The UAE’s first open Hanukkah

For Jews, the message behind Hanukkah is to spread light over darkness. (AFP)
For Jews, the message behind Hanukkah is to spread light over darkness. (AFP)
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Updated 24 December 2020

The UAE’s first open Hanukkah

The UAE’s first open Hanukkah
  • Jews and many visiting Israelis celebrated the Festival of Lights in the Gulf nation following the Abraham Accords
  • Traditionally, it is celebrated by the lighting of the menorah, eating traditional foods, playing games and giving gifts

DUBAI: On Dec. 11, the second day of Hanukkah — the Jewish holiday also known as the Festival of Lights or Miracles — Dubai’s iconic Burj Khalifa lit up to mark the celebration of the first night of Hanukkah in the UAE, and the first time the holiday is being celebrated openly in the country since the signing of the historic Abraham Accords with Israel. Events were celebrated all over Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

For Jews, the message behind Hanukkah is to spread light over darkness, and in many ways the normalization of ties between the UAE and Israel ends decades of metaphorical and figurative cultural and economic darkness between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors.

Hanukkah commemorates the recovery of Jerusalem and subsequent rededication of the Second Temple at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire during the 2nd century BC.

Traditionally, it is celebrated by the lighting of the menorah, eating traditional foods, playing games and giving gifts.

This is not the first year that Hanukkah is being celebrated in the UAE. Rather, it is the first time it is being acknowledged and feted openly, and with the broader UAE public.

“I have wonderful memories of lighting the Hanukkah menorah in the desert,” said Ross Kriel, the current and first president of the Jewish Council of the Emirates.

“This gave us privacy but still allowed for a communal lighting. Many of us slept in the desert, and in the morning a caravan of camels might pass behind the menorah,” added Kriel, an Oxford-educated lawyer practicing in Dubai and originally from South Africa.

“We often felt that our exotic Hanukkah experience was a perfect expression of the idea of Hanukkah — that Jewish identity prevails through the simple devotion of Jews kindling lights wherever they may be. This miracle occurred in the UAE over many years going back to 2010.”

This year, says Kriel, the Jewish Council of the Emirates held its event in the heart of Dubai at a smart hotel on the Palm Jumeirah.

“We received expressions of support from Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency, and there were dignitaries and Israeli academics including the director of the Moshe Dayan Center, Prof. Uzi Rabi,” Kriel told Arab News.

“Our new Senior Rabbi Abadie, who is Lebanese-born, led the service, and we called on one of our dear Emirati friends to light one of the candles. In this moment, we felt a deep sense of ease and naturalness in being ‘public’ as a Jewish community,” he added.

“Dubai and the UAE have an extraordinary capacity to assimilate and lead change through the broad vision of its founders. Dubai is a city of lights in all senses.”

Elli Kriel, founder of Elli’s Kosher Kitchen — which now supplies numerous hotels and restaurants in the UAE with kosher food, and is planning to open a kosher restaurant — said this year, Hanukkah is particularly special as Jews in Dubai can celebrate the holiday publicly.

“We always celebrated Hanukkah in a quiet and modest way in the UAE, not knowing how public we could be about our identity and traditions,” Elli told Arab News.

“But now, post-normalization, everything is completely different and we got to celebrate Hanukkah publicly this year.”

Elli explained how Jews in Dubai were able to eat kosher meals at restaurants in the UAE and light candles in public.

“We welcomed Israelis and many other Jewish guests, and I felt very much at ease and comfortable to be following our traditions in the UAE,” she said.

“There’s been so much excitement. The Israelis I’ve met with were over the moon to be here. It’s been overwhelming,” she added.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of excitement and a very high level of emotion for months around this. Sometimes I have to pinch myself because at the beginning of the year we had no idea that the normalization deal would take place.”

There have been noticeable changes in the UAE since the Gulf nation’s normalization with Israel was announced in August and officially signed on Sept. 15 in Washington DC.

Hebrew can be heard in shopping malls, restaurants, on beaches and in Dubai’s many luxury hotels.

The Times of Israel newspaper recently reported that more than 70,000 Israelis have already visited the UAE since the peace treaty was signed.

A particularly large number of Israelis was seen during the Hanukkah period, many of whom traveled to the UAE to celebrate their festivities there.

