingly untapped commercial opportunity. Already, TV soaps, produced to last the exact 30 days of Ramadan, are extremely popular and lucrative. And Eid has become an increasingly commercialised celebration, starting to head towards the same kind of gift-oriented festival that Christmas has become.

    Even in Britain, one of the demographic segments that Tesco’s “World Foods” product line specifically targets is Muslims. In catchment areas with a sizeable Muslim population their stores carry well-laden “Ramadan” aisles. Is this is a helpful service by Tesco, being sensitive to the needs of its Muslim consumers and finally recognising their commercial worth, or is Tesco, like many companies and traders round the world, guilty of the commercial exploitation of the month of spirituality?

    Has Ramadan become the ultimate brand to be exploited? And will companies do anything to get a share of this lucrative market?

    Roy Michel Haddad is the chairman and chief executive of the Middle East and North Africa region for JWT, a global advertising agency. He is clear in his mind that Muslim consumers are just as varied in their needs and aspirations as any other consumer. They just happen to be Muslim. In fact, in his opinion, “There is no Muslim consumer, just a consumer who we have to respond to his wants, needs and desires.” He adds that anyone who looks at Muslims as a commercial opportunity must be wary of assumptions that Muslims can be blanket grouped together.

    In Haddad’s mind, however, there is one clear exception where all the vast diversity of Muslim consumers becomes unified – Ramadan. In fact, he asks provocatively, “Does the Muslim consumer exist beyond Ramadan?” And it’s true that Ramadan is exceptionally unifying throughout a diverse Muslim world. There is a cohesiveness of purpose, timing, and behaviour, which rarely exists at any other time.

    You might be cynical and argue that using Tesco as an example of a company that sees Ramadan as a commercial opportunity is not relevant because it is a brand that is not Muslim, and therefore doesn’t understand the communal and devotional spirit of Ramadan. Your cynicism might lead you to state that while such big brands as Tesco couch their products in the cuddly marketing language of “meeting customer needs” and “being sensitive to cultures and aspirations”, at the end of the day they are just interested in growing their bottom line.

    But what about those companies around the Muslim world that appear to be acting in far more exploitative ways?

    Holy Ramadan, Batman! It's the deal of a lifetime!

    Earlier in July, Al-Riyadh, the Arabic newspaper, reported that two trading companies in Saudi Arabia had amassed stockpiles of key food stuffs. According to Khaled Al-Homaidan, an economic consultant, the aim was to “hoard essential commodities [and, thus] create an artificial price rise in the Saudi market in the coming weeks prior to Ramadan.”

    In Karachi, the prices of sugar, pulses, red chilli, and ghee have climbed ahead of a meeting between the government and wholesalers to fix rates for the month of Ramadan.

    Despite the fact that Qatar has ordered fixed prices for the second year running during Ramadan across 156 food and non-food items, the Peninsula newspaper reports that people fear that retailers may increase the rates of other commodities to make profits. In addition, they are concerned that prices will rise gradually before Ramadan to ensure that the frozen price is already high.

    In Bangladesh, the commerce minister has asked MPs to keep a watchful eye on profiteering during Ramadan by monitoring how goods are distributed from the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh to local dealers. But the risk is that this simply gives politicians the power to decide which dealers gain access to stocks, which, of course, is not without its dangers of corruption.

    In the UAE, the Ministry of Economy is warning that it is consumers themselves who must be vigilant against price manipulation and hoarding. This is despite the fact that it has warned suppliers they will face legal action if the price of basic food items is raised.

    That shoppers need to exert their commercial power is a constant theme across countries where companies and brands seem to be taking a profit-oriented approach to Ramadan.

    According to Al-Homaidan, the customer can play a decisive role in combating greedy traders. “Consumers should be more selective and should boycott products whose prices have increased exorbitantly,” he said, adding that they must increase their vigilance in order to protect their rights and be careful not to become victims of such exploitation.

    And people power is important in upholding the spirit of Ramadan. When the Malaysian tourism minister announced “the first ever Ramadan Summer Festival featuring food, shopping and other fun-filled activities” to attract Middle Eastern tourists, the Consumers’ Association of Penang was “outraged”, adding that Ramadan “is not a tourist product but a sacred month of spiritual enrichment”. They called on the tourism ministry “not to worship tourist dollars”.