“It might sound cliché, but what’s happening in the UAE is like Hanukkah, a moment of miracles of light,” said Ruth Wasserman Lande, founder and executive director of Ruth Strategic Consultancy, and former senior advisor to the late Israeli President Shimon Peres.

“There’s something really beautiful about what’s happening in the UAE. It’s an enlightening, a breaking down of barriers and walls so that people — Arabs and Jews — can get to know each other,” added Lande, who visited Dubai for the first time during Gitex Technology Week at the beginning of December.

“That’s what has come out of the Abraham Accords … It was so wonderful to be greeted at the airport as Israeli, and to see that the Emiratis weren’t ashamed or embarrassed to have us here.”


Amid crippling sanctions, Iran traders seek lifeline in Iraq

Amid crippling sanctions, Iran traders seek lifeline in Iraq
Updated 4 min 5 sec ago

Amid crippling sanctions, Iran traders seek lifeline in Iraq

Amid crippling sanctions, Iran traders seek lifeline in Iraq
  • 24 businesses from 15 Iranian cities set shop away from country’s economy hit by crippling sanctions

DOHUK, Iraq: Piles of plush carpets line the floors of a northern Iraq shopping center hosting traders from neighboring Iran who hope the spangle of their ornate handicrafts might offer a lifeline out of poverty.
In their own country, the economy is in tatters amid crippling US sanctions.
“Our money is so devalued, so when we come to this side — apart from the cultural exchange that we share — from a financial perspective it’s more profitable for us,” said Iranian Ramiyar Parwiz, the organizer of the exhibition who is originally from Sanandaj. “The money we receive … whether in dollars or dinars has a higher value on our side and it’s worth a lot.”
At least 24 businesses from 15 Iranian cities set up shop this week in the city of Dohuk in the Kurdish-run northern region of Iraq. From Sanandaj to Bijar, they brought luxurious carpets. From Isfahan, Yazd and Hamadan, precious gems, copper and pottery.
Iran is among Iraq’s largest trading partners and this cooperation has deepened since 2018 amid the Trump administration’s maximalist policy on Iran that has seen the US pull out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and levy punishing sanctions on the country.
Tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims visit sites in Najaf and Karbala every year, boosting Iraq’s fledgling tourism sector. Over 100 trucks ferry construction materials, food, medicine and appliances into Iraq every day.
The dependence on Iraqi markets has only deepened as economic conditions worsen in Iran. US sanctions bar American companies and foreign firms from dealing with Iran affecting Iran’s energy, shipping and financial sectors, causing foreign investment to dry up.

HIGHLIGHT

This is the first year the traders have ventured to Dohuk, which shares closer economic ties to neighboring Turkey, in hopes of enticing new customers and creating greater demand for Iranian goods.

Oil exports have been hardest hit and Iran’s economy contracted with dreary forecasts for the future. Unemployment rose and rural populations were disproportionately affected.
The exhibition of Iranian businesses is typically held every year in the city of Sulimaniyah, which borders Iran. This is the first year the traders have ventured to Dohuk, which shares closer economic ties to neighboring Turkey, in hopes of enticing new customers and creating greater demand for Iranian goods.
Parwiz said the Dohuk venture was the result of desperation.
“There is huge pressure on people (in Iran), and the cost of living is unimaginably high,” he said. “We can’t afford to buy anything, we cannot even afford to buy medicine.”
For Iranian businessmen experiencing difficult times, Iraq has always offered hope for respite.
Hajji Tousi, a businessman from Mashhad, sells his fine carpets at a lower price than local Iraqi traders. He knows the dollars he takes back home to Iran will keep him afloat.
“The type of carpet we are selling here is $200, whereas the same carpet in the market here is sold for $300-350,” he said.
But, to the dismay of many Iranian traders, the impact of Iraq’s own economic troubles was in plain sight: The exhibition attracts crowds of visitors but many can’t afford the marked-down items.
“There are many visitors who have warmly welcomed this expo but economic problems have kept them from (purchasing),” said Maryam Mradi, a businesswoman from Sanadaj.
Iraq is grappling with an unprecedented liquidity crisis brought on by low oil prices. That has slashed state coffers in half and led the government to borrow from the central bank’s foreign currency reserves to make salary payments.
Some of the Iranian vendors were skeptical their goods would be well received in Dohuk and other areas of Iraq, where Turkish brands dominate shopping isles.
“The people’s demand is mainly for Turkish goods,” said Shireen Mohammed, a local resident.