    There is certainly a line to be drawn between companies and brands truly serving the needs of Muslim consumers, and those that are out to exploit them. And this is a line that Muslim consumers themselves must patrol.

    Defeating commercial exploitation is about using the weapons that hurt commercial entities the most – by hitting their bottom line, by holding them to public account and by threatening the reputations on which their brands are built.

    Only if Muslim consumers truly believe in the spiritual values of Ramadan and work hard to uphold them for at least this one month of the year, will such abuse come to an end. Otherwise Ramadan will become victim to the very exploitation and material obsession that it sets out to eradicate.

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  • Taking some quiet time for the rest of Ramadan

    Dear readers, I think it’s time to invest in creating some tranquility and repose. As many of you will know, we’ve now reached the last ten days of Ramadan, and I feel the need to wind down some of the many activities I’m involved in. That means the blog is on holiday for a couple of weeks. Please carry on reading, but if you post comments, they may not be moderated, or responded to (this includes comments you may already have posted which are un-published as yet). If you need to contact me please do so, but it may take a little while to respond. If it’s urgent, please mark it as such and I’ll get back to you.

    It’s a strange feeling to “withdraw” (even though I’m not doing it fully), and in a way slightly scary – after all, what if I “miss out” on some big opportunities? What about ‘profile’? Will people lose interest? What about keeping up momentum and being fully engaged?

    These are some of the fears which plague us, particularly in our busy modern world. But when we contribute to create the rapid pace (is it really as rapid as we think, or do we like to pretend we are at the centre of the whirlwind and oh-so-in-demand), is the result that we simply get trampled by it?
    When everything I do is facing outwards, what is left to nurture what is within and keep the energy overflowing from inside to out? That’s why I’ll be spending the next two weeks in a quieter, more introspective way. I wonder what will be on the other side.

    Image from The Joy of Tech

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  • Culture of extravagance is robbing Ramadan of its significance

    This article was published recently in The National, which is based in Abu Dhabi, and aims at a Gulf and Middle Eastern market.

    The Muslim world goes topsy-turvy in Ramadan. Eating, sleeping and socialising routines are turned back to front – the first meal is eaten as the sun sets. The initial morsel of food into our mouths will usually be a sweet, succulent date, according to the Islamic tradition. But are the hours that follow really that religious?

    Contemporary changes to the Ramadan culture mean that the spiritual significance of Ramadan is slowly being lost. Abstaining from physical intake during daylight hours – which means food, drink, and sex – with the intention of getting closer to the Divine, has a myriad of philosophies and meanings.
    It allows appreciation of the suffering of the poor and hungry, a chance to devote less time to the physical and more time to the spiritual, a recognition that we can live happily and successfully with less than we have.Come nightfall, these good intentions are put to one side, as though Ramadan is for daylight hours only, and the revelling begins.

    Mothers cook sumptuous meals for their families. The food is indulgently calorific to the point that many Muslims say they actually gain weight rather than lose it as one might expect. The philosophy of restraint and frugality adhered to during the day has its mirror image in the excessive culinary indulgence after dark.
    One of the religious traditions of Ramadan is to feed others at the time of iftar in order to gain reward. Dinner invitations thus abound, and these iftar gatherings are warm social events. But in many places they turn into arenas for showmanship, outdoing friends and family with ever extravagant menus. “People will announce at the end of the meal how much it cost,” said one Egyptian woman to emphasise the one-upmanship that dominates what should be an occasion of sharing and community.

    Once the iftar is over, there is a wide choice of entertainment. Those who are extrovert will find their way to newly erected Ramadan tents, to smoke shisha and chill out with friends for the whole night, going from party to party until dawn. Other families will stay at home to watch the multitude of soap operas which dominate Ramadan. In Saudi Arabia last year it was claimed that there were 64 such soap operas broadcast each night, staggered over time so audiences could watch as many as possible.
    This is not a comment on the values or quality of the soaps, or the claims by some clerics that they are “debauched”. It is simply an observation that these soap operas prey on the communal feeling that is generated in Ramadan and profit from it. The audience is understandably drawn towards the high level of entertainment but inadvertently becomes distracted from the sweet pleasures of contemplation and social intercourse of Ramadan.
    And let’s not forget the shopping. Shops are open later than ever, and it seems that Ramadan is not a time of midnight contemplation, but rather just a prelude to Eid, a day to show off your new clothes. Ramadan shopping festivals are becoming more common, as is the compulsion to purchase and give Eid presents to a wide circle of acquaintances.

    Instead of cutting back on the desire to consume, we end up with heightened consumption in these 30 days, whether that be in restaurants or in retail.

    This is not to say that the Muslim world has become a month-long consumerist orgy – far from it. The social and spiritual temperature of Muslim communities is high and mosques teem with passionate worshippers.What may surprise many who live in majority Muslim countries is that this sense of community and faith is particularly acute in countries where Muslims are minorities.

    In these countries, if you are fasting you have to make an active choice to go against the grain of mainstream society. You still have to go to work where you can stare longingly at your colleagues drinking coffee, or attend meetings which run across the iftar time. You have to really know and understand why you are fasting, rather than just being swept up in the maelstrom. There is a sense of community purpose in these countries and an overwhelming push towards spiritual success.
    The energy is so focused that I have known Muslims who come to Britain leaving Muslim countries behind in order to have a more spiritually profitable month.

    As Ramadan’s religious significance is slowly eclipsed by its commercial and cultural status, then it is voided of its meaning, and ultimately of its importance. That is exactly what happened in 1960 when the president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, wanted to cancel Ramadan. He felt that although Ramadan was a “beautiful custom”, it “paralysed our society”.
    He appeared on national television with his cabinet eating during the day and tried to get senior Muslim clerics to issue fatwas to say that it was permissible not to fast. Of course, this did not happen, but it is a salutary tale of how, when religious occasion turns into culture, it becomes vulnerable to elimination.

    There are some who will say I am being a killjoy and too pious. Others will say that if mothers want to spoil their families with delicious food after working hard on their fasts all day, then that is their right. There are those who will say that spending the night chatting away in shisha bars or comparing notes on soap operas, increases the sense of community and social cohesion.
    These outcomes are all good things – part of the magic of Ramadan, no doubt. And of course there is no compulsion in how you spend Ramadan. You do not have to sit on a prayer mat all hours of the day. But I do see a worrying trend when you piece each of these actions together. Each one may be justifiable because everyone has choice, but if you step back, you start to see that the meaning and context of Ramadan is slowly being lost.
    If we accept these justifications then we must be wary of opening ourselves to the charge of hypocrisy.

    Ramadan and Eid are not the only occasions to have suffered this slow and insidious dilution of meaning and impact. Practising Christians in the western world complain that Christmas has been sucked dry of its religious meaning. Other festivals, too, have lost their meaning. Easter was about rebirth and renewal, but now focuses on chocolate eggs and cute bunnies. And Lent, which was a 40-day period of frugality and restraint – almost akin to Ramadan itself in its ethos – has been distilled down to Mardi Gras, pancakes and gaudy carnivals.

    Some people will bristle at the comparison of the way that Christmas has been usurped by consumerism with the contemporary experience of Ramadan. But the similarities are striking as the evidence above shows.You do not have to be religious to appreciate that the social and ethical meaning of festivals such as Christmas, Ramadan and Eid have a great deal to contribute to the morality of human society.

    For this reason, Muslims add their voices to these complaints, as part of the faith communities who share a concern about the sapping of meaning and moral compass from these occasions. However, it often turns into pointing fingers at the West for becoming “godless” or “decadent” due to the excessive commercialisation, while turning a blind eye to the same challenges in the Muslim world.

    Is this a case of pot calling the kettle black?

    Ramadan does not have to be, and should not be, sober pious asceticism. Of course not. Enjoyment, sharing and happiness in our togetherness are critical components of Ramadan. But Ramadan should be about more than gluttony, shopping and vacuous entertainment.

    We do in fact need to recognise and acknowledge the place of Ramadan’s material pleasures. By being honest about the importance of the physical, we can de-prioritise it in favour of the spiritual and moral at least for the 30 days of Ramadan.

    This de-prioritisation is what makes Ramadan special in the first place. By withholding the importance of the physical self, Ramadan is about recognising the importance of our individual spirit, and about finding our place as souls, not bodies, in the society in which we live.
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